On May 25, 2020, an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis. Bystander videos showed Floyd gasping for breath while a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes until he died. Widespread outrage over police brutality and nationwide protests against racial discrimination erupted across the United States, which have so far resulted in more than 10,000 arrests.
This incident has once again sparked debate about America’s long-standing history with frayed race relations. Your House Will Pay, by Korean-American novelist Steph Cha, is unwittingly relevant in 2020 as, even though it is based upon true events that took place two decades ago, recent news from America reflects how little progress the country has made with regards to curbing systemic racism.
This novel is not only an impeccably plotted, multi-layered thriller, but also shrewdly dissects the sensitive issue of the long-simmering tensions between the African-American and Korean-American communities. The story begins against the tense, charged background of Los Angeles in 1991, where black Americans are seething over blatant racial discrimination and the police’s unfair use of force.
The similarities between the real-life case at the centre of this novel and the recent one with George Floyd are uncanny. For those unaware, in 1991, four Los Angeles policemen were acquitted for savagely assaulting Rodney King, an African-American man. A bystander filmed the brutal incident, and the graphic video sparked widespread outrage among the African-American community. Fuelled by years of racial discrimination and inequality, the acquittal of the policemen — by a predominantly white jury — was the final tipping point, and culminated in five violence-filled days of rioting in Los Angeles. Sixty-three people lost their lives during these riots, which ignited conversations about systemic racism.
Cha’s novel is set against this backdrop, where LA of the ’90s is the tinderbox for angry protests. As the novel begins, we meet Shawn Matthews in present-day America, who is still haunted by the death of his teenage sister, Ava; she had been shot in front of him by a Korean shop owner named Jung-Ja Han two decades ago, during the 1991 LA riots. The shooting occurred over a misunderstanding that Ava was stealing from the shop. Jung-Ja Han was tried, but received no jail time and eventually relocated to another part of the city, changing her name to start a new, quiet life.
A story of two families divided by race but united by tragedy, that takes an unflinching look at the repercussions of racism in the United States
This premise is inspired by the real-life 1991 South Los Angeles slaying of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot by a Korean convenience store owner, Soon Ja Du, in an angry altercation over a bottle of orange juice, just two weeks after the police beating of Rodney King. Harlins was shot in the back of her head as she attempted to leave, as evidenced from the shop’s security camera. The shop owner pleaded self-defence; she was subsequently sentenced to only probation, community service and a $500 fine.
In the novel, one of Jung-Ja Han’s daughters, Grace Park, now works at the family’s pharmacy and has grown up unaware of her mother’s dark past. Meanwhile, her elder sister, Miriam, is estranged from the family because of reasons that are kept hidden from Grace.
Grace’s sedentary life starts to unravel after she witnesses her mother being fired upon in a drive-by shooting — an incident termed by many as vengeance. This leads her to uncover deep, buried secrets about her family and the ugly truth about why her sister chooses to keep her distance from their family.
The narrative follows how race politics play out in these events. For Jung-Ja Han, the shooting was justified, since her concern was that, at that time in LA, there was frequent news of Koreans getting robbed at gunpoint and murdered by gangsters. For her trial, she hires a silver-tongued black lawyer whom Grace knew her mother had paid “to stand in court, his black body forgiving her on behalf of his community.”
While the plotline is multi-pronged and the narration brisk, Cha does not shy away from taking frequent detours to keenly observe the nuances of complex, uncomfortable inter-race interactions. Miriam’s partner, for instance, is a screenwriter whom Grace deems as “the whitest male Hollywood had ever known.” In the opening scene of the book, Grace attends a memorial for Alfonso Curiel, a black high school student shot dead in his own backyard by a police officer. She finds herself being self-conscious and awkward amidst black people because of the strained racial legacy between Korean-Americans and African-Americans.
One of the highlights of this story for me is how objectively Cha takes apart the conflicting emotions — grief, revenge and vengeance — that both families go through and how ironic it is that they share so much of the same emotional experience which they are forced to demarcate because of their race.
Generational trauma, similarly, is emphatically illustrated in the narrative. Shawn looks at his young, ‘woke’ niece and nephew who attend his Aunt Sheila’s activism rallies, wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Aunt Sheila is a force of nature; she became an influential activist after Ava’s death and made it her life’s mission to not let her death go in vain. Now Shawn observes his niece and nephew’s second-hand anger with cool detachment and ruminates how “their anger was inherited, abstract and bearable”, which they could indulge in without getting hurt. They weren’t there when Ava died and could not possibly fathom how Aunt Sheila survived and powered through her pain, eventually learning she could trade this pain for attention “which at times felt almost like justice while being nothing like it at all.”
Cha tenderly explores the psychological and emotional toll that racial profiling and discrimination take on a person. Shawn is now a middle-aged man, but forever feels like a black child who had been publicly wronged and has now become an altar for well-meaning pilgrims, who want his grace in exchange for their patronage.
Your House Will Pay gives us an unflinching look at America’s fraught history with racism and the story explores how the destinies of two families intersect after one violent incident, with life-altering consequences. It is a remarkably insightful look into the nuances of race relations at a granular level for both, the individual and the society, which makes it essential reading for our times.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
Your House Will Pay
By Steph Cha
Faber and Faber, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 23rd, 2020