Introducing Steph Cha’s ‘Your House Will Pay’

In this newsletter, we examine the starting point of Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay: two historical events that called attention to racial violence directed at Black people in Los Angeles.

steph cha
Dustin Snipes

Thirteen days after police officers beat Rodney King in Los Angeles in March 1991, another instance of videotaped violence occurred in Compton. Korean liquor store owner Soon Ja Du shot a 15-year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins, in the back of her head, killing her over a bottle of orange juice Harlins had intended to pay for. Both of these events served as flash points for the deadly L.A. riots the following year.

After Harlins’s killing, protesters began shouting the slogan, now famous, “No justice, no peace.” Eight months later, Du was convicted. Appointed by then-governor Pete Wilson, Judge Joyce Karlin had only recently joined the bench. She heard forceful arguments about the appropriate sentence from both sides, while outside the downtown courtroom, where the case had been transferred, protests, predominantly by Black community members, were ongoing.

At sentencing, the assistant district attorney Roxanne Carvajal argued for the maximum sentence, 16 years, as did the probation officer, noting Du’s racist remarks and that she was not remorseful during an interview, but Du’s Black defense attorney, Charles Lloyd, argued for probation. The Black community and the community of Korean shopkeepers perceived their history with each other differently, but, as it turned out, loyalties didn’t always break cleanly on racial lines.

The judge handed down a controversial sentence that Brenda Stevenson, author of The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, called “one of the most lenient imposed on a felon convicted of voluntary manslaughter with the use of a gun in California that year.” Shockingly, Du would need to serve no more jail time than she already had. Before Trayvon Martin, before George Floyd, People v. Du, along with the Rodney King legal case, reframed Black experience in America for the non-Black public. Dedicating “Keep Ya Head Up” to Harlins, whom he also referenced in other songs, Tupac wrote the searing line, “We ain’t meant to survive ’cause it’s a setup,” which serves as one of the epigraphs to Cha’s novel.

It’s in that climate of intense racial tensions that Steph Cha’s acclaimed 2019 crime novel, Your House Will Pay, opens. In the first chapter, set in March 1991, five days after the beating of King, Shawn and his older sister, Ava, are Black kids trying to go to New Jack City, an R-rated movie, in Westwood. They don’t know it yet, but Ava, based on Harlins, will be shot by a Korean convenience store owner.

While they’re at the theater, a protest of police brutality gets out of control. Shawn loses Ava and his cousin Ray in the crowd. Men break a glass wall with branches. Ordinary life, the concerns of youth, fall away, leaving hot anger and grief that is formative and also seems to capture, metaphorically, the rupture in public consciousness around police brutality. “He’d seen glass break plenty of times before, but never a pane so large and clean, so invisibly solid,” Cha writes. “This was a breach between worlds, a pried-open passage to another dimension. The crowd shouted again, this time with a clamor of triumph, and rushed over the broken glass.”

Shawn eventually finds Ava and Ray amid all this chaos, and it’s striking how normal it all feels from Shawn’s perspective. Within this protest scene, there are hints of the interracial resentment and hostility that will lead to further violence. A gang shooting is mentioned as the “only one anyone seemed to care about” because the victim was an Asian girl. Shawn characterizes the Korean man who owns a corner store as “a huge jerk” with “cigarette breath and broken English who was always eyeing Ray like he was up to no good.”

But Shawn is not a privileged kid, and he’s not frightened by the disruption. He, Ava, and Ray are at one with the protesters; their identification is one-to-one: “The night and the mob and the violent roar—he knew with instinctive clarity, that these things wouldn’t hurt them. If this was fire, they were flame.”

The following chapter jumps forward to 2019, when Korean American Grace Park is at the memorial for a Black man killed by the LAPD. Twenty-eight years on, and the more things change, etc. Present at the memorial only because her justice-oriented sister asked her to come, Grace is sheltered, but after her immigrant mother is attacked in the parking lot, she uncovers a dark family secret that seems to link her family to Shawn’s.

While Your House Will Pay is a Shakespearean crime novel, a novel attentive to the interracial tensions and hostility and violence in Los Angeles that led to King’s beating, the killing of Harlins, and the L.A. riots, you’ll also find here a remarkable realism and a tender, complex portrait of two ordinary families caught up in the machinery of the system and how they connect, and don’t, over different perceptions of their extremely tense history with each other.•

Join us June 16 at 5 p.m., when Cha will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Tod Goldberg to discuss Your House Will Pay. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book.

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