The Powerful First Paragraph of Nina Revoyr’s ‘Southland’

Let’s take a close look at the initial sentences of this month’s CBC selection.

nina revoyr, southland
Monica Almeida

Nina Revoyr’s Southland is as much about family and history as it is about place. Southland is a capacious, spirited tale of intrigue and racial tension in Los Angeles, where law student Jackie Ishida investigates the decades-old mystery of four Black American boys found dead in a freezer owned by her grandfather, following the 1965 Watts Rebellion. The novel unfolds across several generations, and Jackie’s quest ultimately unearths many family secrets.

Before we meet the protagonist at the center of this narrative, the novel begins thusly: “Now, the old neighborhood is feared and avoided, even by the people who live there. Although stores wait for customers right down on the Boulevard, people drive to the South Bay, or even over to the Westside, to see a movie or to do their weekly shopping.”

Upon reading the above passage, what’s most striking is the primacy of time. The very first word of the sentence, “now,” followed by the phrase “old neighborhood,” pulls the reader into the setting of Southland with a sense of urgency and suggests that there are major differences between what occurred in the past and what is happening in the present, ones that will be interrogated later in the novel. These two sentences lay out some of the central questions of the narrative: What is the old neighborhood? Why should it be feared and avoided? Who are the kinds of people who live there? Why do people go out of their way to shop and socialize elsewhere? In other words, these sentences tease out some of the intrigue that Jackie herself will encounter in her effort to figure out why her grandfather left his old store to a boy who died during one of the most catastrophic uprisings against police brutality in American history.

The paragraph continues: “A few traces of that other time remain—a time when people not only lived in the neighborhood, but never chose to leave it. And if some outsider looked closely, some driver who’d taken a wrong turn and ended up on the run-down streets, if that driver looked past the weather-worn lettering and cracked or broken windows, he’d have a sense of what that neighborhood once was.”

The above writing is quite beautiful, mostly because it offers glimmers of a bygone era and maps out the contours of a place’s history through random encounters and objects. It seems to me that Southland is naming something specific about how we come to learn our history by being at the right place and the right time—which is really to say, through chance and curiosity. Moreover, the place itself and what is in it become the means through which the history is told. Notice that we have not yet been introduced to any characters, though arguably the setting of the novel becomes a kind of character, a beating pulse of the narrative. All that we know is what is told implicitly and what we gather from the associations of “weather-worn lettering” or “cracked or broken windows.”

The significance of place and time in Southland must be acknowledged if we are to understand, then, why it is so important that Jackie solve a decades-old murder and recuperate obscured family history. The first paragraph shows us all of this before we are even introduced to her. And that, reader, exemplifies why Southland is such a striking and artful novel.

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Revoyr on March 18, click here.

Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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