‘Southland’ Unearths the Histories of Los Angeles

Nina Revoyr’s novel excavates the traumatic, hidden pasts of families and neighborhoods.

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It isn’t only in the American South that the past is “not even past,” as William Faulkner wrote. Anywhere marked by migration has this quality. When residents carry their histories with them, in their own bodies or in stories they tell, that place might be called undead. Los Angeles is such a space, and in the 20th century, it was shaped by several ruptures, the ghosts of which speak loudly: the Northridge earthquake, the 1992 uprising, the Watts Rebellion of 1965, and, during World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans.

Molding a tale from the past is nothing new; it’s a genre—the historical novel. But in Southland, Nina Revoyr accomplishes something entirely fresh. She has written a crime novel in which mapping these rifts—essentially sketching the landscape of trauma, as it’s experienced collectively—forms the core of her narrative drive. The book begins in 1994, just after Northridge, and Jackie Ishida is dealing with a convulsion at home. Her grandfather Frank Sakai has died, leaving behind two daughters, a tidy AOL in-box, and, at the back of his closet, a stone-colored box stuffed with $38,000 labeled “STORE.” Accompanying this pile of money is an unofficial will with a name Jackie has never heard: Curtis Martindale.

Jackie feels guilty over having been an aloof granddaughter, so she decides to find this Curtis Martindale for her aunt Lois and restore the inheritance to him. The money, she quickly infers, comes from the sale of Frank’s store, a corner deli in Crenshaw he left behind after the Watts uprising. He moved his family to Gardena, just a dozen miles away but a universe apart in terms of class differences. Jackie’s parents became doctors; she’s now in her third year of law school and on her way to a corporate job that’ll probably catapult her all the way to the Westside. Why Frank kept the money—and why he wanted to give it to Curtis—is a mystery.

Much of this is long-ago history to Jackie. To her, Frank was a kindly but somewhat antiquated figure, a reminder of a Japanese-ness that never quite embarrassed her but from which, as an adult, she keeps a distance. She’s dated enough white women that one night at the Palms, the historic lesbian bar in West Hollywood, a Japanese American friend says to her: “What’s the deal with you, anyway? You’re like a reverse missionary. Rescuing the lost white children.”

Following Jackie across Los Angeles in search of answers to questions about her grandfather is like following a cartographer across an inland sea. Names like the Palms bob to a choppy surface alongside tales anyone who has lived in Los Angeles long enough will have heard from elders. The year it snowed on New Year’s Day; the way South Los Angeles used to flood so badly, milk was delivered by boat. The building of the freeway to Pasadena and the miracle of disparate villages essentially being connected.

Once her quest begins, though, Jackie stays close to and starts island-hopping through South L.A.’s various communities, stopping to talk and listen—sometimes eat—and ask questions anywhere people get together. In return she’s buffeted by gossip, old romance, nostalgia, and sorrow. Southland, at its heart, is a gorgeous hymn to the way Los Angeles is an archipelago of such spaces: community centers, church barbecues, farmers markets, the corner stores where owners once put out milk crates for people to sit and enjoy a beer at the end of a long day.

Novels struggle to respect the way a community is made. There’s so much static but deeply felt time that goes into knitting one together. Conversation in a community isn’t just exchange; it’s partly recitation. Who is related to whom, and who dated whom, and who left and why. Some stories get told all the time, others hardly ever. Telling all this, capturing its syncopated rhythms, takes time. It requires an ear and, frankly, manners: knowing there’s a time to listen and one to ask questions. Southland is a beautiful demonstration of all these actions and values in motion. Everyone in this book is related to everyone else in small ways, sometimes big. Everyone has secrets. Every place was once someplace else—once inhabited by a slightly different mix of people from elsewhere.

Jackie has a fellow traveler in this metaphysical search. James Lanier’s family also comes from Crenshaw, and now he manages an after-school program at the neighborhood’s Marcus Garvey Community Center. Upon arriving there to ask questions, Jackie feels like “an overseas visitor,” noting that hers is the only non-Black face. Lanier, as he’s known, isn’t sure what to make of her at first. He’s an activist used to a small degree of cultural tourism from outsiders. But when he discovers why Jackie has come, their mutual interests collide. Curtis was Lanier’s cousin; he died during the Watts uprising, his body found in a freezer in Jackie’s grandfather’s store alongside those of three other Black teenagers; a particularly brutal white cop was suspected. Thirty years later, Lanier wants justice.

Southland reveals what an epic desire this is in a city like Los Angeles. Getting to the bottom of what happened to Curtis and the three other victims means unpeeling what layers of police loyalty, redlining, and lethal racism have done to family after family, not to mention a neighborhood like Crenshaw. Orbiting tenderly through farmers markets and private spaces like people’s living rooms, where the departed are still missed, Southland creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of how people come together and fall apart as a result of trauma. As the novel tacks forward in 1994, each alternating chapter plunges into the past, bringing up buried stories from Jackie’s family’s history, as well as Lanier’s.

Both of these pasts have vivid loss at their centers. Some of the most sharply rendered passages in the book describe life in Manzanar, where over 11,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly sent in 1942—an experience first captured in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston’s memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, but painfully sketched over time in Southland, from the terrifying buildup to the slow, shamed aftermath. We also see the camp experience several times—first in Frank’s life, then in the life of a friend and fellow World War II veteran.

While very different, Jackie and Lanier share some aspects of their backgrounds. Both Lanier’s father and Jackie’s grandfather survived particularly brutal tours of duty overseas, Frank in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the division made up largely of interned Japanese Americans, the most decorated division in U.S. history—and Lanier’s father in Korea. Both of their families made homes in Crenshaw and then watched as different types of violence claimed those homes. Both have sets of grandparents or great-grandparents who worked as domestics.

Like Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Southland is a story about economic crime, one born partly of the loss of manufacturing jobs at places like Goodyear and partly of racism that made jobs like that so precarious for Black or Japanese American workers, who could lose them at any time. Both Revoyr’s and Mosley’s books also remind us how segregated leisure was in this era, cycling through similar beach scenes in Santa Monica, where whites-only policies are enforced. In Southland, however, the scene is viewed through young Frank’s eyes, and it’s a moment when he needs to decide to which side he belongs. Oscillating between the past and present, Southland shows how parts of Black and Japanese American experiences in Los Angeles have mirrored each other.

This structure is doubly ingenious and daring, for within each chapter Revoyr also does something only Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich and a few other novelists have managed so successfully—which is to deploy multiple points of view in the same chapter, sometimes on the same page. This prismatic approach to narration turns Jackie from a search lamp (which produces its own blind spots) into an orienting point around which we see multiple angles.

For instance, when Lanier goes into a precinct to talk to a Black police officer who might know something about the cop many in the neighborhood believe was behind the murders, we see the interaction from at least three perspectives: Lanier’s, that of the officer he’s questioning—for whom taking the uniform was a differentiating step, proof he wasn’t just another knucklehead—and later Jackie’s, when she listens to Lanier unload not just the details of his exchange, but also, for reasons he cannot at first comprehend, the particulars of the murders his estranged father committed when stationed in Korea.

This can be the way of trauma: even if you feel stranded on an island, suffering alone, very often one form of it is connected in ways, at first, mysterious to another’s—and once the thread joining them has been pulled, there might be no stopping the whole linkage from emerging from beneath the sea. Southland is such a warm and deeply skilled act of narrative recovery. It re-creates this process, and it shows the effects it has on the lives of characters so complex they are as endless as the city they call home.

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

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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