Victoria Namkung | Longreads | October 2019 | 16 minutes (4,240 words)
On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins went to a local convenience store in South Los Angeles to buy a bottle of orange juice. Owner Soon Ja Du accused the teenage girl of shoplifting, an altercation ensued, and in a split-second captured on video, Du shot Harlins in the back of the head. She died with two dollars in her hand. A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but against their recommendation, the judge sentenced the Korean-born woman to a $500 fine, probation, and community service.
Harlins’ murder, which occurred two weeks after the beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, was a major contributing factor to the city’s 1992 uprising—LA’s deadliest year—which resulted in 63 deaths, thousands of injuries, and more than 800 million in material losses. By the end of the unrest, known as Saigu among Koreans, rioters had looted, set fire, and damaged more than 2,200 Korean-owned businesses.
Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, based on the murder of Harlins, is an empathetic and nuanced portrayal of two southern California families forever connected by violence and tragedy. Set in present-day Los Angeles, the novel is centered on Korean American Grace Park, a naïve and dutiful daughter who lives and works in the Valley with her secret-keeping parents, and Shawn Matthews, an African American ex-con whose sister was murdered by a Korean grocery store owner.
A new shocking crime sends the Parks and Matthews on a collision course to face their shared history against the backdrop of an already tense city on the cusp of more racial violence. Taut and razor-sharp, Your House Will Pay masterfully examines themes of racism, revenge, incarceration, grief, shame, injustice, and social movements.
Cha, a food writer, book critic, editor, and author of the Juniper Song crime trilogy, has written for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Los Angeles Review of Books, where she’s the noir editor. The L.A. native is also an enthusiastic Yelper whose thousands of reviews led her to becoming a scout for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold.
We spoke by phone in Los Angeles, where Cha lives with her husband and two basset hounds. We discussed the simmering racial tensions in the early 1990s, the challenges of fictionalizing a major historical event, generational trauma, and her latest gig writing on the HBO Max series, Crime Farm. Our conversation has been slightly condensed and edited.
Victoria Namkung: You started writing your first novel at 22, while you were a student at Yale Law School. What was your relationship to crime novels back then? Were you reading a lot of them?
Steph Cha: I wasn’t. I was reading the old classic stuff, but not contemporary crime fiction. I’d read a bunch of men like Chandler and Hammett and Mosley, and I read a bunch of James Ellroy. It was very much the crime fiction you’d read when you’re very much not in the genre.
I’ve been thinking about where my own interest in reading and writing about crime comes from and I think it started when Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, terrorized southern California. I think I’m always trying to understand crime so I can avoid it. What is your take on your own fixation with writing about crime?
I think it started because of Chandler. Being from LA and then reading Raymond Chandler and growing to understand he was kind of the guy who defined LA on the literary landscape and wanting to tinker with that, and putting my own spin on it. Before I started writing Follow Me Home, I thought it would be cool if somebody wrote a Korean American contemporary take on a Raymond Chandler novel. I never saw Korean American LA, and that’s such a huge community, and one that I know really well.
You were a young girl in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1990s. Were you aware of Latasha Harlins, Rodney King, and the eventual uprising as a child, and if so, what were you told?
I don’t remember the point where I learned any of this history or was talked to about it. I think I had a pretty sheltered upbringing. My parents didn’t talk to me about this stuff. I grew up surrounded by Koreans, but I also feel like we were in our own little bubble. I think I had vaguely been interested in that time period as something to write about for a while because I knew that if I wanted to write about Korean American LA this was just really rich underexplored territory in fiction.
There are very few Korean American Angeleno writers. It’s like, you, and me, and [YA novelist] Maureen Goo. In some ways, it’s surprising that some version of my novel hasn’t really hit the mainstream before. It’s been so long and just talking about early nineties LA, and the tensions of that time, it’s a huge canvas, unbelievably huge, and there just aren’t a lot of books like it that I know of that go deeply into the tensions of all the Korean people. At the time, my understanding is that that was very common in the public imagination.
Although you’ve populated Your House Will Pay with your own characters, you stayed faithful to the Harlins case. What were some of the challenges of fictionalizing a historical event like this?
I think a good deal of responsibility. I knew from the start of this book that I was going to fictionalize it. The way that I set it up, it was not going to be the totally faithful treatment of the family members because I wasn’t going to go bother them and try to write a true to life biography of the people left behind, but that’s what I was interested in—the people who are stuck with these memories and this legacy.
I started writing this after Dead Soon Enough, which is all about legacy and secondhand guilt and anger, which I think is a very common thing especially in minority groups who’ve been historically oppressed in some way or another. I was very interested in those people, and I knew I was going to have to make all that up. What I tried to do was keep the history, the background, as faithful as possible; I didn’t really editorialize very much on the actual case.
I tried to be explicit about naming Latasha Harlins. She’s not named inside the 300 pages of my novel, but she’s all around the edges of the book. I had to rip her out of history and replace her with my own version. The last thing I wanted to do was actually erase her and that history. I wanted to make sure that I honored it. The facts of it are pretty much from the books. I messed with some stuff like the ages of the people involved.
What do you do when this is your family history?
While revisiting the Rodney King verdict and Soon Ja Du’s sentencing I was struck by how video played a role back then and in more current cases such as the homicides of Eric Garner and Philando Castile. How do you think technology, including social media, has changed social activism and the way we view racism?
It’s amazing how video is not enough anymore. I think there’s a more pervasive understanding that this shit happens and also a desensitization. I’ve seen the Rodney King video several times. I’ve watched the Latasha Harlins video and it is shocking to see that happen to another person. I think the Latasha Harlins murder, if that happened today, it would get a large response because she’s a child.
I think that element still matters, but the Rodney King case, no way. You would never have heard of that guy: a black motorist who was not only resisting arrest, but alive. You never hear about the people who are still alive, you only hear about the dead ones. This incredibly paradigm-shifting video and case today would be a big fat nothing and there’s something disturbing to me about that. It’s all so overwhelming.
I watched the Latasha Harlins video for the first time in preparation for this interview. I never thought in my life I would just click on a button and watch an execution happen. And on social, you go on Facebook or Twitter and all of a sudden, someone’s live streaming some horrific event that ends in death. I can’t imagine growing up today where this is a constant presence in your life.
I think in the background there’s just this understanding that sometimes police kill people and get away with it, which is wild. I think another thing that was really depressing in 1992, that now is still depressing, but not shocking, is there can be video and it doesn’t matter.
In the early 1990s, Korean immigrants were largely ignorant to the historic struggles of black people in America. Do you think there is more understanding today about the ways different groups experience the world, especially in terms of policing and incarceration?
I think among the younger generation certainly, but I don’t know about my parents’ generation. I think it still matters whether you grew up learning about slavery. I think that matters a lot. Even people who were educated in the U.S. are really resistant to the idea that the effects of slavery are still around. I think for immigrants who really feel like it has nothing to do with them, I think there’s probably a certain amount of callousness, which I get on a human psychological level.
Koreans came to this country and ended up doing business in black neighborhoods. This is a common story, not just in LA, but most notably in LA, and the reason that Koreans were even there was white people didn’t want to do it. So they’re dropped here, and they start businesses in predominantly black neighborhoods, and they know literally nothing about black history, dropped with no context into what was legitimately in the eighties and early nineties a high-crime neighborhood with a lot of gang activity.
I’m not entirely without sympathy for these people; I understand how this shit happened. Even Soon Ja Du, who I think is a genuine monster, I understand she didn’t have the same context as somebody my age would have. By all accounts, her family really closed ranks and probably has had to bend themselves into some horrible worldviews to justify what she did, including her children. That’s another thing when I was writing this book, I wasn’t really that interested in the actual Soon Ja Du and her family because everything I read about their response was so unnuanced and not engaged with the actual facts or taking on any actual responsibility.
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Your book made me think a lot about how the sins of our parents and their own unprocessed trauma gets passed down to the next generation. Did you research any children of infamous criminals in preparation for this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by what children of serial killers lives are like because I understand people are individuals, but it’s just an interesting thing to think about. What do you do when this is your family history? I didn’t do deep research into those [lives]. I just thought about the people I know who have Korean parents, like my own Korean parents, and older Korean people I know, and how these people can actually be really nasty racists but people let that slide in ways I totally understand because they’re good parents or the racism is so deeply ignorant.
It’s a common immigrant kid, second generation problem; your parents came here probably for your benefit and then you get educated as an American—and this is one of the broader themes of the novel—because of their sacrifice, you get this American heritage that you’re then able to wield against them. I think we as the children have the right to do just that, but there’s something sad about it. I don’t hold my parents’ generation to the same standards that I do our generation. I think among progressive second generation kids, it’s a complicated negotiation navigating that gap between your parents’ politics and your politics, which are probably much more sophisticated because they brought you here.
They wanted you to learn all this shit, but on the other hand, I think that’s a common problem. It’s just a social mobility problem; kids grow up and start to think they’re too good for their parents. It was important to me to have Grace’s mom [the Soon Ja Du character] be both a very good mom and in many ways a nice person, somebody who has admirable qualities, and is also a staunch, unrepentant racist. I feel like I don’t see both often enough. It’s so easy to pretend that all racists are also horrible people in every other way and I think that lets everybody off the hook.
You published three books in three years with the Juniper Song crime trilogy, but Your House Will Pay took significantly longer to write. Why was this?
I knew how to write the Juniper Song novels because after the first one I had figured out her voice, I had figured out the structural rules, and the rest was just figuring out the themes I wanted to explore but the template was there in terms of what kind of novel is this going to be. This book is third person, which was a first for me, has dual POV, and it’s not a mystery—it was all just new. It was like learning to write a new novel all over again. One thing I learned is that it’s much easier from a plot point of view to write a straight crime novel than to write a literary novel, or a novel that doesn’t rely on a built-in genre.
It was actually much harder to plot this book and then of course figuring out Shawn [the brother of the fictional Latasha Harlins character] and his family took me a long time. I did several drafts of the first-third of the book. The part where I was just figuring out what this book was going to be, what these people were going to sound like, how to populate their world, just that part took me two and a half to three years. The rest was much easier, once I figured out the rules of the game.
Grace and her family, they were there in their current form more or less from the beginning. It was pretty easy for me to write them because I didn’t feel like I had to take any special caution because I was writing about a zillion families l know, including mine. But to write about a black family in Palmdale, that was not something I could just wake up and generate.
Honestly, it was very difficult and starting the novel, I knew I was going to have to do it. I knew I couldn’t just have the point of view of this Korean family. I felt like that would be limited. I felt like without inhabiting the black family, I would end up writing something that either erased them to an extent or reduced them to something simple.
Without actually going into the POV of the Latasha Harlins family, the only thing I could’ve done as a non-black writer would’ve been to make them total innocents who were just victims of history. I’ve seen that done a million times, and it works sometimes, but it denies them any opportunity to become actual characters with concerns that feel authentic on a basic human level. I knew I was going to have to tackle that problem one way or another.
Racism and injustice have always existed in the U.S., but Donald Trump’s rhetoric demonizes immigrants and other marginalized groups in an overt way. Do you feel a different responsibility as a Korean American author writing under his presidency?
I started writing this book in 2014, and at that time, I believe Trump was a fucking shadowy menace in the distance and we didn’t know he was going to become important. On the one hand, yes, I think artists have some kind of obligation to step up and engage, but on the other hand, I don’t actually think that’s new. I’ve always kind of thought that. When I started writing this book, it was shortly after the Michael Brown murder, and so as I was starting to write it that was really when Black Lives Matter was coming into prominence, the Ferguson riots were happening, and there was this whole national conversation about violence against black bodies and that felt pressing at the time.
The Trump Era has crystallized these issues, but shit’s always been wrong. With this book, I actually didn’t really go into anything that wouldn’t have been true in 2014. I guess because of what’s in the water, I have more white nationalist shit in there and scuffles between white nationalists and Antifa, but otherwise I tried not to talk about Trump specifically because I don’t think these issues are specific to the Trump Era.
I think artists have some kind of obligation to step up and engage, but on the other hand, I don’t actually think that’s new.
You’re not just prolific when it comes to writing books. You’re also the author of more than 3,600 Yelp reviews. What drives this compulsion and does it help with book writing because if it does I will consider writing more than the 12 Yelp reviews I’ve written since 2011.
First and foremost, it is just a compulsion. I actually have a lot of these stupid compulsions. It’s like a completeness thing. I basically started writing Yelp reviews in 2009, and because of the way Yelp works, I feel like I have to do it until I die. I think now it probably doesn’t help with the book writing, but I do think writing Yelp reviews helped me figure out my voice in a way that blogging helps people figure out their voices because I’ve written millions of words on Yelp and I started around the same time as my first novel. It’s a low pressure, low stakes way for me to be writing almost every day. I don’t sweat the prose or overthink any of it, but it’s usually the first thing I do when I’m working from home. It means that I start my day writing.
What’s so fascinating to me is not just that it could be a warm-up for your day of writing or a daily practice, but it’s sort of like a memoir. I’m learning things about you based on where you go.
It does function as that. It’s kind of like my diary, but it’s public. When I first started writing, my first publisher said I should have a blog. I tried to have a blog, but I couldn’t have a blog, but I think because the Yelping, it’s just like going places. It generates the material, so I don’t have to think of topics. I just write about a park I went to with my friend. Or in Japan, I visited several famous trees and I Yelped the fucking famous trees.
Last year, you wrote for the L.A. Times about crime novelist Linda Fairstein’s past as the prosecutor who oversaw the Central Park Five case after it was announced she would receive the 2019 Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. MWA rescinded the honor after Edgar-winner and When They See Us writer Attica Locke’s tweets on Fairstein’s history went viral. MWA claimed they didn’t know about her connection to the infamous case. This led to mystery editor and bookstore owner Otto Penzler personally attacking you, Locke, and the MWA Board in a letter that read like a tantrum.
That was fucking wild. He called me stupid and racist. He called me racist for saying that the mystery community is shockingly white.
So many industries and gatekeepers used to being unchallenged are now negotiating a world where all kinds of voices are heard thanks in part to social media. What work does the genre and the publishing industry at large still need to do?
When I first published my first crime novel, I met Otto at a party and it was just very obvious from the way people talked about him and deferred to him that he was this important guy. He’s just the guy who people want to please and I remember strongly feeling that, and also at the same time, hearing [negative] things about him. But I was scared of him and wanted to be in his good graces as a young crime writer. I think in 2013 I would have been shitting myself if he wrote that open letter about me, but when it actually happened I just found it kind of laughable. I felt very much like it was him holding on to a time when his opinions really were that valuable.
And then I did some digging on his writing, things that he’s said, and kind of walked away feeling like, How did anyone ever let this man have any power. His writing is remarkably bad; I think he’s just a guy who [has] a lot of money and became this tastemaker and nobody really questioned it. It’s still very much how the world works where there’s a generation of us who are kind of baffled by this; how did the people who are older than us get this power because they’re terrible. It’s not just a publishing thing, it’s just a way the world works things. Sometimes we reward things that are completely incomprehensible.
My hope is that publishing is getting better about that. I do feel like especially within the crime world, that whole Fairstein shit show ended up being kind of a little test for the crime writing community, and I feel like it really did lay down some fault lines in a way that was interesting and illuminating. I think the number of people willing to speak out against Otto is different than what it would have been a few years ago. I get some hope out of that, but I don’t know how far that goes. He has a very prominent bookstore I’m essentially banned from. It’s been interesting to see who is welcomed at [Penzler’s] Mysterious Bookshop and who isn’t.
I have a lot of sympathy for personal loyalty and that’s one of the things I write about in my book. I think it’s very human to give your friend the benefit of the doubt. It’s also disheartening. I think when you’ve been cut out, seeing people you respect who are still in it, it’s just interesting. I don’t blame people, but on the other hand, I’m very aware what they have access to and I don’t. For example, the staff at The Mysterious Bookshop asked me to come in and sign stock because they were going to buy a bunch of books and they specifically reached out to ask me about it. I thought it was staff letting me know they stood with me, and apparently, Otto found out about it and threw a fit, so I’m not allowed to do that.
It made me realize if Otto had any more power to use against me, he would. There’s no way for me to know what power he is able to wield behind the scenes, that I’ll never hear about, and that shit is disconcerting. But MWA, on that side of things, they should be extremely thankful that they didn’t give Fairstein that award. All the backlash after [Netflix’s drama miniseries on the Central Park 5] When They See Us, that was going to happen regardless. It was the opposite of an aftershock.
You’re now writing for the television show Crime Farm for HBO Max. What’s it like going to an actual job and writing in a room with others as opposed to at home with your beloved basset hounds?
I got this job because my boss wanted to hire a crime novelist for the room, so I got this email asking me to interview, but I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know whether I was going to like it. The timing was actually great and I figured, Why not give it a shot. If nothing else, it’s a great day job for a limited period of time. I love it and I think part of it might be I like the people I work with. You’re sitting in a room with the same group of people all day every day for 20 weeks. It’s a good room and it’s fun.
Coming at it from being a novelist, it feels lower pressure because I care about the quality of the product, but not in the same way I care about my novels, because those are entirely mine and I bare the sole responsibility for the final product. If I don’t know how to fix a plot thing, there are all these other writers. I don’t have to come up with every solution like when you’re writing a book. Of course, I miss working at home with the dogs, especially having to do my work stuff on top of the actual 40- to 50-hour a week job, but it’s great.
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Victoria Namkung is the author of These Violent Delights and The Things We Tell Ourselves. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, VICE, and Washington Post, among other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky