As of March 8, there have been 14 school shootings so far this year. Since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 756 copycat threats have been made targeting schools across the country. For author Susan Straight — and many others around the nation — the topic of school shootings and gun violence has been both inescapable and intensely personal.
In her newest work of fiction, “The Princess of Valencia,” Straight presents an intimate portrait of a grieving mother who’s lost her only daughter following a mass school shooting. The 27-page short story — published through Amazon Original Stories — is only the second to be published on this new platform, following Joyce Carol Oates.
With its timeliness, it’s a story that could have been written yesterday. But Straight’s prescient work got its start several years prior in response to the Umpqua Community College shooting in October 2015. Straight, a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, was deeply affected by the Oregon shooting as both an educator and a mother.
“It meant a lot to me because I teach here at the university, and I had been thinking what happens when someone with a gun walks onto a campus?” Straight said. “I’ve taught in that classroom — the theater-style classroom. If you come in the back, everyone has their backs to you and it’s just a series of heads. That was just a horrible image to me.”
Straight recalls writing the first draft, shortly after the shooting at Umpqua, in the four days spent in her hotel room while serving as writer-in-residence at West Virginia University. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, she began thinking about who commits mass shootings and how we have no notion of the grievances they carry. At the time, the story was titled “The Day Already Began.”
“There’s a quote from Proust which says we begin our day thinking we are going to do these things, and we don’t know the day [of our death] has already begun,” Straight said. “Whether it’s a war, or a tornado, or your own heart that stops beating because of a heart attack, you make all your plans for the day, you choose your outfit, and you head off not knowing there’s a car speeding towards you at that moment.”
Such is the case for Jacinta, the story’s tragic casualty of fate. By chance, Jacinta ends up in the path of a bullet not meant for her, signaling “the end of the world” for her mother. “The Princess of Valencia” is a spiraling of Jacinta’s mother’s thoughts as she tries to piece back together both her daughter’s last days — through texts and Instagram photos — and her own broken life. Weaving together the present and scattered memories throughout her past, Jacinta’s mother recalls moments from those last few weeks back to the generations spent in their family orange grove in Santa Ana. As is the case for many in Southern California, oranges play a prominent role in their family’s story.
“The day the story came out I was really sad, and I didn’t know what to think about it, so I actually drove to the Citrus Experiment Station and sat there for an hour in the old orange groves,” Straight said. “The magical way that oranges played a part in Santa Ana, City of Orange, Tustin, Riverside, Redlands, Colton, San Bernardino, Ontario … that was always deeply engrained in me. For this mom, her daughter is leaving for college — for this other world — and the oranges represented everything about family, the past.”
Although the mother’s immense personal grief is central, and the story firmly planted in the region, Straight also addresses wide scale social issues including class, privilege, and — most pressingly — the role of mass media in this all too common tragedy.
“I’ve always written in the point of view of a mother, but I’ve tried to look at the world in a large way,” she said. “This is a social story to me, not domestic. It’s about the inevitability of this happening.”
Punctuating the mother’s grief is the fact she can’t escape constant reminders of the incident, from a song made popular in the shooter’s infamy, to the constant replays of security camera footage of the event. Media sensationalism and the desire for fame play a prominent part.
“To me, it’s all tangled up in notoriety and fame, and people being willing to die in order to be famous at their deaths. The shooter records all the things he does on a GoPro camera, because you know in the back of his mind, he wants to leave his legacy,” Straight said. “That’s such a complicated intersection — especially for Americans — where we are no longer content to just go about our daily lives. We all want Instagram fame.”
This is not the first time Straight has written about mass shootings, penning essays in The New York Times and The New Yorker following the police shootings in 2013, the San Bernardino attack in 2015, and most recently, Parkland. Straight continues writing about it as a means of trying to make sense of it. She herself is no stranger to the impact of gun violence, knowing many in the Riverside area who lost love ones in the Las Vegas shooting last year. She recalls being “very young when my first friend was killed by a gun, when my ex-husband had guns pointed at him, and when I had a bullet fly past me.” But to Straight, this feels different.
“How do you prepare for war when you go to work, and the army is your own people that stand up in the middle of your everyday life and decide to shoot you down? That’s not something any of us are prepared for,” she said. “You can’t legislate grievance. You can’t legislate that someone feels deep-seated grievances because they haven’t achieved what they wanted, or they haven’t gotten the love that they think they deserve.”
“I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind. I’m trying to make people so sad that they think, ‘My gosh. This woman lost her only child — for nothing.’ Is that war? Is that collateral damage? Do we honor her? How do we help her?”
“The Princess of Valencia” has held the No. 1 spot on Amazon Kindle Singles: Literature and Fiction for three consecutive weeks and has already received requests for rights to translate from countries such as Serbia and Turkey. It is currently available exclusively through Amazon for Kindle.