By Collin Mitchell
Ripples from the past resurface in Steph Cha’s new novel, Your House Will Pay.
At the time of the writing of this review, veteran journalist K. Connie Kang had recently died after writing about the Korean community for the the Los Angeles Times. Kang gave voice to the Koreatown community affected by the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Journalists like Kang are burdened with adhering to the idea of truth, while the creative writer can entreat memory and personal experience in finding a truth that fits within the framework of their own grief. It’s these personal stories, the prejudiced tales told within families, that Steph Cha explores in her new novel, Your House Will Pay. Through the frame of early ‘90s race-tinged LA and our current grapple with race politics and police brutality, Cha ably depicts greater Los Angeles as it is: a melded body of bedroom communities, sun-bleached strip malls, and liquor stores threaded together by a dozen distinct cultures and a violent history. It’s in this context that the book examines the idea of transgressing the familial stories we think define us and finding a part of ourselves that can separate from the past. As one character observes: “This is when shit gets permanent. The choices you make are gonna stick, they’re going to follow you.”
Grace Park is the obedient daughter of Korean-American parents. When the book opens, she meets her relatively rebellious sister, Miriam, at a downtown vigil for Alfonso Curiel, a black teenager shot dead by police in his own backyard. It’s a rare night out for Grace; she’s usually working late at Woori Pharmacy, the family shingle, where she shares pharmacist duties with an old family friend. She’s aware that she’s lived a cloistered life, but unlike her sister, it hasn’t bothered her much. However, the fervor of the crowd and her own self-consciousness over her semi-formal attire make her reflect. Cha writes: “Miriam was right. It was wrong of Grace, selfish of her, to look away when there was so much injustice in the world. It had been too easy for her to feel nothing for Alfonso Curiel, to do nothing to honor his death. She had let herself luxuriate in apathy, her world separate from the real world.”
It’s ironic, considering the history between African Americans and Koreans in LA, that two young Korean women are protesting the death of a black teenager. But sentiments have changed between Grace and Miriam’s generation and that of their parents, and Cha uses this as a bridge between the Park family story and the Matthews’.
The outrage over Curiel’s death is not dissimilar to the anger over Ava Matthews (inspired by the real-life Latasha Harlins), a young black girl gunned down by a Korean shop owner in 1991. Ava’s younger brother, Shawn is now grown up and in his forties trying to live a clean life in the desert town of Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles. He’s content enough and tired of rehashing the death of his sister. Like Grace, he’s committed to family and since getting out of jail, he has been caring for the wife and kids of his cousin Ray. At the beginning of the book, Ray is fresh out of prison, eager to take back what’s his. “You should lock that down,” Ray tells Shawn of his girlfriend, Jazz. “Be the man of your own house.” It’s here, and in many instances throughout the book, where Cha acutely parses out deep issues between family members. She writes:
Shawn knew Ray loved him, but he also knew that his cousin would never forgive him for being there when he was gone. Ray had the stronger claim, and he let Shawn know it. It wasn’t fair, he told Shawn once, in his fury. It was the same whining complaint he’d lobbed at Shawn all through their childhood, whenever Aunt Sheila took Shawn’s side against him. She was Ray’s mom – why should he have to vie for her attention?
It’s these lingering sentiments and the things that are and are not talked about that swing this story into action. After Yvonne, Grace and Miriam’s mother, is shot in the pharmacy parking lot, the book takes on the rapid mystery plotting of Cha’s Juniper Song series, thrusting Grace into a greater awareness of her own—of all of our—misunderstanding of what justice is. Further into the book, a subplot concerning Miriam’s estrangement from her mother takes a philosophical bent, methodically scrutinizing the contrast of experience. It’s the first time we’ve seen Miriam let her guard down, and it’s for good reason: Cha’s controlled unspooling of mystery and story. It’s an effective exercise in lowering the finger-pointing over who’s wrong and who’s right while keeping the reader in the dark for as long as possible. In other words, it’s wholly satisfying and wholly entertaining.
Everyone—the police, Shawn, Grace’s parents, Miriam—all know something Grace doesn’t, yet despite the facts, no one believes the same thing. Her father, Paul, understands this to some degree. After Grace implores, “Just help me, Dad. Please. I want to understand,” he responds: “I know you do. But you can never understand.” For Paul, the stories relive the trauma, and no one, not even his daughter, can ever know how others see the world.
Your House Will Pay takes on the challenge of what many journalists like Kang must experience when developing stories that aim to present people as they are—not as we want them to be. Cha gives equal credence to two distinct families, exploring the lies and harsh truths they tell themselves in order to justify how they came to be. It’s a story about telling stories and why we tell them the way we do. In the end, the book asks at what point are we propelled to get involved? We have to listen, of course—understand “the issue” —but at some point we have to do something, no matter what it is we thought we believed.
Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.