David L. Ulin: Good evening everybody. I'm David Ulin. I'm the Books Editor of Alta Journal, and welcome to tonight's meeting of the California Book Club. I'm glad that you're all here. I want to introduce both the magazine and the book club for those of you who may not know about it. Alta is a quarterly print journal that also has a very active daily web presence focusing on California history and culture with a great emphasis on books. We're running weekly book reviews online, as well as various essays, and stories, and poetry in Alta Journal and the California Book Club, which is a monthly book club focusing on the California cannon and California literature, which is, I think, the most vibrant literature in the United States. I want to begin by thanking and talking a little bit about our partners. We could not do this without our partners.
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I'm really excited about this particular meeting or episode of the book club. We'll be talking with John Freeman, who I'll introduce in a moment, our host. We'll be interviewing Steph Cha about her book Your House Will Pay, which came out in 2019, which is not just a groundbreaking and transformative crime novel, although it is that as well. It is one of the most eloquent and important contemporary novels of Los Angeles. And it's a fantastic book. So, I'm going to get out of the way and introduce John Freeman who's going to take it from here and please enjoy the conversation. John.
John Freeman: Thank you, David. Hello, everyone. Good evening. Welcome to another episode of the California Book Club with Alta. It's my big pleasure to be here tonight. Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the LA uprising. The six days of protests, and anger, and rage, and destruction, and heartache that swept across Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King riots. And this summer, there's been some think pieces and some conversations about what happened and how that's shaken out over time. But I often feel like the way that we could best understand what happened in the city would be to sit down with various families and have conversations with ourselves or with each other. Because if you simply take an image of those five or six days and try to backtrack them towards the source of the anger, the frustration, you get very easy answers to the source of the problem.
But if you talk to families all over across Los Angeles, Latinx families, Chinese American families, Black families, Caribbean families, Korean American families, you get a very much more complex picture of what those days meant. And Steph Cha and Your House Will Pay has finally given the city a novel as complex as that event and its aftermath. It tells the story of two families fatally entwined by those days. One who is grieving the loss of a daughter, the other who's trying to start over in the valley. One African American, one Korean American. One with two boys who've gone to prison as men, and have come out after three years or 10. The other has raised their daughters in a very sheltered way, trying to keep them from the secrets of those times.
Steph Cha's a remarkable writer and with the first three books, had she not written Your House Will Pay, she would've probably be fast on the road to rewriting LA crime fiction with Follow Her Home, Beware, Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, the three mysteries in the Juniper Song series. Which starts as in dialogue to the lovely Walter Mosley and Raymond Chandler and ends with a novel that's very close to what we're talking about now, which is a novel about family and the ties that bind. But there's a huge leap between that very remarkable novel Dead Soon Enough and Your House Will Pay. And I think it has to do to some degree with just the complexity, and density, and depth of emotion that she is able to capture.
And the difference in how families react to trauma. How they live with the past. How they love one another. What their love languages are, and what they'll do to cover for each other when something terrible happens because when it comes to crime and punishment, retribution can often end up in the wrong place, especially when you don't count for the fact that some people will stand in front of someone else's bullet. So, with that, I would love to bring on Steph Cha to talk about this extraordinary novel. Welcome, Steph.
Steph Cha: Hi. Thank you so much, John, for that really nice introduction.
Freeman: It's my pleasure. For those in the audience who are dialing in, who maybe weren't following the news as closely. Now, this does begin from an actual case, the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Do you want to talk a little bit about that case and its relation to this book? You were probably around six at the time when this happened. And I know you found out about it recently. Do you want to talk about maybe the atmosphere of that time within your family, given that you maybe didn't know about this case, but you knew tentacles of what was happening around you?
Cha: Yeah. I was five in 1991 when Latasha was killed and I was six at the time of the uprising. And I grew up in the valley, the San Fernando Valley, and just cut off from the stuff that was happening in Korea Town and South Central LA. That was not really part of my childhood or my universe. And so, I feel like I've gotten to know LA as an adult in a way that I didn't growing up as a child in the suburbs, just because I'm able to take myself around now. I meet people from all over the city, and it's just different from being a child and being a sheltered child. And so, I feel like, by the time I graduated from high school and left LA for a while, I knew about the riots.
I knew that was a thing. And I knew that there was some history of animosity between Black and Korean Los Angeles, but I didn't really have an in-depth understanding of any of that history. So, in a lot of ways, Grace, the character of Grace is informed by that ability to exist in a place and with a ton of history and just not necessarily engage with it. And then I became a crime writer, and I feel like a lot of my relationship with this city is informed by what I do, which is to seek out stories of crime in the communities that I care about and in the city that I know. And I had been working on Dead Soon Enough, which is a book that deals pretty heavily with ideas of legacy and inheritance the way that we kind of, especially members of minority groups, tend to identify with each other and feel the complicity and feel the hurt of other members of the group.
And then, I heard an interview that Professor Brenda Stevenson did on one of the local NPR stations, I think it was KPCC, about the Latasha Harlins murder. And I feel like I've probably heard about this case before, but in some vague way, and this was the first time that I was really hearing all of the facts of this really remarkable case, which was a 15-year-old Black girl killed by a Korean shopkeeper who was then convicted of voluntary manslaughter and then, effectively, the sentence was given a slap on the wrist.
She never served any jail time. And because the judge felt sorry for her, it was an incredibly fraught case that was handed off to a brand new judge because the other judge that was more experienced didn't want to touch it. And it's seen by, even Koreans, as this massive miscarriage of justice and is also considered one of the reasons why Korean-owned businesses were targeted in the rioting that followed the '92 verdict acquitting the officers who beat Rodney King. So, I remember just being thunderstruck by this story. It was one of those things where I was home when I started listening to the interview, but I was so sad in my car and listened to the whole thing. I think by the time I got out of the car, I knew I wanted to write about it, and I've never had that experience before where I just knew that I had so much emotional unpacking to do that it was a book, but I kind of knew right away because I felt incredible anger about the case and about what happened to Latasha, as well as just an automatic feeling of guilt by association because I'm Korean.
Doing more research on [inaudible 00:16:40], I realized that she had lived at some points in the valley where I grew up and I just kept thinking, I probably know people who know her. We've probably been in the same supermarkets, same churches. It's not that big of community, and I just wanted to kind of tackle that feeling of just that messiness of what do you do when this book touches you and is somewhere over there. Of course, I dramatized that by putting that in the immediate family, but just that sense of community with a murderer, I think is a large part of what made me want to write this book.
Freeman: Yeah. There's a tremendous moment later in the book where Grace meets up with Shawn, the nephew, the cousin of the woman who's been murdered, who would've been Grace's age and Grace, she finally has found out that her mother years ago has shot a teenage girl, Black girl, in her own convenience store and has managed to start over her life, gotten off, not gone to prison, and kept the secret from Grace. Although, Grace's sister knows.
I guess I want to talk to you a little bit about crime fiction and secrets because secrets are a big part of your other books and they sort of are part of the narrative mechanism by which it works, but in this book, secrets, they're operating differently. They're not just simply part of the plot. They're part of the portrait that you're making of separate togetherness. I wonder if you can talk about how you can use those secrets to fill out the ways that communities can live completely side by side and yet deny their interconnectedness.
Cha: Yeah. My grandmother just passed away a couple weeks ago and I feel like when old people die, especially old people from other countries, especially when the cultural norms are steeped in shame and secrecy and people came from poor places, and I feel like family secrets came tumbling out, and I feel like this happens in a lot of families. As I was writing this book, one of the things I never thought about was like, oh, how could they possibly keep this secret from her? Because it felt so natural to me becauseI see the way that secrets work in families. I've seen it in my own family. I've seen it in my husband's family.
It's just the way that, you know how 23 and Me blew up a lot of people's spots? There's always this sense of sometimes the things that are really important to you, you might be the last to know. I think that definitely can happen by design within families, but also we know so little about the people who are closest to us in a lot of ways. I mean, we can have things about them hidden from us, but think about how easy it is to not know things about people who are even one or two degrees separated from, and then the people you pass on the street, forget about it. You don't know anything about them.
And so I do think that it takes a certain level of curiosity to find out about other people in any way. I mean, not even the secret stuff, even just what is it like to be you? Something I really like about LA is how close we are to so many different kinds of people. We have so many communities that exist on top of each other and that overlap and that do mingle together, but that are also heavily segregated. And then there are many, many sub communities and that's something that's appealing to me. That's what makes LA worth writing about and worth living in. But it also means that there are two sides to this. One is, yes, you don't necessarily know that much about your neighbors. The other side is if you ask your neighbors a few questions, you'll learn a lot.
One of the ways I researched this book, because I actually don't really like research, is I just talked to people as I ran into them. So for example, I have a car guy, who just fixes my car when I ding it up. He's Korean American. He's like 10 to 15 years older than me, and I was just asking about his experience of the early nineties of those six days in particular because I knew he lived here and it turned out that his best friend was the one Korean American who was killed during the rioting by friendly fire. He had wanted to go riding out with this friend and his mom stopped him.
It's just people hold onto all these stories, and they're not even necessarily holding onto them tightly. Sometimes they're just asking for people to ask. Sometimes they're just waiting for people to ask, but I think something that I've learned by writing crime fiction is just how close all of this hurt and violence is to the surface for so many people and how it's just a part of our lives that is waiting to be uncovered.
Freeman: I wonder if you could read a little bit from the book and sort of set the scene for us because you've got a lot of people's memories operating within this book sort of as the book moves between 1991 and 2019. Maybe if you could start with a sort of scene from the past.
Cha: Yeah. I have a short section that I can read. This is from Shawn's point of view when he's 14 years old and this is about the actual uprising.
It lasted six days, six days of fire, a judgment poured over the earth. Figuroa Liquor Mart was gone and Frank's Liquor, Florence Liquor and Grocery, Empire Market and JingleBell Liquor too. Laundromats were destroyed. The machines jacked for coins, dry cleaners looted, plenty of people grabbing the chance to take somebody else's clothes. Some places put up signs like lambs blood on their doors. "Black owned," they said, and they were passed over, sometimes.
Terry's Interiors got the torch and Rod Davis Firestone and the African Refugee Center. After a while, fire didn't discriminate. They called in the National Guard. 63 people were dead. Shawn watched it all happen. When the law didn't come, the lawless spread out. There were bangers everywhere, bold because the police were gone and because they had a truce for once. Their priorities shifted away from each other.
When they started getting cruises together to ride up into Koreatown, Shawn went with them, riding in the backseat of Sparky's grandma's Ford Escort, not even bothering to lie to Aunt Sheila. Koreatown, it was where the Koreans were. Jung-Ja Han's people, the people who believed and supported her, who thought Ava was Han's bad fortune, a thing that had happened to her like a car crash or a storm. It made sense to him to take this outcry to Koreatown. They would bring this judgment to them, to her community, her family, to her.
When it was over, everything had changed. Wherever he went, he saw the extent of the ruin, the cooled remnants of days of unchecked wrath. Where there had been buildings, there were now building frames like children's pictures scribbled in pencil, gray and blurred and skeletal on the verge of disintegration.
Roll up doors defaced by graffiti and ash, the metal warped, so they'd never close again. Rubble and trash littered the streets like fallen teeth like dead skin, the rot of a ravaged body. The neighborhood looked like a war zone, a place like nowhere he'd ever seen outside of photographs, but he lived in it now, victim, civilian, soldier, insurgent.
He was different, still changing, the core of him destabilized and reformed by the fire. He joined up with the Baring Cross Crips, Sparky vouching for him saying he'd been through it, that he was stone cold for 14. Ray and Sparky and four other guys jumped him in at the parking lot of Truway Baptist the week after the uprising. The church's pink stucco walls charred black all the way up to the steeple. They formed a circle around him, each of them locking eyes on him and nodding starting the ritual. Ray came at him first and they swung at each other like they had a dozen times before, landing a punch each before the other boys moved in, in turn.
He kept his fists up and gave them his best and they knocked him down, each of them laying hands on him until he was on the ground. As he laid there taking hits, his muscle singing, the taste of blood in his throat, he gave himself over to the boys and the pain. How great it was, the controlled aggression of family to know the hurt would never be more than he could stand.
Freeman: Thank you. I read in Sarah Weinman's interview that your impulse to begin this book was originally just sort of understand the Korean American experience, but obviously the book works in two tracks and some of the power comes from those juxtapositions of the mirroring of Grace realizing that her life would've moved in parallel to Ava's life of Shawn realizing that he's got to step up just in the same way that Grace has to step up at the pharmacy and eventually has to learn to take care, has to Google how to give a sponge bath to her mother because things are really bad after she gets shot.
I wonder if you can talk about difference between researching your way into the Korean American experience versus researching your way into the lives of Shawn and Ray and Ray's aunt and that family, and what sort of things you wanted to avoid and what you discovered as a novelist?
Cha: Yeah. I mean, I wrote three books that all had the same point of view character, and Juniper Song is a 20-something Korean American woman. Grace is a 20-something Korean American woman. That's somebody I've been, and Grace is very different from me. I kind of imagine both Grace and Miriam as they have a piece of me in them that's more obvious than the part of me that's in all of my other characters, but I think there was also something where it was a lot easier to write them and it was a lot easier to write their family, even though their family doesn't actually look that much like mine, the way that they operate. It's just very distinct from the way that I grew up.
For example, my parents speak fluent in English. This household looks and sounds different. That said, I know a lot of my friends are Korean American, grew up in similarly first, second generation mixed homes. And so I know that kind of dynamic between the immigrant parents and the children of immigrants. That's something that I'm very familiar with from personal experience and from observing it in my friend's families. I know that community, the places in Northridge that kind of make up the landscape of the Park family's life. I know those places. I got my haircut in Northridge today.
I had a level of familiarity with the Park family's world that I just didn't have with the Matthews Holloway family. I also did know that even if I got some stuff wrong about like the Korean family, that I wasn't really going to be held to task for it because I'm Korean. I think that does hold up as a defense in the way.
And so when I started writing this book, it started actually as a short story for this anthology of Asian pulp, and it was really just about these two sisters having this conversation about a mother who did something really terrible in the nineties. When I decided that I thought there was a book in it, I realized that I was going to have to bring in the other family, the Black family. I thought about whether this was a good idea, and then I decided that I couldn't do it without having that kind of split point of view. I think the reason for that is that we're all fiction readers here.
The power of fiction is it puts you on the shoulder of whoever's speaking, and whatever relationship the author has with those characters, you're going to empathize with the person whose point of view you're in. You're going to understand them in a way that you just can't understand the people that they come across. It's not demanded of you. And so I felt that as a non-Black writer writing those characters as side characters without entering a POV, while I was giving my full attention to the feelings and emotional state of a member of the Korean family, I just felt like the only thing that I would end up doing was to flatten those characters into kind of perfect victims, which is just not what I wanted to do with this book.It's one of the things that the book writes against, which is that we require any level of perfection or innocence from people who are killed through no fault to their own.
And so I wanted to write against that. And in order to do that, I felt like I had to kind of really get in there and show fully developed characters. It was a lot harder to do that with Shawn than it was with Grace. I remember kind of the first two and a half years of writing this book was just figuring out the first third of it, kind of nailing down Shawn's voice, his family dynamics. Early draft, I remember one of the best and harshest notes I got was from my husband who read it and said, "Grace feels like someone you know, and Shawn feels like someone you read about." Because I did all this kind of sociological research, I read about Black Los Angeles, kind of the history of my migration to LA from other parts, just all this stuff that's not really about the things that we want to read about. And so it just took more digging to get into his character. The book wasn't done until I felt like the two sides were pretty even. What I did learn is that it's possible to kind of even that out, it just takes a lot of work. And I also found that I thought it was a good thing that throughout this whole process, I was constantly a little bit terrified that I would do a bad job because I think doing a bad job when you're writing the other, when you're writing across race, when you're writing across identity is that you can then harm an entire group of people.
And so I think that authors should approach that responsibility with a great deal of care and trepidation. I think we're all afraid of writing bad sentences, but fewer people notice that. I think we should all be afraid of writing things that do harm to others. I think there is something positive to be said about being thoughtful in what we write and what we say. And so, yeah, I think the self editing and the kind of work that went into writing this family, I learned a lot from. I don't know that I'd do it again, at least not right away, because I don't know if I want to write. I spent another five years writing my next book. But it was definitely a learning experience.
Freeman: Well, you've done it so beautifully. And I think in part, because you don't see the characters from the outside, there's great stretches of interior life in this book. And one of the ways you build interior life tome seems to be through people's work and their bodies and what they carry in their bodies. And I'll come back to that because I want to bring in Tod Goldberg, the novelist and writer who's going to ask you some questions. He's the author of Living Dead Girl, which was a LA Times Book Prize finalist in the mystery category, but also the popular Burn Notice series. Tod, are you still here? You want to come on and ask some questions?
Tod Goldberg: I would never leave. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to see everyone in the audience and great to see my friend Steph that I haven't seen in a good long time.
Cha: I know.
Goldberg: I have to embarrass Steph a little bit by telling you how much I absolutely love this book. I think Steph's book is maybe one of the best crime novels of the last 25 years. I know we're talking about it in terms of its impact in California and its impact as an LA crime novel, but I think what you've done Steph, is going to change the way crime fiction is written for a very long time, irrespective of whether or not anyone's ever been to Palmdale. I'm a number one fan of this book and of you and your work in general, so I'm thrilled to be here. I've got a couple hard hitting questions. Are you ready?
Cha: All right.
Goldberg: Well, first, here's the most important thing. I reread the book this weekend and this is something people haven't talked about yet today, what is your favorite food that you talk about in the book? Because I reread the book and I was starving for food afterwards.
Cha: I think there's [inaudible 00:35:25] in there. That was the food that ... It's like a pretty basic Korean staple and it's the food that I craved the most when I went to college and would ask my mom for whenever I came home. She makes it with Spam. It's really, really good.
Goldberg: People don't understand that Spam is the key to artists and foods.
Cha: Oh, the way that Spam soaks up soup, it's incredible. And the Spam and the kind of spicy soup base that is in a lot of Korean foods, they just go together so well.
Goldberg: I just saw the stock market. Spam just went up 20 points. You are moving product tonight, Steph. The thing that I was most fascinated about when I read your book initially in 2019, and the thing that I think I'm already seeing the effect of from your book is that you wrote a crime novel that really is about a failure of the criminal justice system. And you wrote a crime novel without really any cops in it. There's a couple scenes with the detective. But by and large, this is a crime novel about the people who perpetuate crime in force and the victims of it, but where the police are sidelined. Was that intentional or was that just because of the kind of story you were telling?
Cha: It was both intentional and not. There was a moment after I finished it or was almost all the way done with it where I realized that I had two white guys in this story that are ... Oh, no, no, I guess there are three. But there's the detective, and there's the journalist, and I realized that in a different version of this book, which I might have written, because my first three books were in that investigative mode, Grace and Shawn would be the characters that you meet for a chapter, because the investigator goes out and talks to them and then leaves. And so I have these two characters who could have been the leads, who are kind of relegated to these side positions.
I think about it as kind of in inverted crime novel. It's telling a similar story, because there's a version of this that could be pure investigation. But it's focusing on the people who don't really have the tools to figure out what happened on their own and figuring out what happened is not really as important as what actually did happen.
And I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell this story through these characters or at least characters like them who are affected by the crime. And I think that what I wanted to do was just spend time, because we read about all these horrible stories all the time, and then we stop thinking about them. Somebody's killed somewhere else and then we think, "Oh, how terrible." And then, a year later, five years later, 30 years later, that family's still out there and that's still kind of one of the defining facts of their life. And so I wanted to kind of have a story where you had to sit with these people as they kind of absorbed this history and just lived with it and what that means and what that looks like kind of day to day.
Goldberg: Well, and it's interesting because I think about the sort of victim forward crime fiction is something I'm seeing a lot more of lately, and I think probably because of you. But you-
Cha: I don't think [crosstalk 00:39:20].
Goldberg: Maybe not directly, but who's going to stop us from saying it's true? But from contemporaries too, your friend Ivy Pochoda, these women, or a novel I just read called Notes On Execution by Danya Kukafka, which is really, really great, which puts the crimes front and center obviously, but the actual dramatic exploration is about the victims or more often, like it is in your book about the ripples out from the victims, the trauma that happens to the third party that in your case, the children or the cousins, or whatever. And that seems to me to be culturally where the real issue of what happens with crime really is going. It's not just the dead body, it's the person that has to deal with the dead body 20 years later.
Cha: Yeah. And I think, maybe that's also aligning with kind of changing attitudes towards law enforcement over the last several years, the complications of cop narratives. But yeah, I think that's certainly true.
I mean, I think another thing that I was reacting to as I started writing this book was just the connection between 30 years ago and kind of the rise of the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, because I started writing this at the end of 2014. I was thinking about Latasha Harlan's to Mike Brown, that kind of in between. And when you're looking at these stories of victims of police violence, they're often young. They're often Black. And it's hard not to see all those families. Just the moms who have to keep getting up on the podium and talking about how good their kids were. I mean, it's just absolutely wrecking.
And I think all of us who kind of pay attention to the news cycle, we've now seen so many of these stories. And I think also true crime, there's a whole other conversation to have about true crime. But one of the things it has done is kind of given some more context to the people who are affected by these tragedies, by these horrific crimes. And so maybe as a culture, we are kind of being trained to pay more attention to the victims side now. I mean, which I think is a good thing. It certainly makes it so that there are more kind of entry points for these stories.
Goldberg: Right. And I think too, the thing that true crime does and the way that sort of plays in your book obviously is that, in effect, Grace becomes the investigator in this. And so I think true crime has kind of deputized all of us to go out there and solve crimes, whereas it used to be, if you read a cozy crime novel, it was only the caterers that got to solve the crimes. Now all of us are allowed to go out there and solve the crimes. I don't advocate it, but maybe sometimes we need it.
My last question for you, and then I'll let John come back. We'll see if we'll let him turn his camera on. I'm wondering now, as you approach the next part of your career, you've written a novel that, it was hailed immediately. The day that it came out, it was already hailed as one of the 20 best LA crime novels ever written. How do you deal artistically with that kind of pressure?
Cha: Well, that's a great question. I haven't started writing another book. That's one thing.
Goldberg: Don't. Don't. Go the Harper Lee route.
Cha: No, I mean, I think ... Okay, when the book came out, it was a different level of attention that I'd gotten for the Juniper Song books, which was great because nobody read those books. No, but I realized that, look, I'm in my thirties. I'm not going to retire off this book. That's not going to happen. I'm going to write more books just because it's a thing that I have to do. And I realized, I'm not going to replicate this book. For one thing, I don't want to be the Asian American author who is a mouthpiece for strife between the Black and Asian communities. I'm not interested in doing that. I will always write about LA. I will always write about kind of the way that communities intersect in LA. But I think that this was kind of uniquely ... I don't know, salable because of the particular political dynamic within it.
And I realized, whatever I write next is probably not going to have that. But I think it will still be worth writing. The reasons that I haven't started writing it are more related to I entered the pandemic very pregnant and then now I'm very pregnant again. [inaudible 00:44:46]. I'm kind of-
Goldberg: We know what you were doing during the pandemic.
Cha: I'm just in these kind of baby years, which is actually, it's been nice because I feel like Your House Will Pay has had a pleasantly long tail where I still get to do stuff like this after a couple years. And I've been working in TV, which it's more relaxing in a way than writing a book. It's more other people's responsibility to do things.
Goldberg: More people bring you food.
Cha: Yeah, I like that. But yeah, I think the idea of writing a novel again is very daunting to me, so I haven't overcome that yet. But I think it has less to do with the reception of Your House Will Pay and more to do with just the fact that the farther you get away from the beginning of a novel, the more it seems like, oh, how did I ever do that?
Goldberg: Right. Well, if it helps you, I have a book due in 65 days. And so if you just wanted to pop in and write a couple hundred thousand words for me, I would deeply appreciate it.
Well, thank you for letting me chat with you a little bit. I'm going to tell John, you can come back, John, from wherever you are. Is he somewhere in there?
Freeman: I'm somewhere in the vortex.
Goldberg: And I'm going to disappear, right?
Freeman: That was fantastic, Tod. Thank you so much for putting this in the context of the kind of breakthroughs that are in the novel. But also just how Steph you've altered the form of what crime fiction is. And one thing that the typical framers of debate of what a crime is in this, the police, the person who's writing a kind of true crime story, the media, they get this wrong throughout the novel. And you sort of allow the characters to frame the events for themselves.
And I think one of the things that the book is best about is, it's not so much vengeance, although that's a big part of it. It's the yearning for forgiveness and how people yearn in different ways and they seek it out in different ways. And I guess it connects to a question that one of the audience members, Nicholas Hernandez asks, he says, "One of the most impactful moments in the book was Grace's apology to Shawn. She apologized not for something that she did obviously, but rather her family's actions." Yes. How do you think this enlightens the culpability of individuals for their family's actions and more broadly for what individuals perceived to be their community's actions?
Cha: Yeah. That was one of the scenes that I knew kind of at the beginning of the book was going to be important and I knew I was going to end the second section with that. Yeah, Grace, she kind of goes about this in a very clumsy way where she just wants absolution. And Grace in a lot of ways is a stand in, not just for kind of the guilt of Korean American children of immigrants, although certainly that certainly there is that dynamic. But I think a lot of Americans have to reckon with the guilt that we feel about our particular inheritance. We live in a country that is prosperous for a lot of really bad reasons. We have centuries of slavery that we are still trying to figure out how to deal with and whether to deal with it at all. And I think that that's part of being American, is figuring out what your relationship is with that guilt, with that inheritance, with that hurt.
And that's something that both families are going through, where there has been this horrible crime, and one side has to figure out, "Okay, I'm related to the perpetrators. What do I do?" And one side is related to the victims, and the question there is more like, "Okay, how do I deal with the fact that I'm not in charge of any of this? I don't have control of this narrative."
And so that apology, I think there is this kind of knee-jerk desire on the part of any of us who have ever felt this level of guilt to kind of be absolved. And I think Black forgiveness has a particular currency, particularly within liberal progressive circles. And I think that's kind of the wrong way to go about it, and it kind of leads to a lot of discomfort that isn't necessarily productive. Whereas I think what we actually need is more genuine, deeper engagement, because forgiveness is an easy thing to ask for. But what are you really asking for? Because I think there is almost this assumption in asking for forgiveness that you're being blamed for the things that your ancestors have done, and that's almost never true. So I think that conversation around forgiveness is always just... We need to think about what that means. We need to think about what we actually want and need to move on and to kind of be moral citizens, people who are able to exist with each other. Because it's not as simple as, "There is this great weight I'm carrying around, you can take it off of me." I think there's something about living together that is a lot messier than that.
Freeman: This connects to a question that another audience member, Linda Vasu, had, which is about intergenerational trauma and resilience, and I think maybe it might be helpful to tie this together to the fact that in the book, absolution and other forms of forgiveness are being solicited and edged towards within the families as well. In the course of Grace's mother being shot, going into a coma, getting better, she realizes in talking to her mother that her first years in Los Angeles were deeply difficult. Regardless of the ways that she describes it, it was very dangerous for her as a shopkeeper. She was terrified.
And in this bathtub scene later on, it feels like it's one of Grace's ways of apologizing to her, is to sort of care for her in this way that... It's very different from going into a Korean bath with her where everyone's naked, this is something more tender and more hands-on. And I wonder if in that scene, if you're dealing with that symbolically at all, or if it's just simply the kind of thing that a child would do for their parent.
Cha: Yeah. That's a pretty important scene in the book, and I think that kids don't really want to know their parents in a lot of ways. We benefit from not knowing our parents. I think we get used to not seeing them as whole people who existed before we came along, right? Because we're little and they attend to all our needs and we don't have to think about their needs. And so, Grace thinks about her parents. She's somebody, she loves her parents, but she's not ever really confronted with the realities of what life was like for them. And they also are not trying to put that on her, either.
And so that particular scene, where her mother is literally laid there, laid naked before her, I think it's one that makes her extremely uncomfortable and it's a moment of bonding that is also pretty ugly. And I think that's kind of the relationship, I think Grace resents her for complicating her life, which is a very selfish thing, right? I mean, I think Grace tells her that this is the worst thing that's ever happened to her, where obviously it's a far worse thing [inaudible 00:53:23].
Freeman: This is a terrible thing to have happen to me.
Cha: Yeah. But you know, I think children are self-centered when it comes to their parents. That's how we survive, right? Until adulthood, is by expecting them to be the sacrificing ones. But the kind of impetus for this book was just this idea of how we end up becoming corrupted by compromising, or not even compromising, but kind of finding the balance of what our values in a vacuum look like and what that looks like when you bring in other people.
And I think Grace and Miriam have this conversation, but if one of your loved ones goes off and does something evil, good luck not getting evil. It's very human to kind of sympathize with the people you love and the people you owe things to. And so I think a lot of what's happening in this book is just that negotiation of finding who you in relation to your family.
Freeman: What does that mean for justice? Gerald Sato has a question about justice. Basically, a violent act of retribution is committed against Grace's mother, but at the end, I don't want to give away the ending, but this is almost Shakespearean by the end of this novel, where if justice has been achieved, it's only in the attempt. Or do you believe that justice is not achievable?
Cha: Yeah, I mean, I think that justice is achievable in the abstract, I certainly do. However, I think when there is a massive miscarriage of justice, it's hard to make that up. And I think that especially when the state fails. We all subject ourselves to government so that we can be safer and because they're supposed to be this objective system that serves all and kind of keeps the balances correct, and we just know that that's not true. And when that isn't true, then everything else is extralegal, and it becomes really murky, and there are costs to enacting your own justice.
And so a good outcome becomes impossible, because the good outcome wasn't achieved in the first place, and anything done to balance that out is going to come with extra costs. And so I think this is a very messy vision of justice. I don't think anybody at the end of this book feels good about what's happened, you know? And there is that sense that all of this toxicity kind of goes from generation to generation. And you know, I've seen this, and this is kind of what my third book was about, kind of this, because I grew up in a Korean family, I grew up hearing about the way that Japan keeps lying about things they did during the occupation in World War II, right? And now it's been almost 100 years since a lot of those events, and people still aren't over it, even though all those people are dead.
I think that these historical ills kind of become baked into our bones and into our generational memory, and then it's kind of impossible to erase it, you know? And so we just have to live with it and figure out what that means for us.
Freeman: Hm. Among other things Tod alluded to, this is a book full of food and ritual, and there are moments of...I wouldn't say great happiness, but there are moments of joy and real communion in the middle of things getting progressively worse. Right as Grace finds out exactly what's happening with her family, she's sitting down with her uncle for food and the food is good. Are you saying something about the fact that all we have are these messy outcomes, but we do have these perhaps ennobling rituals to keep us together in spite of them?
Cha: Yeah, I think so, because I think where there is hope in this book, because I think it's not a particularly hopeful book, is that all these people that I've been talking about, kind of the families of victims of everywhere, people who have had horrible, unimaginable things happen to them, most of them are still alive, which means they're alive today, they were alive yesterday, they were alive the day before that, they were alive a year before that. And at some point, it becomes hard to imagine them being miserable every second of every day of their lives, right?
And I mean, we've had tragedies in my family. Actually, while I was writing Your House Will Pay, my 27-year-old cousin stuck up a drug house and got shot and killed. And I see my uncle and aunt and his sister all the time, and we don't talk about it every time. I kind of know that they're constantly in a state of...It's not like they've forgotten him, but they live their lives. His sister got married this year, we went to the wedding. And it's just the way that life moves on without these people being entirely forgotten, there's dignity and there's hope in that, and I think-
Freeman: Also comfort. There's a comfort in that dailiness that's in this book.
Cha: Yeah. And it's just normal people being together and kind of... One of the things that Shawn deals with in this book is that his nephew gets in a car crash, you know? Like a minor fender bender, and they go to aBurger King and talk it out. I think all these kind of big, catastrophic, headline-y things that happen are really short events within the spans of very long lives, and so I think one of the things I wanted to look at was like, okay, how do you... This is an impossible thing, this is a horrible thing, you can't accept this thing, and yet by living another day, you kind of do. You accept it, and you absorb it into your reality, and you just move on just by not being dead. And so that's kind of what I wanted to look at, that kind of rickety day by day. And I think there is some hope in that, just that all these people do find some kind of way.
Freeman: Mm-hmm. Well, it's a beautiful novel and a sort of dazzling act of temporal, structural storytelling. And I completely agree with Tod that it has written itself right into the canon. And I think talking to you is enlightening, but it's also sobering in the sense that I was hoping you were going to be saying, "I'm almost done," like in a sort of montage way, where it's like pulling the last page out of the typewriter.
Cha: Oh, gosh. I wish.
Freeman: It's somehow reassuring to realize how long a book of this quality takes, and I hope another one comes, because it is truly a remarkable book, and I'm so glad that you could join us in the middle of your busy life. And Tod, thank you for coming in. You can Kramer us anytime. I would love to see you in a variety of interesting shirts, with or without a cigar. And yeah, I guess David, now it's your turn to come back on. Daniel Olivas had a question which I thought was really interesting. He wanted to connect this back to the Watts events of the 1960s. I think that might have to be for another time, because it would take us into a whole other decade. But thank you, Steph, for joining us.
Cha: Oh, thank you. And on the Watts Rebellion, you all should read Nina Revoyr's novel Southland if you haven't.
Freeman: That was part of our book club.
Cha: Oh yeah, okay. Wonderful book.
Ulin: Well, thanks. That was a great discussion. It's nice to be onscreen with all of you right now. Thanks, John. Thanks, Tod, thanks, Steph. It's great to have not just my colleagues and writers I admire, but my friends here, and I'm delighted. I want to let you all know that this interview is recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com. I also want to let you all know that we will be back next week. Next week, I wish next week. We'll be back next month on Thursday, July 21st with Luis J. Rodriguez, discussing his memoir Always Running.
Another reminder about the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members at altaonline.com/tote, or, again, that $3 digital membership. Please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Stay safe, see y'all next month. Take care, happy reading.•