Event Recap: Steph Cha and the ‘Inverted Crime Novel’

The June CBC event featured a lucid and vibrant conversation between author Steph Cha, special guest Tod Goldberg, and host John Freeman about Cha’s crime novel Your House Will Pay, along with Los Angeles communities, research that involves crime novels, and how we’re all investigators now.

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To kick off the discussion of Steph Cha’s extraordinary novel Your House Will Pay, California Book Club host John Freeman asked Cha to speak about the book’s relationship to the real-life death of Latasha Harlins, a teenager whose killing by a Korean convenience store owner was a factor in the subsequent L.A. uprising, and the atmosphere within Cha’s own family at the time. Cha explained, “I was five in 1991, when Latasha was killed, and I was six at the time of the uprising. I grew up in the Valley, the San Fernando Valley, and kind of cut off from the stuff that was happening in Koreatown and South Central L.A.—that was not really part of my childhood or my universe.”

Cha noted that as an adult she’s gotten to know Los Angeles in a way she hadn’t growing up. She knew of the riots, and she knew of a “history of animosity between Black and Korean Los Angeles,” but her understanding of the history was not deep. “Then I became a crime writer, you know, and I feel like a lot of my relationship with the city is informed by what I do, which is to seek out stories of crime in the communities that I care about and the city that I know,” Cha said.

Freeman commented that secrets operate differently in this book. They aren’t simply part of the plot, but rather part of a portrait involving a “separate togetherness.” He asked how Cha uses “those secrets to fill out the ways that communities can live completely side by side and yet deny their interconnectedness.”

Cha commented on how “when cultural norms are steeped in shame and secrecy,” family secrets may come out when an older family member dies. She said that she’d never wondered about how Grace Park, the novel’s protagonist, could never have known that her mother killed a teenager many years earlier: “We know so little about the people who are closest to us.… Think about how easy it is to not know things about people who are even one or two degrees separated from you, and then the people you pass on the street—forget about it. You don’t know anything about them. It takes a certain level of curiosity to find out about other people in any way—not even the secret stuff. Even just, What is it like to be you?” Cha noted that one of the things she likes about Los Angeles is being close to so many different people and communities and subcommunities.

Cha said she researched the book, in part, by talking to people as she ran into them. One of those people was a Korean American car guy 10 to 15 years older than Cha. His best friend had been the one Korean American killed during the L.A. riots in 1992 by friendly fire. He’d wanted to go riding with his friend that night, but his mom had stopped him. “People hold onto all these stories, and they’re not even necessarily holding onto them tightly,” Cha said. “Sometimes they’re just asking for people to ask. Sometimes they’re just waiting for people to ask. Something that I’ve learned by writing crime fiction is how close all of this hurt and violence is to the surface for so many people.”

When fellow noir novelist Tod Goldberg joined the conversation, he commented that Cha’s novel, about a failure of the criminal justice system, is one of the best crime novels of the past 25 years. It looks at the perpetrators and the victims, he said, but sidelines the police. Cha said she thinks of it as an “inverted crime novel.” Cha said she could have written the novel as “pure investigation” but instead focused “on the people who don’t have the tools to figure out what happened on their own.” Goldberg noted the influence of her book and how the dramatic exploration is not only about the victims, but also “the ripples out from the victims, the trauma that happens to the third party.” He said that the real issue of what happens with where the crime novel is going is “not just the dead body. It’s the person who has to deal with the dead body 20 years later.”

Cha remarked that this trend in crime fiction aligns with changing attitudes toward law enforcement. In writing the novel, she said, she’d been reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement. She noted the guilt and the knee-jerk desire, particularly in liberal and progressive circles, to ask for absolution from the Black community. “What we actually need is more genuine—deeper—engagement,” she said. “Forgiveness is an easy thing to ask for, but what are you really asking for?… It’s not as simple as, ‘There is this great weight I’m carrying around. You can take it off of me.’ There’s something about living together that is a lot messier than that.”•

Our California Book Club event on July 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time will feature author Luis J. Rodriguez, host John Freeman, and special guest Rubén Martínez in conversation about Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Rodriguez’s book. Register for the upcoming Zoom conversation here.

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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