TO READ STEPH CHA’S compelling and risk-taking new novel, Your House Will Pay, is to be submerged in tragedy and to appreciate the herculean effort needed to pull back from the brink of spiraling disaster. Two families separated by race and culture are compelled to unravel the mystery of the violent acts that afflict them like hereditary curses. Early on we are introduced to Shawn, a Black man raised in south Los Angeles, who as a boy experienced the start of the 1992 uprising; Grace is a young Korean-American woman whose family becomes the accelerant thrown onto the smoldering embers of the largest civil disturbance in Los Angeles history. Both Shawn and Grace are analogues placed on opposite ends of L.A.’s cultural landscape, but both are trying to avoid tragedy for themselves and their families in the wake of the 1992 uprising, an undying constant in their lives years later.
I come from a similar world as Shawn — he banged but I was a pootbutt, and I wasn’t alone. Not everybody banged, or hit the pipe, or went to jail. Black men I grew up with would sit under trees smoking weed and talking about Vietnam and racist-ass H. P. Lovecraft, but thankfully the relative isolation of Black neighborhoods allowed for cultural integrity. And when the entertainment industry realized that profit could be mined there, the interpretation of outsiders showed Black life as a sitcom, making plain they didn’t know a damn thing about Black people.
The fear I had about reading Your House Will Pay is that Cha, even with the best of intentions, would walk into a minefield of cultural appropriation. But as I read, the interactions of Black folk contrasted so well with the more dour depiction of Korean-American family life, which seemed driven by the older generation’s idea of progress: self-sacrifice and the acceptance of a gloomy Christianity. The Black folk in Your House Will Pay are burdened by the sins of youth that hover on the periphery of their lives.
Shawn is my favorite character, but there are many complex and well-rendered African Americans in the novel. Shawn reminds me a bit of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, in that he’s angry — but anger won’t help the situation, forbearance will; and then you get to kick some ass, as Shawn does. Shawn possesses a moral code and restraint, having survived prison, and is remarkably made a better man by grueling incarceration, while Grace is the good sister to her reckless older sister Miriam, who dated a Black guy. Miriam is the acculturated daughter who sees her Korean parents, particularly the mother, as irredeemable. Of course, complicated and dark secrets are revealed as the novel moves to resolution.
In her author’s note, Cha explains how she used the fatal confrontation between Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du as the template to explore the moral complexity and ambiguity of one of the two events that ignited Los Angeles: the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the deputies, and the murder of Harlins.
The rage that burned for days as a result was the impetus for the novel. Cha, like many of us who are born or raised in Los Angeles and lived through the fires, earthquakes, and periodic insurrections, wants to understand. To do so, we have to submerge ourselves into those events that most threaten us. Cha uses an intimate third-person voice throughout the novel, and with half the book being about Black folk, I was surprised that she would attempt something so audacious and weirdly fearless.
Fearlessness is necessary to understand the 1992 rebellion, and my understanding of it was deeply influenced by Anna Deavere Smith and Roger Guenveur Smith. Both actors inhabit and create representations of characters such as Huey P. Newton and Rodney King and Soon Ja Du with such effectiveness that the viewer is transported to a simulacrum of reality that resonates more than reality. Cha is striving for that and is willing to take great risks to achieve it, and she is largely successful.
Your House Will Pay describes the intense hostility that was present between Black and Korean communities in the ’90s — though African Americans and Asians and Asian Americans had previously gotten along well enough in the Crenshaw and Jefferson Park neighborhoods where I was raised. I bought comics from the Five and Dime pharmacy general store run by a Japanese-American man and a Black woman; they were incredibly welcoming. I had many Asian friends and attended an Asian-run martial arts school. As racially restrictive covenants became a fading memory, the Asian population moved away to Gardena, Monterey Park, and elsewhere. When the South Korean shop owners appeared, they seemed more confrontational in a community where perceived slights could quickly escalate. I heard explanations for this: that this wave of Korean immigrants had come up from the working class and didn’t have the wherewithal to buy a shop in a solidly middle-class area. They showed their disdain at being forced to buy in undesirable areas. They were stuck with us, and we were stuck with them — a situation that was a time bomb waiting to go off, as it did. Soon Ja Du killed Latasha Harlins not because she feared for her life, but in retaliation for being punched. Outside of that and the Rodney King verdict, Los Angeles was already a powder keg. When I taught at Locke High in the heart of the hood, a student told me that the police had robbed him of his cash and had knocked his friend unconscious for protesting. An undercover sting by the local CBS news team filmed a sheriff with a swastika ring, and a patrol car with an emblem of South Africa on the grill. These were fraught times, but even then, some inroads were being made between the Black and Korean communities.
A friend asked me to go to a club with her — it turned out to be the Catch One, the premier Black gay club in the city, on Pico Boulevard, where the Black community intersected with the Central American and Korean communities. It was the first gay club I had been to and I was surprised to see Black and Korean guys drinking and dancing together, proving yet again that Los Angeles has a way of eroding barriers.
Hollywood and the publishing world are often racist, and we should not tolerate casual usurping of identity. There are those who write about all of us — such as Jonathan Gold, who once told me he was a race traitor. He never said exactly what he meant by that, but I think it had to do with him recognizing Los Angeles as a conglomeration of many racial and cultural homelands; he preferred to consume the entire city, rather than hunkering down with the predominately affluent Whites at high-end restaurants. That Cha is drawn to contend with voices that don’t strictly represent her cultural heritage, while taking head-on one of the most devastating events in Los Angeles history, is admirable as well as ambitious.
Cha is a remarkably generous writer. Through understanding and empathy, she reveals how difficult it can be to reconcile — yet sometimes, somehow we do.
Steph Cha is LARB’s noir editor.