Author Juska and Beacon community organizer Shiroishi lead Binnacle Books event
By Alison Rooney
Focusing on gun violence, a July 11 event at Binnacle Books pairs a reading from a novel with a conversation between its author and a Beacon parent.
For Binnacle co-owner Kate Ryan, a bookstore can function as a community center of sorts, bringing together ideas in print with people expressing views on a topic. Recent incidents involving gun violence in schools, offices, and other locations once thought unlikely to experience it have brought the issue to the forefront, and Ryan saw a need for a local discussion.
“As gun violence increasingly affects public life and political fervor in America, we need a plurality of approaches” to it, Ryan says. At the bookstore event, she says, Elise Juska will read from her novel If We Had Known, “an acclaimed new book that deals with how an entire community can be implicated when a young man commits an act of gun violence.” After the reading, Ryan adds, Juska will talk with Julie Shiroishi, a local organizer, parent, writer, editor and marketing consultant; they will lead an open discussion of gun violence in communities, taking note of the national activism inspired by student survivors from Parkland, Florida.
If We Had Known, which is fiction, is drawn from many all-too-familiar similar incidents: A young man, with no previous criminal record, brings an automatic-style weapon to a school, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. Inevitably, people wonder: Why did he kill?
In Juska’s book, fingers can be pointed to a teacher exposed to the shooter’s written work, perhaps years earlier. More questions arise: Did anything foreshadow his potential for violence? If We Had Known looks at the circle of gun victims, including those who, on social media, are deemed partially responsible for failing to notify law enforcement or school counselors of misgivings.
Juska, an associate professor and director of the undergraduate Creative Writing degree program at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, thinks there are pros and cons when teachers are given “metrics” or instructions on reporting student work that prompts concern. “Certainly there’s comfort in knowing that, if I’m concerned about one of my students, there are reliable support systems in place, resources for getting help,” she says. “But I do question the usefulness of metrics in evaluating student work. In my experience, reactions to student writing are difficult to quantify. Sometimes, of course, a student writes something unambiguously alarming. That clearly must be reported. But far more often, if I feel concerned about student work, it’s not so simple. The concern comes from not only what they’re writing about but also how they’re writing about it — which can be a question of tone, language, emphasis — as well as my interactions with the students themselves. It’s a complicated response to capture in a form.”
This all hits close to home for Julie Shiroishi, whose husband is an English professor in New York City. “He is hyper-aware when students say or post problematic things. He tells the school now, but it’s difficult — you want to be sensitive to them getting the help they need, but the students could also be dangerous to themselves.”
She also recalls how Rombout Middle School in Beacon twice notified parents this year when someone wrote apparently threatening comments in a bathroom. None of it amounted to anything, but it had to be investigated, she says. “As a parent, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the school year ended, and that’s not the way it should be.”
Shiroishi feels it’s “unfair to shift the burden to the teachers. They are there to teach, yet it sometimes seems like that’s not their primary role anymore. The way popular culture is, there are lots of fans of violence; society is fascinated by it.” In mass shootings, she believes “it’s the access to guns that’s the problem. If you don’t have access, that’s going to diminish the likelihood that this will happen.”
Juska says her novel looks at the role of the teacher, “a very real but, perhaps, under-discussed aspect of this current crisis.” She said that in an interview after a shooting at Virginia Tech University, the gunman’s creative writing teacher talked about disturbing material in his writing assignments, which she had read and reported. “After watching that interview — and feeling haunted by it — I began thinking about the premise of this book,” Juska says.
She also did not overlook social media. “I wanted the novel to not only consider the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy but also the long ripple effect, the impact it might have on different people, most of whom were connected indirectly to the event. The online response and use of social media in general — whether isolating or comforting or perpetrating inaccurate and damaging information — felt like a necessary part of that broader picture.”
Shiroishi calls the misuse of social media “a parallel crime. ‘Trolling’ creates an artificial sense of divide,” she says, adding that “the people most active in posting on social media are often the least active in real life.”
Both think fiction can help tackle these divisive issues.
“This is such a fraught and present subject,” Juska notes. “The issues are so immediate. Emotions are so high.” But she put her own perspective aside. “With the exception of a few moments, the characters in the novel aren’t too explicit on the question of gun control, simply because that didn’t feel true to how these particular people would be reacting. So, although I’m strongly in favor of gun control, I had to keep my own opinions off the page.”
For Shiroishi, “fiction is a great way of diving deep into topics” and “can be more honest” than reacting to the news, “because we are less attached to the reality of a shooting.”
The reading and discussion is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 11, at Binnacle Books, 321 Main St., Beacon.