California Book Club: Nina Revoyr Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Nina Revoyr's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and special guest Prof. Manuel Pastor.

manuel pastor, nina revoyr, john freeman

David Ulin: Hello, everybody. I'm David Ulin. I am the Books Editor of Alta Journal. Welcome to the March 2021 edition of the California Book Club. I want to just do a couple of introductory notes about the book club and about Alta. Alta is a quarterly journal published in San Francisco, focusing on the culture and life of the West, California and the West. We also do a number of online initiatives, including weekly book reviews and excerpts. It's a real one-stop shop for book coverage. If don't know it, check it out, please, on

The California Book Club is a monthly book club that Alta is sponsoring, where we bring in a writer from California and the West to talk in depth about a particular book. Tonight's writer is my friend, Nina Revoyr, and the book is her phenomenal novel, Southland. I'm really looking forward to her conversation. We'll get to that in just a minute. Before I do, I want to thank the partners, the California Book Club partners who include: Book Passage, Books Inc, Book Soup, Bookshop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vroman's Bookstore and ZYZZYVA.

And I'd like to also just let you all know that we have a sale for California Book Club members of 25% off annual Alta membership. Usually it's $50, but with a special link, you can become an Alta member for $37 and 50 cents. You get four issues of the magazine, invites to special events, an email newsletter and other prizes and other rewards. So please, it's, and watch tomorrow's Thank You email for a link to this great deal. The membership discount ends after this month.


All right. All of that to the side, let's get to the book. I'd like to introduce John Freeman, the host of the California Book Club who will be shepherding us through the next hour. John?

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John Freeman: Hi, thank you for joining us tonight. It's really thrilling to be here with Nina Revoyr, whose book, Southland, we're going to be talking about. It seems particularly apt in this week when the United States has being gripped by another spasm of anti-Asian violence, to be talking to Nina, specifically about Southland, because it is a book that maps Los Angeles across almost 60 years, three intergenerational traumas, and tells a story about how a city which came, I think, to some of us to seem inevitable. It wasn't always so, how some of the neighborhoods didn't even have the same names.

Reading this book, I couldn't help but think that all cities are imaginary cities. We have to imagine them even when we live in them, because their pasts are not evident to us. The language in which the past speaks sometimes needs interpretation. And without being able to imagine the cities that we're living in, we can't live in their context.

Nina Revoyr is the author of six novels. She was born in Japan to a white father and a Japanese mother, grew up in Wisconsin, in Los Angeles, went to Yale. And as the author of six books: The Necessary Hunger, which is one of her two great basketball novels. The Age of Dreaming, which was based on the life of a Japanese silent era film star. It was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. And her most recent, A Student of History, in which a USC student takes a job assisting an aging oil baroness, in a project which draws him deep into the past.

The title of that book would just be an apt description of Revoyr herself, who's pioneered a new kind of rigorous historical crime fiction that provides a panoptical view of Los Angeles and its past, mapping the way the city has changed from when Sunset Boulevard was a dusty street to the way it is now, when it can seem like race and class and the destructions of neighborhoods and interracial neighborhoods can seem inevitable.

Unlike lots of works in which history is a part of the story, history does not carry this story entirely, but rather the characters that she writes about in whom we feel the intimacy and the anguish and the love it takes to survive violence and ruptures, which make up American life, especially in LA. And that's nowhere more vivid than in Southland. Her second novel published in 2003, in which Jackie Ishida, a third year law student learns in the opening pages that her grandfather has died and he's left behind $38,000 in a box labeled, Store. And in that box is the name Curtis Martindale, a name which is confusing to everyone, including her Aunt Lois. Her mother is largely off stage. Jackie, feeling guilty about not taking care of her grandfather has decided the least that she can do is get to the bottom of this money and how to get it to the person, to whom her grandfather seemingly wanted to give it.

This takes her back to Crenshaw, the neighborhood in which some of her family members grew up. From Gardena where she lives now or where her family lives now. This begins a cross-generational crime novel, which is among many things, a double love story, a story about gentrification and a map of interracial Los Angeles.

I cannot say enough positive things about this book, but let's bring on the author, Nina Revoyr herself who was probably waiting and eager to talk about it and some of the things that she was thinking about when writing it. Please join me in clapping silently or loudly for Nina Revoyr. Hey.

Nina Revoyr: Hi, there.

John Freeman: Thank you for joining us. It's really lovely to have you here. I just want to start off by... Yeah. Lots of fist bumps for you. I was reading your book, I couldn't marvel at just the way that, I never felt a city mapped so intimately as in Southland and I've felt that in other books of yours and I guess I wanted to just start really simply by asking you, how did you come to the compass, if you will, and thinking of writing novels as a way of seeing a city in that sort of longitudinal way?

Nina Revoyr: Thank you. First of all, John and everyone at Alta for selecting the book, and the California Book Club for having me, and thank you for the folks who have signed on today. I know you've got many other things you could be doing. Although I know most of us are still at home, but just appreciate you all being here.

I'd say that the structure, the mapping, the compass of the book was somewhat accidental. As you mentioned, this is my second novel. My first novel was a pretty conventionally-told, A through Z narrative. And I thought Southland was going to be the same. There is this present period that runs through the whole course of the book, set in 1994, where Jackie and James Lanier, who's the cousin of one of the young boys who's been murdered, are trying to find out what happened in the past.

In the first draft of the book, I only wrote 1994. What I realized was that, as I mentioned Frank, the grandfather, some of the other characters that become critical, that I couldn't not tell their stories. And so that became a way of actually traveling, in some ways, to different parts of Los Angeles to follow these stories, follow these characters and their origins, because what happened to them in the past, of course, completely shapes what happens in 1994.


John Freeman: Right. I should mention, very quickly, Jackie discovers, upon going to Crenshaw, going to the Marcus Garvey Community Center, where she meets James Lanier, who hung out at her grandfather's store, that there was a murder, that four neighborhood children turned up in the freezer in her grandfather's store. Her grandfather, Frank, was slightly suspected, but it was probably known that a white police officer was the culprit. Jackie and James fan out across the city, trying to talk to people who knew the residents of the area, people who hung out at the store.

Before we get to a brief reading from the book, I want to ask you, one of the things that I found very appealing among many other aspects of the book was just how the book loves neighborhoods, but it also loves the interstitial space of the car, of moving around Los Angeles. I wonder if you can talk about the narrative fugue state of being in a car, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in LA. It felt like in this book, which is so heavily mapping spaces, it was the one place that was without history, it was kind of a dreamland. I wondered if you could talk about that?

Nina Revoyr: It's funny, it's such a specifically Californian question in a way, because we spend so much time in our cars and it's a time when so much can happen. And hopefully too much, if you're passing through things and you're hopefully not causing accidents or getting in trouble, but it's also a time when nothing happens. And so narratively, if you've got a character stuck in a car, you can have them going through things in their heads and get a lot of work done that way.

I think to circle back also to your first question, a bit, the impetus of this book is related to that question, and there was really two main pillars. The first was a story that my high school history teacher told us, and 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. That haunted me and it nagged at me.

The second thing was the discovery of this particular bowling alley and coffee shop in the Crenshaw District called the Holiday Bowl. This was a place where folks could come in after swing shifts, anytime of the day or night and bowl, but whenever you would 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, it's probably the only place in America where you had sushi and jambalaya on the same menu.

And because of how I grew up, which is essentially just across the border from Crenshaw, in Culver City, in LA, also in a very multi-racial environment, had a very mixed race group of friends that was not always understood by our parents, who tended to be more monoracial in their social groups. So when I found the Holiday Bowl and saw all of these folks in their 60s, 70s, 80s, who had all gone to Dorsey High School together, mixed race groups of friends, it was like finding my own family.

Those twin pillars of the Holiday Bowl and the story of these young boys being murdered, haunted me enough to drive me to write this book.

John Freeman: I love the way that this book orbits around moments in history, the three major ones being the interment of Japanese residents and citizens of America in interment camps during the 1940s. You mentioned the Watts Rebellion, and then also the 1992 Uprising, to which I'd also add the Northridge Earthquake, which happened shortly before the action begins. I wondered if you can think or talk a little bit about how these events knit communities together, which maybe or not, or the ways that the trauma that these events create don't just destroy, but create possibilities within communities of collaboration or mutual support?

Nina Revoyr: I think it can go both directions and often does, that a trauma can fracture a community. I think a perfect example of that is this last year in the US. What has happened in the last year over COVID, the differential belief systems around COVID, in whether it's even real, of course, the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests, we have both been fractured along lines of race, class education, geography. We've also come together in some ways, when you had a much more multiracial coalition of people really awaken in a new way around racial justice.

It can do it can do either or. I think about the spasms of violence and despair that happened both in '65 and '92, those didn't happen by accident. Those happened because of years of frustration, disinvestment, and oppression. That can be something that really, really tears folks apart. And certainly part of what we saw in '92 was a very difficult fracturing, a somewhat overplayed fracturing too, between African American and Korean American communities, but you can also have those opportunities be an opportunity to start dialogue in a different way. So it can be both.

John Freeman: I'm curious if, before you read, if you could talk just for one second, about how this book operates in a sense that there's an investigation, and your last novel, you had an actual historian as one of the main characters. And now you have a character, Jackie Ishida, who doesn't know a lot about her past, who's estranged from her mother, who was not estranged from her grandfather, but had a tiny bit of embarrassment about her Japaneseness and has only dated white women as well, who has mostly white women to the point that her friends make fun of her. What does creating that kind of character who is avoiding the past do? Does it create the vacuum that allows her to suddenly rediscover it? When you begin this book, she knows very little about what's happening in the neighborhood and has a lot of digging to do.

Nina Revoyr: That's a great question. And again, circling back to, your raising the internment earlier, that became a moment where the Japanese American community fractured in some ways from itself, because her family and so many folks did so much to suppress the past. You had folks doing just terribly hard, of course, were divested, robbed of their property, of their businesses, of their homes, of their cars, but also who were so worried about being seen as in league with Japan, that you would have people burning their family photo albums and getting rid of any hint that there was this history in their families, and that lens, it's very common in Japanese American families, for example, for folks not to talk about the interment, there was shame around it, there was silence around it.

And so Jackie is cut off from understanding her past, not really through fault of her own. Her parents, her mother whisked her up and took her to the burbs. She's had this somewhat comfortable middle-class existence to the point where she doesn't even remember some of the racially prejudiced, insensitive things that happened to her, and is in a somewhat isolated cocoon. And she's also separated in terms of class, that her grandfather ran a little store.

She's now hanging out with law school students. She's going to become an attorney, and isn't aware of her own family struggles and the kind of violence and trauma and heroism also, that her grandfather displayed during World War II. And so the whole way the book is set up, is as a way to essentially force her to become exposed to her own family history and in doing so it changes her because she is kind of a lost child, almost an orphan from history. And by learning about her own family stories and also the complications of who that family actually is, she becomes herself in a different way.

John Freeman: I wonder if I could ask you to read from the very beginning of the novel because it's a beautiful example too of your kind of descriptive mode which doesn't simply see but begins to unpick as it sees.

Nina Revoyr: Sure. I'd be happy to. This is from the prologue of Southland and the now is 1994.

Now the old neighborhood is feared and avoided even by the people who live there. All those stores wait for customers right down on the Boulevard, people drive to the South Bay or even over to the West side to see a movie or to do their weekly shopping. The local place is so third rate furniture and last year's clothes. And despite the promises of city leaders in the months after the riots, no bigger businesses or schools are on their way. A few traces of that other time remain, a time when people not only lived in the neighborhood but never chose to leave. And if some outsider look closely, some driver who'd taken a wrong turn and ended up on the rundown streets. If that driver looked past the weather worn lettering and cracked or broken windows, he'd have a sense of what the neighborhood once was.

The grand old library is still there and the first public school with a fireplace in each of the classrooms. The holiday bowl is still open. Although it closes now at dusk where men came in from factory swing shifts and bowled until dawn. There are places world train tracks still lie hidden beneath the weeds. And if the visitor Nelson pressed his ear against the dulled metal, he might hear the slow rumble of the train that used to run from downtown all the way to the ocean. Now the children feel trapped in that part of the city. And because they've learned from watching their parents lives, the limits of their futures, they smashed whatever they can which is usually each other. But then in that different time, the neighborhood even had a different name. Angeles Mesa was a children's paradise. It was table land flat and fertile and the fields of wheat and barley made perfect places for young children to hide. The children's parents love the neighborhood too. The ones from the South couldn't believe they'd found a place with the ease and openness of home, but only a train ride away from their downtown jobs.

It was a train that had brought them in the first place. The Chamber of Commerce Senate exhibit trying to tour around the country, passing out oranges and pictures of Palm trees to anyone who take them hopeful newlyweds, coughing factory workers, old sharecroppers with hands hardened by years of labor, all bit into the sweet, juicy oranges and thought they tasted heaven. And the oranges were magical because instead of quenching people's appetites, they fed them. That yearning and anticipation started out in their taste buds and worked down into their hearts and stomachs until they would teary-eyed with wants. In Ohio, Mississippi, in Delaware, in Georgia, you could see people trailing California on wheels, stumbling down the track after the slow moving train as if they follow it all the way across the country.

And they did. Maybe not that day, not that season, not that year, but they did. Packed up their things and arrange for someone else to send them on. Gathered the family and headed out to California. Some of them went to Long Beach seeking work in the bustling shipyards sorts of insurance to draw their livings from the sea. Some went to San Fernando to be closer to the oranges that first seduce them and some to the Central Valley to pick lettuce or grapes.

And a few of them after living someplace else for a year or several after starting out in Little Tokyo or South Central or following the crops around the state, bought a plot of land in Angeles Mesa. The price was good and what you got for it, rich land nestled by wild hills. And if their neighbors spoke a different language or a different color skin here and only here, it didn't matter. Whatever feelings or apprehensions people had when they came, they learned to put them aside because their children played together, sat beside each other at the 52nd Street School, because it was impossible to walk through the neighborhood without seeing someone different from you.

John Freeman: It gives you a sense of the momentum and the sweep of pros which is really beautiful. One of the things that I love about your characterization of people across the book is how quickly and how deeply you get into the points of view and also how you allow them interactions based on fear and lack of knowledge. When Jackie first goes to Crenshaw to sit with James Lanier, she's highly conscious of the fact that she's the only non-black face there. And when she sits down with him, she's a tiny bit frightened of him in ways that are edging towards racialized fear. Similarly, because you're in the same scene, you do this amazing thing where you occupy two points of view within a space of a short amount of space. You see James making similar, slightly racialized assessments of her. And as they get become friends, these things soften and become more complex, understandings of each other. And I wonder if you can talk about creating those characterizations and what it means in a book that's as multi-racial as this.

Nina Revoyr: Jackie was a really hard character to write in some ways because she's not that likable for the start of it. She's not that in touch with herself. She's pretty sheltered and she came a lot out of a bunch of people that I met in college. I do not myself come from the kind of privilege that she had and grew up in a neighborhood much more like the one described in this book. But when I went off to school and I went off to an East Coast Private school, which was totally different world than the big urban multiracial high school I went to.

It was really the first time I met Asian kids with money. And it was just mind blowing to me to see that kids were not really conscious of not only their own experiences, but experiences of other people of color were not struggling financially and just we're not tuned into the larger world in a way certainly that I was. But also that other Asian American kids were that I grew up with who may not have had the same kind of class privilege that these kids that we met in college did. So Jackie was really shaped by that. And I wanted to make her someone that was going to have to evolve. And I should say that none of these characters more so maybe than any other one of my books is directly drawn from life.

But I have also met just a number many really incredible men, men of color, black men, Latinx men, Asian men who work in community and the respect, the love that I have felt for the folks that I've known really went into the shaping of Lanier. And I think it's also important to us to say that it's folly to think that we don't have reactions assumptions based on race. We do. And we're actually not ever going to get past the racial pain of our country unless we can actually see in ourselves what our reactions, what our worries, what our fears, what our assumptions are and actually kind of work through them.

It was important to do that as well as to paint a multiracial community in Los Angeles. And I'll just close by saying while Jackie was somewhat shaped by some of these people, it's really easy for folks to assume that that's the character I most identify with. But if that's the character I most identify with and probably is the most like me in this book is Frank, her grandfather who is the guy who grew up in Crenshaw, who is the guy who very naturally has had this multiracial group of friends and who is this kind of understated blue collar guy just doing his thing and trying to survive.

John Freeman: He's an amazing character. And we'll come back to him in a little bit. I want to ask you one more question and then after that bring in Professor Manuel Pastor from USC. One question that's come up in the chat already, which I was curious about because I never seen it is you used the term white men as one word. And some of the people in the audience have been asking was that for the sound of it or was that for another reason?

Nina Revoyr: It's hard to remember all of the specifics of why I made choices like that. But I think that what I was trying to convey was the sense of dread and fear that a lot of the characters in this book feel when they have to interact with white folks. It's not neutral. You already mentioned the white officer who's essentially terrorizing young people in the neighborhood. There's other experiences that some of the other characters have either with a doctor in the internment camp or with fellow workers in the shipyards in Long Beach that are threatening frightening violence and terrifying. And so when the characters in this book who are, except for I think one exception. Black and Asian are thinking about interactions with white folks. It's not neutral. I think that was a way of just kind of conveying that feeling.

John Freeman: Now, there's an extraordinary moment. One of Frank's best friend is a black man who ends up outliving him. And he is witness to some of the things that the book will uncover among which is the fact that there were two black police officers because they only patrol together at the time. And he thinks of one of the officers as acting like a white man because of his weakness. And I just thought that was an extraordinary statement. One I've actually heard before from other black Americans about the way that some black police officers act. We'll come back to that. In the meantime, I think it's time to bring in Professor Manuel Pastor who's the distinguished professor of sociology and director of the USC Equity Research Institute. He's the author and editor of many books. His latest of which is State of Resistance, What California's Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Means for America's Future. Please join me in welcoming Professor Pastor or ask some questions now of Nina.

Prof. Manuel Pastor: Hi, nice to be here.

Nina Revoyr: Hello Manuel.

Prof. Manuel Pastor: Hey. When I think about Southland, I think about a couple of different things and I want to get your action on them. One is, as you know it's a remarkable novel. Our relationship was formed because I wanted to teach in a class. And I called you and asked you to come and talk about the novel. And it began a 10 year tradition of you coming to the class. The single most embarrassing moment which was when one student said, "I've never actually read a novel till I read your novel. I love your novel." It was like a compliment and an insult to the entire field of literature at the same time. But one of the most striking things to me about the book is... Going to lift up three things and I'll lift them up in order.

But the first there's a passage in which [Danice Bruce] explaining to Curtis, the young man who eventually dies. Curtis every day I got an answer to this skinny white boy who never wants his life has got his hands dirty. He couldn't run a machine of the ad too. He pays me less than the white men who get easier jobs. A foreman is no different than a master as far as I'm concerned, a no mistake. People call this place, the Southland. And what you're doing there is you're taking those term Southland which applied to Southern California and it's often used the book kind of mostly cultural metropolis and your are unveiling the deep racism that is persistent and pervasive in this place. Can you talk about that choice of the title and this contradiction between the multicultural identities that people are so comfortable with in the novel and the first base of racism that shapes their experience.

Nina Revoyr: I don't think anyone's ever asked me that question. Thank you. Thank you so much. And I'm just so honored that you have joined. For folks who are not familiar with Dr. Pastor's work, this is a guy who I'm embarrassed to say. I didn't realize until a few years ago. It's not just a wonderful writer, but someone who actually really has helped shape a lot of policy work in this city that we love. It's just been amazing to work with you on both of those levels. That's exactly right. And that's exactly what I was trying to get at, is that 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 part of what I was getting at. There's another and it might even be in the same chapter where there's a reference to some characters, black characters who migrated from the South saying that L.A stands for lower Alabama. And certainly something that I've heard from a number of folks who have roots in the South is that it's more insidious here, the racism. Because people keep it more undercover and at least in the South you know where you stand and what people think whereas here there's been a... at least until a few years ago, more of a veneer of racial acceptance which doesn't always tell the story of what bubbles underneath.

Prof. Manuel Pastor: Two more questions for me if John would permit it or just asking you to talk about these two things. The first is, you are incredibly evocative of both the importance of place and the impermanence of place, that place forms who you are. Frank is a creature of Crenshaw and [endorsing eye] And yet the holiday in itself, there was a Starbucks on Crenshaw. So many Little Tokyo during the interment became Bronzeville, a black community. We could go through example after example. And it's one of the reasons Nina, why I wanted it so much to be the basis for the course that I taught. Because I wanted people to understand how place is important to forming identity, but that place changes. And you know there's a sort of sedimentation of these different histories that you can see if you really look. Can you talk a little bit about that? The importance of place, the impermanence of place?

Nina Revoyr: I think you've got it exactly right. You know that if you grow up in... Just to take Los Angeles. Well, if you grew up obviously 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. If you grew up in Los Angeles or San Francisco depending on the neighborhood that you're in your experience and understanding of that city is going to be different. On a really micro level, in addition to the macro level of city and state, place really matters. And particularly if you are a part of a socioeconomic class, that's not driving... We talked earlier about L.A being a driving culture but there are a lot of folks here who don't have cars, particularly low-income folks.

And you are in... The neighborhood that you can walk to is your neighborhood. And if that neighborhood is South Los Angeles and South Los Angeles is a huge. Is going to be different than the Antelope Valley or Boyle Heights or San Gabriel Valley, et cetera. I think that's exactly right. And the impermanence is true and also heartbreaking. One of the things that 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 and I lived in Glassell Park for nearly two decades. When a place like that gets gentrified, it's not just that the housing turns over, it's that people feel their own histories are being rolled over and they are.

Prof. Manuel Pastor: Yeah. I love this book in so many ways. I wish I had a whole other hour with you. I know John wants to come back. But I do want to ask you one last thing. I think the last time you came and talked to my class about this. You finally crystallized for me that this is a love letter to Los Angeles, that one of the things people don't realize... People ask me, what do I love about L.A? And I know that I should say, the great food or the great neighborhoods. I say, L.A is great because it's got the biggest social problems. And because it does, it's got these fantastic movements and communities that want to tackle and create something different. And I think there's this tension between this book reveals so much darkness, so much ugliness, so much racism, so much pain. And at the same time, it's an incredible love letter to Los Angeles, to every nook and cranny, to every community, to every person who can see themselves in this dream that is L.A. Tell me, did it feel like that to you that this is really deeply a love letter?

Nina Revoyr: Absolutely. And it's a love letter both to Los Angeles as a city and to Crenshaw specifically as an area and a little bit to Watts, which I returned to in later books. I feel like so much of what I do in life is driven both by love and by anger. Love for people, love for groups of people, love for community and anger at the injustices that face them. And so you're absolutely right that this book is full of terrible things, injustices traumas, et cetera.

But it is also full of joy. And it is also full of moments of beauty. And one of the things I try to do, not just in this book, but in all my books is to show as beautiful. The neighborhoods and the places that other people dismiss. Further on in the prologue, from where I read, there's actually lying about Crenshaw being a place that the rest of the city dismisses as ghetto. And there is such beauty in so many of our neighborhoods that some people would consider drive by areas. And so I just wanted to capture all of that.

Prof. Manuel Pastor: And I think am supposed to hands things back to John right now.

Nina Revoyr: Thank you.

John Freeman: Oh, that was really wonderful. Thank you, Manuel. And Nina will bring Manuel back on shortly, but I want to stay on the topic of love because this is among other things a wonderful clear love story. This is also a story about two interracial love stories, if you will. And I wonder if you can talk about braiding a crime novel around something that involves tenderness and what happens to love stories when you put around them ugly things. What happens to those love affairs?

Nina Revoyr: Well, I think amongst the people they break apart. I mean, that's part of the difficulty is that the secret love story from the past which is revealed through the course of the book, doesn't survive. Even though the love survives and the aftermath and the verberations do for generations, it doesn't survive as a relationship. And then, you've got almost a couple of different love stories. You've got the relationship between Jackie and her girlfriend, which also doesn't survive but that's a good thing. I mean, that should split up. And it's part of Jackie's journey. She has a more platonic love story with Lanier. And I think it important to say both that it is platonic and that it is love. And ultimately she goes off in another direction altogether. But I think that those things are not mutually exclusive, the trauma, the community, the history, the pain and love and that there's a certain way in which the challenges and the trauma kind of... What's the term for with with diamonds, that it causes this formation of beauty that can come out of things. So I see that too if that makes sense.

John Freeman: Yeah. Well, pressure makes diamonds, it's not something soft.

Nina Revoyr: Exactly. I'm glad that you brought up Jackie and Laura because of this book, in addition to being about place and spaces and neighborhoods, it's also about spaces within those neighborhoods. So Frank's store is one of them, the lesbian bar that Jackie and her classmates go to, which is sadly closed in Santa Monica. And I wonder if you can talk about these other spaces where you mentioned that obviously the Holiday Bowl. Do you think these are unique to Los Angeles or is there something uniquely Los Angeles-like about the ways these spaces operate?

I think there was something unique about the Holiday Bowl and when it closed a number of years ago, there were articles not only in California press, but I remember one even in the New York Times about how this place that was the centerpiece of a kind of unexpected and beautiful cross racial alliance where folks could both take pride and ownership in who they were racially and culturally, and also see themselves as part of a larger collective, whole and community, embodied in the Holiday Bowl. When that closed, that was a huge loss for the neighborhood. And I see that someone had written that it's now a Starbucks. It is indeed. They kept the ... The front part of the Starbucks, the back part of it is a pharmacy, which was just heartbreaking. But I do think that was unique to Los Angeles.

I don't think that the other spaces necessarily are, but I think the whole idea ... We talked a little bit earlier about community and about space. It has been important to me to show the physical spaces in which community can happen. If that makes sense. The center where Lanier works, the Holiday Bowl and the coffee shop are certainly others. And of course, Frank's store, which was the gathering place, which was where folks came after work or after school, where men after, and it was men at that time, after their swing shifts were pulling out milk crates and drinking beer and listening to the Dodgers. And all those spaces where community happens, they matter. And I was reflecting a little bit, because you would ask me or made a comment offline about community.

And I don't think of Southland. Well, I don't think of Southland as autobiographical in terms of events that happen in my life. It is autobiographical in terms of emotion, in terms of memory, in terms of connection to place. And even this thing about space and community. I spent so much of my life, not in the last year, obviously with COVID, but in the before times, and hopefully in the future in spaces like that, in neighborhood meetings, in workspaces, in community. And I realized that that has shaped my sense of how important those spaces are. And I try to depict that.

John Freeman: It's an amazing emotional history of the spaces that you were writing about, among other things. There's some questions from the audience about Crenshaw in particular, about the new Kaiser facility of Crenshaw, the stadium, and the two year behind schedule Crenshaw line. What do you make of these changes lately?

Nina Revoyr: It's really complicated. We could spend so much time ... First off it's good that there's going to be a medical facility there. The kinds of things that have not been available in community are legion. The Crenshaw line, there have been folks that I care about on both sides of this conversation. There's a worry of course, about gentrification and development for all the reasons that we talked about.

I think the Destination Crenshaw project is doing an incredible job of trying to recapture, keep, preserve, and celebrate black history and the history of the neighborhood, and at the same time, the fact that there's going to be an easy way for people to get to Crenshaw, to get through, to get from there to other places is a positive. So it's complicated, as all these big community changes often are.

John Freeman: Another listener grew up in Seaside in the '50s and '60s, half white and half black, and felt that way inside until they transferred to university and hung out with Asian Americans. And they wanted to ask about your experience and how people's experience of you affects your identity growing up and how that's changed perhaps over time, depending on where you are.

Nina Revoyr: That is a terrific question and right on point. I had a perhaps somewhat unusual experience. And you mentioned where I lived, I lived in Japan until I was five. I was born to a Japanese mom. Much of my family is still in Japan. I went to a Japanese school, and then when we moved to Wisconsin, we moved to a small homogeneous, essentially entirely white town.

And so as five years old, I was an immigrant didn't really speak much. English was the first person of color that a lot of folks there had ever seen and was living with my rural white grandparents, whom I loved and who were great to me, but to say that it was not a welcoming environment would be a massive understatement. And so just the flat-out bullying and violence that I faced, even as a young kid in the years that I lived there, taught me a lot about immigration, about race and how those things function in the United States.

So I could have either identified with the people who were beating the crap out of me, or I could take pride in who I was, stand up for myself and claim my identity. So when I came to California at age nine, I felt much more comfortable here. And I'm this racially ambiguous person who is ... People can usually tell I'm something, but they don't know what that something is. You know, LatinX, native, Italian, Asian, but I felt much more comfortable because there wasn't the same difficulty just on a day to day basis.

And then lived largely in these black and Latinx spaces, which also helped me find and develop the language, even from my own experiences in the past. And certainly contributed to me always feeling very comfortable as a mixed race, Asian American immigrant within a multiracial group of folks.

And I do want to say, because you had mentioned early on, it's been really both heartbreaking and fascinating to watch what's happened over the last year in terms of just the blatant prejudice and racism towards Asian Americans. And then Asians, and Asian-Americans, we've occupied this interesting and particular space in the American racial landscape, because Asians aren't white, but also aren't black, and so haven't faced the massive structural systemic racism that African-Americans have faced for 400 years, and are still seen as kind of invisible.

And if we're seen at all, we're depicted as exotic, savage, sexualized, even comical. Like there's no price for making fun of Asian people in media or in television or radio. It's been almost an acceptable prejudice because Asians and Asian Americans are seen as other, are seen as foreign. Even if you're third or fourth generation, there's a scene in the book where Jackie has a flashback memory to Frank finding his war medals from World War II.

He has got a purple heart. There's a picture of him in uniform, and she's all excited and proud and says, "Why didn't you ever show me this? This is so amazing." And he says, "Because it didn't make any difference." And what he means by that is he goes off and fights in a war and he gets wounded and he comes back to America and he still can't get a job. He still can't go to school. He was still discriminated against. He's still not welcome in the neighborhood. He is still seen as other.

And it becomes very easy, because Asians have always kind of kept their heads down and kept quiet, to become targeted in times of crisis, as we've seen in this last year, particularly whipped up, obviously, by the rhetoric of the former president. And it's been striking to see people finally notice this. Jackie finally realizes, oh my goodness, there's violence against Asians here. This happened here. This happened there.

And I feel like our entire country is kind of having this Jackie moment of, oh wow, has this been happening all along? And I want to be clear. I'm not trying to say there is not an equivalency again, between what black folks experience in this country every day and have experienced in big systemic ways, including the current attempt to keep people from voting in the future. And what's happening now is also real and troubling. And ultimately it all stems from the same place, which is the fear and insecurity of white people, not all white people, but of a lot of mainstream white folks of some of the changes that are happening in this country, of the other, and of a loss of power.

John Freeman: I absolutely agree. There's been some questions from the audience about research and among the things that Nina writes about in this book are the experience of Japanese Americans in Manzanar, the interment camp. It was one of the early books to address that. There's been a question also about, did you ever worry about a blind spot in writing about black Americans?

And I wanted to try to put those questions together to say, what is your research method? Because even if you're writing about Manzanar, obviously that's a generational experience, but it's not technically yours. It's several generations away. And how do you manage your moral responsibilities with material that is yours, not yours imagined.

Nina Revoyr: Yeah, I worry about blind spots of all kinds. I worry about ... There's the historical blind spot, and I've written a number of books that are back in history that I can't actually know firsthand what has happened. I worry about writing about anyone who is not exactly me, but when you think about what is not exactly me, I am a mixed race, Japanese, Polish-American immigrant who's lived in Wisconsin, Japan, and California.

If I were to only write about that character, that would be pretty boring. The reason I write these multiracial books and characters is because they reflect the world that I know. 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, of writing about straight women. I have no idea what it's like to think about the things that some of my straight friends do, et cetera. And so there's a lot of, and this is not research. This is observation, it's talking to 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. So that on that side, and then you'd asked about, about Manzanar. And research itself, research is a dangerous and fun thing. It's much more fun and much easier than the actual writing. And you can just go down a rabbit hole of finding out what happened in Manzanar in 1942, what were the kinds of weapons used by soldiers in World War II in this particular battle? What cars were people driving in 1960 something, when these characters were driving around?

It's really fun to go down those rabbit holes. But at some point you have to cut off and work to imagination, because for me, always the center of a book is its characters and is its people. And that's how I've got to go along with them. And I will always privilege sticking with the people and then finding the facts I need to later if I can get inside who they are.

And I think the one other thing I'll say about worrying about getting it wrong is that you may ... This entire book is in third person and some close and some not. I only write first person when I do feel like I am somehow the character. And so that's either a mixed race, Japanese character woman, or sometimes even a straight guy who I feel like I can understand a little bit in a different way, but that's the way that I deal with it.

John Freeman: I'd love to bring Manuel back on, because his questions are obviously so great, and the two of you have some history. And maybe there's time for one more question or so for Manuel, because we started a little late. Manuel, do you have anything else you'd like to ask of Nina while we're wrapping up here?

Prof. Manuel Pastor: Yeah, and it's the following. I think Nina knows this, but when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I actually had two majors. One was economics and the other was creative writing, and when graduating had to figure out what path to take in terms of wanting to change the world. And I thought a great novel can really do that. And some progressive economics could really help too. And I went in that direction, but I've always tried to balance head and heart, the soulful epiphany of good writing, which I try to do, with has hard headed analysis and the need to actually change the world.

And one of the things I would love you to talk about is yes, you're a novelist, but you've also tried to directly change kids' lives through public policy and social services. You work in a foundation right now that's trying to empower local communities to change the situations that face them. And I often think that when we're in the literary setting, we think it's only books and feelings, but we need to provoke people to change by capturing them with poetry. We also need to build power to actually change the structures that oppress people's lives, that are captured so well in this novel. How do you navigate those two worlds?

Nina Revoyr: Oh, heck if I know. I think that they're both ... The thing where they cross is what I mentioned earlier, about so much of what I do being driven by both love and anger. And I feel that in my writing life, I feel that in my work life and to a large extent, I've been able to keep the actual world separate. You're probably my one kind of both world person, because the work of a novelist and the work of a writer is to be evocative, is to tell stories, is to bring people along through their experience, their feelings, their reactions to things.

The work I do on the other side, as you said, is to push change. And so while my fiction might be seen as inherently quote political, just because of virtue of what I write about, if it's not rooted in character and story and plot, and what's going to happen, then I have failed as a writer. I'm not trying to write like polemical pamphlets. I can do that in my other life.

But I think it also relates to this question. Someone had asked earlier today about ... essentially if there's any hope for the racial situation in this country. And I gave an answer that was somewhat similar to what you just did, that on the one hand, we've got a couple of things. We need to push in terms of activism, organizing to get in. It's a power play to shift policy, to be more favorable. We need to do that, but we also need to capture hearts and minds and hearts and minds is where art comes in. And so I still try to do both.

Prof. Manuel Pastor: You know, the one thing I would say, and then hand it over to John to close, is I think until today, I could probably say I was the world's biggest fan of Southland. However, I think after so many people have read this book now and listened to this conversation, I might be creeping towards 10th and 11th in line. Because I bet you acquired some pretty big fans. It's such a powerful novel. Thank you for producing it. Thank you for being who you are in the world

Nina Revoyr: And thank you for the same, and thank you for all you do.

John Freeman: I would second and third and 11th and 15th, that Southland is a deeply enchanting book. And to me it sometimes felt like an answer to this feeling that in order for policy to be changed by a novel, it had to be something like The Jungle. That was truly a novel of eye-popping, almost trauma porn. Whereas this book is really simply using the actual events of history to wrap them around vividly told lives, to show you how it feels to live through it. And I can't thank you enough for this book.

We're going to wrap up here. There are lots of unanswered questions. I recommend you try to answer them by reading other books by Nina Revoyr. David is going to come back on and tell us where you can find some of those books, but also what we have to come next in the book club, and it's going to be a really hard act to follow. Thank you very much, Nina, for spending an hour with us tonight. And thank you, Professor Pastore, too.

Nina Revoyr: Thank you very much, John. Thanks.

David Ulin: Hi. Well that was, that was phenomenal. Thank you to everyone. Thanks, John. And thank you, Nina. And thank you, Manuel. That was a remarkable conversation. This interview will be up at So if you want to revisit it again, I certainly will, please check it out there. Next month's book, the April selection of the California Book Club, is Myriam Gurba's book Mean. So please check in on that. Be another fascinating conversation.

I want to remind you again about the last chance sale for the author membership for CBC members, please go to CBC offer, and definitely please read all of Nina's books, Wingshooters, Age of Dreaming. There is just a phenomenal body of work, and I'm really glad to have been able to be part of an event that showcases it. And please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Stay safe. See you next month. Everybody take care. Thank you.

Akashic Books

by Nina Revoyr

Akashic Books
Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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