I ’d say that the structure, the mapping, the compass of the book was somewhat accidental,” Nina Revoyr said of seeing Los Angeles in a longitudinal way in her sophomore novel, Southland, at the sixth installment of Alta Journal’s California Book Club. “My first novel was a pretty conventionally told—kind of A to Z—narrative, and I thought Southland was going to be the same.”
Hosted by John Freeman, the CBC gathered virtually last night to discuss Revoyr’s literary crime novel, which follows Jackie Ishida, a twentysomething law student, as she attempts to solve the decades-old case of four Black American boys who were found dead shortly after the 1965 Watts Rebellion, in a freezer owned by her grandfather. The novel weaves between the present of 1994 and the early-to-mid-20th century, in which we come to understand generations of untold history.
Though Southland is a character-driven narrative, the primacy of setting is also at the center of the novel. Freeman observed Revoyr’s attention to both place and places within places and asked her to discuss the “interstitial space of the car” as a “narrative fugue state,” because it is one of the only sites in the novel without history, almost a dreamland.
“Narratively, if you have a character stuck in a car, you can have a lot of things going through their heads,” Revoyr responded. “But to circle back to your question, the impetus of this book is related to that question, and there are really two main pillars. And the first was a story that my high school history teacher told us more than once about an acquaintance of his who had bragged about killing some young people during the course of the Watts Rebellion, and I always was struck by that—that someone could kill children and then brag about it and then think that he could do so with impunity and essentially do so with impunity. So that haunted me. It nagged at me.”
Revoyr continued: “The second thing was the discovery of this particular bowling alley and coffee shop in the Crenshaw district called the Holiday Bowl. And this was a place where folks could come in after swing shifts, any time of the day and night, and bowl. But whenever you’d go in, you would find folks of all races, but particularly African American and Japanese American bowlers together. And the coffee shop reflected the customers. So it was probably the only place in America where you had sushi and jambalaya on the same menu.”
Freeman was keen to point out the density of historical events in the novel and wondered how those events have the potential to both fracture communities and knit them together. “I think it can go both directions and often does,” Revoyr said. “I think a perfect example of that is this last year in the U.S. What has happened in the last year over COVID, the differential belief systems around COVID and whether it’s even real, of course the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests—we have been fractured along lines of race, class, education, geography. We’ve also come together in some ways.”
Our special guest, sociologist and professor Manuel Pastor, who is also a longtime friend of Revoyr’s, later joined the gathering, asking Revoyr about the significance of the novel’s title, since Southland (a nickname for Southern California) refers to a kind of multicultural metropolis but Revoyr uses the term to expose the pervasive racism that shapes the experiences of marginalized people.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that question,” Revoyr began. “We have this paradox in California—not just in Los Angeles—of ‘Hey, we are the progressive center of the universe,’ but the real picture is much more complicated than that. I talk sometimes about the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified more hate groups in California than in any other state. And while we have these incredibly diverse urban centers, we also have swaths of the state where white supremacy is alive and well—and by the way, not just in the rural areas. So that’s definitely what I was getting at.”
Pastor then catapulted us into a discussion about the importance and impermanence of setting. “Place is important to forming identity, but place changes,” he said. “But there’s a sort of sedimentation of these different histories if you really look.”
“If you grow up in the Central Valley, your experience of the world—your understanding of dynamics, your understanding of space—is going to be different than if you grew up in an urban center,” Revoyr said. “So on a really micro level, in addition to a macro level of city and state, place really matters. And particularly if you’re part of a socioeconomic class that’s not driving. You know, we talked earlier of L.A. being a driving culture, but there are a lot of folks here who don’t have cars, particularly low-income folks. The neighborhood that you can walk to is your neighborhood.”
“And the impermanence is true and also heartbreaking,” Revoyr continued. “It’s one of the things I think folks don’t always get about the gentrification battle. It’s not just about where folks can continue to afford to live, but if a place like Highland Park—when a place like that gets gentrified, it’s not just that the housing gets turned over, but it’s—people feel that their histories are being rolled over, and they are.”
The event concluded with Freeman asking an audience member’s query about Revoyr’s research methods and how she navigates possible blind spots. “The reason I write these multiracial books and characters is because they reflect the world that I know,” she said. “I’m not just deciding to write about this person or that person out of trying to do some kind of experiment. It would be unreal to my experience of the world to write kind of a limited—dealing with only one community—kind of book.”
“But absolutely I worry about blind spots,” Revoyr continued. “Of writing about straight women.… And this is not research, it’s observation. It’s talking with folks. It’s living in contexts where I’m mixing with people enough to have a sense of what’s going on and then to be able to ask about it—and to be willing to be checked and told when I’m wrong.”
Alta’s California Book Club will return on April 15, in conversation with Myriam Gurba. We’ll be talking about her remarkable memoir, Mean, a cross-genre narrative about survival, sexual violence, and race. For more information, please click here.
To learn more about and support organizations fighting anti-Asian violence, visit anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co.