Siel Ju, CA

Critically Acclaimed Writer

Siel grew up on three different continents before earning her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She is the author of a novel-in-stories called Cake Time, winner of the Red Hen Press fiction manuscript award, as well as two poetry chapbooks. A longtime journalist and copywriter, she has written for the Los Angeles Times, Brita, public radio station KPCC, and other media outlets and companies. She lives, writes, and salsa dances in Los Angeles.

As a Story Terrace writer, Siel interviews customers and turns their life stories into books. Get to know her better by reading her autobiographical anecdote below.

The Most Dangerous Place

When I was in junior high, my friends and I spent hours writing notes to each other every day, passing the folded bits of paper between classes, during recess, across rows of seats. These notes weren’t just little, one-sentence missives; they were fairly substantial pieces of writing, often running multiple pages. I went to a boarding school, so we already spent most of our not-particularly-interesting waking hours together. What else we had to write about, I have no idea. But I do remember the roil of emotions these notes could arouse—the giddiness I felt when I got a flurry of notes all at once, the anxiety that gripped me as I unfolded one from a boy I liked, the sense of purpose with which I got down to the important task of writing back.

Do kids write paper notes today, in the age of texting? In Lindsey Lee Johnson’s new novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, one student does—to his own peril. Set in Mill Valley, an affluent town in Marin County, the book takes on the troubles and thrills of adolescence by following a group of students from eighth grade to senior year. In the first chapter, Tristan, the school nerd, writes a love note to his crush, Cally, and sticks it in her locker. News spreads fast in high school, and, of course, Cally is not the only one who sees Tristan’s note. Soon enough, the cyberbullying begins, with Tristan’s Facebook “friends” taunting him about the letter online. The abuse continues until Tristan commits suicide.

The most dangerous place, in fact, seems less the physical space of high school or Mill Valley, but the virtual space of the internet. Johnson’s writing is strongest when it takes on these new forms—texts, social media comment streams, and clickbait “news” articles—illustrating just how disconnected and damaging these tech-fueled ways of communicating can be for young people. When a girl called Emma gets passed-out-drunk at a party, her photo is posted on Instagram to collect insulting, violent comments (sample: “some people deserve to get raped”).

This is an example of how the danger of internet harassment can veer very closely to the dangers of real life. The commenters may or may not follow through on their threat of sexual assault, but their exchange is a testament to how dangerously exposed people can be both on the internet and off. Emma’s mounting shame and anxiety as she reads more and more of these comments capture the mortification of adolescence, multiplied a hundredfold by the proliferating and permanent nature of the internet. Even more disturbing is the fact that these comments are written by the same students whose cyberbullying led to Tristan’s dive off a bridge just a few years before. The students just don’t seem to learn much from their mistakes. What they have learned, however, is that callous shaming and name-calling in a public forum is a completely socially acceptable way to communicate with their peers—while honesty and one-to-one connection are not. This, unfortunately, is what Tristan had failed to learn: his folly was writing a private note in an age where nothing is private.

When I wrote my notes in junior high, I didn’t fear any social repercussions, even after a note of mine was stolen, and my crush found out I “liked” him. That was embarrassing for a couple days, but the whole thing was quickly forgotten. What might happen to a note like that today, I’m not sure.

There seems to be much less room for social experimentation or emotional risk-taking in the social media era, thanks to the addictive isolation of our tech devices. Although the teens in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth never grow up enough to contend with a world beyond their own lives, the novel effectively highlights the perils of sharing anything personal or meaningful today. Anything you say or do can be uploaded onto Instagram, dissected on Twitter, ridiculed on Facebook—the private has become public in a very different way.

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