by Aimee Levitt
"People are wrestling with the problem [of youth violence] all over the country," says Miles Harvey, a journalist and professor at DePaul University, and the book's editor. "We have to start listening to people in the trenches. People commodify books. We don't want to be on a street corner handing them out. We want people to want them, to consider them something of value. It's a tool to use in anti-violence work."
Big Shoulders can sustain its unusual publishing model because it's a product of DePaul's Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing program. The university and various outside foundations providing the funds, and Harvey and his students collected the narratives in the book, then edited, typeset, promoted, and distributed it.
The book contains interviews with 35 people, told in Studs Terkel-style first person: current and former gang members, parents and siblings of young people who have been killed, and cops, lawyers, nurses, and community activists who are working to stop the violence.
"I traveled around the city for two years talking to people on the ground and building trust," Harvey says. "The first year, there was some resistance. I was this middle-aged white guy saying, 'I'd like your stories,' and they'd say, 'They're our stories, why should we trust you?' By the second year, they were more comfortable."
Between 50 and 60 DePaul students did interviews. "We had a rule," Harvey says. "All the interviews had to be done in the neighborhoods."
Harvey was surprised at how forthcoming most of the subjects were. Although several were given pseudonyms in the finished book in order to keep them out of trouble with the law or the gangs, all were more than willing to share more details when interviewers asked and to help with fact-checking.
"The students convinced me that we had to have the interviewees sign off [on the final transcripts]," Harvey said. "I was expecting people to say, 'Don't tell about when I hid the gun under my bed when I was 13,' but people were really open with us. They were really brave. It was an extraordinary experience."
Last spring Harvey and seven of his students prepared a dramatic version of some of the monologues that played at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre and then toured through various neighborhood branches of the Chicago Public Library. (It inspired Reader critic Tony Adler to write this haiku: "An emptied Tec-9./A body on a gurney./Slow, slow fade to black.") At least one interviewee was present at every performance. Some of the kids in the audiences, Harvey says, asked for their autographs.
The public response has been far more positive and enthusiastic than Harvey had anticipated. "It's being read by people who normally don't read," he says. "We heard from someone in Logan Square who said the book was recommended to her by the teenager who lives next door. She'd been trying to get him to read for years." The book has found a home in classrooms (which you might expect) and in barber shops and beauty salons (which you might not).
"Lately I've felt like a Santa Claus of dark stories," Harvey says. "But there's a lot of hope. Even in the bleakest stories, I'm impressed by the decisions people made."
In the future, Harvey hopes that Big Shoulders will produce a book a year. All will be anthologies of Chicago voices. Not all, though, will be as intense as How Long Will I Cry? The next book, already in progress, is a compendium of work from 826CHI, the nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids established by Dave Eggers. "It's a fun project," says Harvey. "It's like yin and yang. First we have brutal stories of violence and now we have hilarious stories from a kid."