A Teacher of History: On Nina Revoyr and Los Angeles

A Teacher of History: On Nina Revoyr and Los Angeles
ALONG BROADWAY in Downtown Los Angeles’s Historic Core just south of 3rd Street at Grand Central Market, there’s a plaque with a quote from the late Pulitzer Prize–winning food writer Jonathan Gold that states: “The huge number of multiple cultures that live in this city … and the fault lines between them are where you find the most beautiful things.” Gold mined this bounty for his oeuvre, and this is also the source material for one of our greatest contemporary novelists: Nina Revoyr.

Revoyr, like Jonathan Gold, is one of the best at cataloging these ingredients and reassembling them into a compelling narrative. Her six novels juxtapose the jambalaya of Los Angeles’s people, neighborhoods, cultures, and social classes into complicated stories that surprise at every turn, entertain, and then illuminate the ever-present beauty of the city. The characters she presents in all of her books are as complicated as the settings. “I believe that part of my charge as an artist,” she says, “is to explore and illuminate the complexities of people; to tease out the things that make us all human.”

Revoyr is back again with her latest novel, A Student of History, and her first book, The Necessary Hunger (1997), has also just been reissued with a new introduction by Lynell George. Both books grapple with race relations, neighborhood histories, identity, and the dozens of untold stories that reside around every corner. Revoyr, who is half-Japanese and half-Polish-American, writes naturally about characters from a wide range of backgrounds, some of them, like A Student of History’s Rick Nagano, mixed race. Her new book examines the intersections of race and class in a stratified Los Angeles.

Characters Reflect Their Neighborhoods

In book after book, Revoyr masterfully captures the spirit of her characters and how they reflect their respective neighborhoods. Her second novel, Southland, (her breakout book) spotlighted the Crenshaw District over a narrative that traveled three generations. In this work, she simultaneously wove suspense, Los Angeles history, interracial romance, and a breathtaking plot that keeps you engaged to the very last page. Along the way, readers learned the Crenshaw District was once one of the largest Japanese-American neighborhoods in the United States and that there’s always been a close kinship between Japanese and African-American residents. (For a nonfiction companion that tells this history, see Scott Kurashige’s The Shifting Grounds of Race.)

It is an understatement to say Revoyr is gifted in her neighborhood descriptions. In Southland, she writes in the prologue: “There are places where old train tracks still lie hidden beneath the weeds, and if the visitor knelt and pressed his ear against the dulled metal, he might hear the slow rumble of the train that used to run from downtown all the way to the ocean.”

Lynell George’s introduction in the new edition of The Necessary Hunger, titled “Live the Way You Play,” states that

Nina Revoyr’s body of work travels deep into these spaces, those blink-and-you’ll-miss-them enclaves spreading below freeway overpasses. These neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, keep the city pulsing — the school teachers, the coaches, the nine-to-five business park denizens, the bus and truck drivers, the convenience store owners, the students praying for college scholarships to lift them out of the cycle of bad luck or poverty so they can catch that LA dream that has lured so many outsiders. 

Almost all of her books take place in Los Angeles, except her fourth book, Wingshooters, which mostly takes place in Wisconsin with brief stops in Los Angeles at the beginning and end. The protagonist of Wingshooters ends up in Los Angeles, and the core of the narrative is her reflecting back on the events in Wisconsin that defined her coming of age. Revoyr’s fifth book, Lost Canyon, splits its time between Los Angeles and a trail deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Necessary Hunger gives an in-depth portrait of high school basketball in Southern California and the city of Inglewood just before the 1992 Rodney King Uprisings. Her third book, The Age of Dreaming, spends time documenting the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s in a story line that goes back and forth between Little Tokyo, Hollywood, and the overlooked liminal area of Pico Heights between what is now Koreatown and Pico Union. The protagonist is a Japanese actor who made a splash in silent films but never made the transition into films with sound, partially because of an untimely murder.

Revoyr goes where few Angeleno novelists have gone before and also gets the story right. “Place is people,” George writes, “and Revoyr vividly weaves together her characters’ personal histories, their struggles in formulating a sense of who they are and who they hope to be in the world.”

Revoyr does this remarkably well in all of her work. Furthermore, George adds:

In Revoyr’s careful hands race is not a billboard, yet neither is it incidental. The same is true about sexuality and the language (and interplay) around it. Interactions or flare-ups may not always be casual, but they are conversational, sewn into the fiber of life. Revoyr’s gift here is in the nuances and subtleties.

A Student of History

Her new book, A Student of History, focuses on Rick Nagano, a 32-year-old hapa (anyone half-Asian, in this case, half-Japanese, half-white) USC graduate student in history who works as a research assistant to a wealthy heiress on an archive project transcribing her journals. The narrative goes back and forth between Bel Air, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and West Adams.

Throughout the story, Nagano swerves in and out of different spaces that all have their own rules of race and privilege. Along the way, Nagano meets Fiona Morgan, a wealthy and beautiful woman who gets intrigued with his studies, but who may have a few other motivations for getting close to him.

Revoyr paints the landscape and social space of the Westside with her usual eloquence. For example, early in the text, Nagano arrives in Bel Air for what becomes his research assistant job with Mrs. W. “Within the gate,” Revoyr writes,

I saw more houses, set farther apart along the rolling hillside. But it felt different now, like I’d driven into a new country. All the way up the canyon, the hills had been green from winter rains, but inside the gates, everything was even brighter, cleaner, as if the ever-present filter of LA smog was not permitted on the premises. The most colorful flowers I’d ever seen — orange, purple, yellow, red — lined the road on both sides.

Later in the book, Revoyr describes one of the sons of a wealthy family featured in the story. “His son Robert had been cut from a different cloth,” Revoyr reveals. “The heir to a fortune he’d had no part in creating, he made savvy, self-serving decisions — subdividing and selling off parts of the family’s coastal properties, and continuing the development of several of the families Westside holdings.” Rich psychological insights appear on nearly every page.

Revoyr is gifted in her ability to deal with complex ideas like racism, class conflict, and sexuality without sacrificing the truth of her narrative. Furthermore, like the most adroit novelists, Revoyr specializes in reversal. All of her books are filled with suspense and sudden surprises that take the stories in unexpected directions. In A Student of History, Fiona Morgan schools Rick Nagano on real-world relationships between men and women from different classes.

Nagano’s interior monologue reveals how he was blindsided by Morgan. “This was a kick in the gut,” Revoyr writes,

and I looked at her incredulously. But the face of the woman before me was so different from the smiling and encouraging face I’d known over the last several months that I might have been confronting a stranger. I wanted to say, You took advantage of me, you played on my emotions. But she was right — I wasn’t some innocent boy; I’d gone along with her happily, willingly.

A Student of History manages to cover a few generations of Los Angeles history within its narrative in a similar manner to Southland and The Age of Dreaming. Southland and The Age of Dreaming incorporate even more flashbacks than this latest book, but all three of them do a superb job of spotlighting insightful Los Angeles history from the early and mid-20th century juxtaposed with very contemporary situations.

A Student of History shows how the legacy of old money families built Southern California and still wields a mighty influence even though times have changed since a century ago. Revoyr presents an accurate depiction of these social conditions while managing to paint flawed characters sympathetically. The grandmother matriarch in the story, Mrs. W—, is a complicated person with plenty of flaws, but so charming that a reader cannot help but feel for her as the narrative unravels.

The Reality of Flawed Characters

As I mentioned, Revoyr is exceptional at presenting flawed characters in all of her books. When I asked her about Mrs. W—, Revoyr said, “In the case of Mrs. W—, she obviously uses her privilege and wealth to her great advantage, and sometimes at the cost of others. But it’s also clear that all her wealth does not protect her from loss and sorrow. She’s also ultimately very generous toward Rick, and sees his potential and humanity in a way that he never quite recognizes hers.”

For Revoyr, the act of showing these flawed characters is also part of what she feels is her civic duty as an author. “I do try to create a sense of visibility into or empathy for my characters, especially those who are the most flawed or troubling,” she says.

“It’s something that I think is important not just in reading and writing, but also in civic life. We are — I worry — collectively losing our interest in trying to understand other people, especially those who disagree with us or who seem vastly different. It’s easy to dismiss and vilify. It’s much harder to try and understand, let alone to engage.”

In Wingshooters, for example, the grandfather Charlie LeBeau is deeply flawed, but his love for his granddaughter is so strong that it makes him really compelling. “As for Charlie — he is, without question, a bigoted man,” she tells me.

“At the same time, he’s the most consistent, loving, supportive presence in the life of his granddaughter, and a stand-up guy in his neighborhood. I wanted to show him in all his complexity — a man who is, and does, both good and bad; a man who doesn’t see the inconsistencies in his behavior; a man who is messily human. He’s the character that readers seem to connect with the most in Wingshooters — I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘He’s just like my own grandfather,’ or, ‘We all know a Charlie.’”

“We are all flawed,” Revoyr says. “And while both Charlie LeBeau and Mrs. W— make less-than-perfect choices or behave in questionable ways, I wasn’t interested — either as a writer or as a person — in presenting them as simply, wholly negative. Most people are neither completely ‘good’ nor completely ‘bad.’ Most people — not all, but most — are more nuanced than that, more complex — and it’s that nuance and complexity that’s compelling to me.”

Another of Revoyr’s hallmarks with her characterization is “to capture that sense of possibility and fear, when everything still lies ahead.” Several of her books have focused on characters coming of age and losing their innocence in the uncertainty of late-20th-century/early-21st-century West Coast culture.

In the prologue to Southland, she writes: “Now, the children feel trapped in that part of the city, and because they’ve learned, from watching their parents’ lives, the limits of their futures, they smash whatever they can, which is usually each other.”

The Necessary Hunger

In The Necessary Hunger, she captures the uncertainty of two women high school basketball stars and their roller-coaster ride through their senior year. In the afterword that appears in the new edition, she writes:

I remembered how intense everything had felt those last years of high school — how each win or loss seemed like life or death; how friendships were as vital as water or air; how love both pierced and expanded us. And I suddenly realized that this intensity had stemmed from the fact that so much of the future had been uncertain — that at sixteen, seventeen, we knew our lives would change in ways we couldn’t imagine.

The Necessary Hunger,” Revoyr reveals,

follows Nancy Takahiro and Raina Webber — both basketball stars — through their last year of high school in Inglewood, California, as they navigate dangerous streets, blended families, and college recruiters. It’s also a love story — the story of Nancy and Raina, and of their parents, Wendell and Claudia; a love letter to Los Angeles at the height of the gang-controlled eighties; and a ballad, of course, to basketball itself.

The Necessary Hunger was definitely ahead of its time, centering lesbian women basketball players who are women of color. Revoyr reflects,

In that era, it was almost unheard of for a mainstream publisher to launch a book with a gay or lesbian protagonist. But thankfully one did, and the book found its readers — including people of color, and athletes, and LGBT folks who didn’t see themselves often enough reflected in books.

Now 22 years later as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) continues to become more popular, The Necessary Hunger is more relevant than ever. Moreover, there are many more visible LGBT public figures across society now than there were in 1997. Nonetheless, Revoyr knows there is still progress to be made. Though she’s “thrilled that the characters’ sexual orientation is no longer news, much less progress has been made in the state of our neighborhoods. Kids in Inglewood and South LA are still struggling with violence, poverty, and limited opportunity. Maybe in another twenty years that will change too.”

Ultimately, Revoyr writes about Los Angeles with real authority. She told me that one of her biggest influences for telling neighborhood stories is Wanda Coleman. Coleman is especially known for her poetry, but she wrote a few fiction titles too, and her book of short stories, A War of Eyes, offers an unflinching snapshot of South Central Los Angeles. “I remember reading A War of Eyes,” Revoyr told me, “and being astounded that she wrote about parts of L.A. that were familiar to me, places I’d never seen before in fiction. That gave me permission, in a way, to write about the neighborhoods I grew up in and frequented — places that tended to be overlooked, or that were dismissed as not worthy of depiction. It’s been important to me in all my L.A.-based books, including A Student of History, to show the value and beauty in neighborhoods that are usually overlooked.”

In addition to Wanda Coleman, Revoyr has many other influences. “I’ve been inspired by any number of writers,” she tells me, “including people as varied as Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Norman Maclean, and Wendell Berry — just to name a few. But my biggest influence has definitely been James Baldwin — for his unparalleled incisiveness in writing about race; for his being both gay and a writer of color when it was hard to be either, let alone both; for his utterly beautiful language.”

Revoyr uses language in a similarly beautiful spirit as Baldwin while weaving together the fault lines of Los Angeles cultures with the aplomb of Jonathan Gold. She shows us that, as James Baldwin says, “our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.”

A Student of History and The Necessary Hunger are perfect bookends. Like her other four books, they showcase Revoyr’s mastery at composing prose narratives that offer deep insight into the human condition, overlooked Los Angeles history, and underrepresented citizens of the city. As much as Nina Revoyr herself is a student of history, she’s also one of our best teachers.


Mike Sonksen a.k.a. Mike the Poet is a third-generation Los Angeles native. Poet, professor, journalist, historian, and tour guide, his latest book Letters to My Citywas just published by Writ Large Press.


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LARB Contributor

Mike Sonksen a.k.a. Mike the Poet is a third-generation Los Angeles native. Poet, professor, journalist, historian, and tour guide, his latest book Letters to My City was just published by Writ Large Press.


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