Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Nina Revoyr brings us a compelling story of race, love, murder, and history against the backdrop of Los Angeles.

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Interview with Nina Revoyr by Raul Deznermio

What gave you the idea for this book?

There were two distinct seeds. The first was a story I heard in high school about a man who claimed to have killed some teenagers in the Watts riots. I heard this story from my history teacher, and what really struck me was that this man, my teacher’s acquaintance, actually bragged about these killings, and felt that he could do so with impunity. I don’t remember the details of the story; I don’t even know if it’s true. But the idea of this man has bothered me for years.

The second was a place called the Holiday Bowl, a bowling alley and coffee shop in the Crenshaw district. Although I’d spent a lot of time in the area, I never knew that it had once had a significant Japanese population until I went to the Holiday Bowl. The first time I walked in there, I couldn’t believe it. Elderly black people were eating with elderly Japanese people, arguing about the Dodgers and telling stories about the things they had done in their youth. And the menu reflected the customers—it had everything from hot links to yakitori to red beans and rice. I instantly fell in love with the place, and it piqued my curiosity about the neighborhood, about the people who lived there. I went back regularly over the next several years, but I knew from that first visit that I’d eventually write about the Bowl. Unfortunately, it’s about to be torn down now, despite community protests, in order to make room for a strip mall.

What interested you about the Crenshaw district?

The smorgasbord of people in the neighborhood. If you look at a yearbook from Dorsey High School from forty years ago, the racial mixture is amazing—there were a lot of white students back then, but also Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos.

I went to high school in the 1980s in Culver City, which is just over the hill. Culver City also was very diverse; my friends were African-American, Japanese, Jewish, Latino. Because we all hung out together and attended each other’s religious and cultural and sporting events, we thought we were progressive. But the people who grew up in the Crenshaw district were much more progressive—they were older, more original versions of my own friends and me. They too had developed friendships across racial times, but in times that were much more tenuous and risky. Unfortunately, that kind of racial mingling and relative peace is unusual, even today. Crenshaw had it early, from the 30s and 40s, and I was interested in what allowed that to happen.

Why was the Crenshaw district more racially mixed than other parts of LA?

That’s a good question, and I’m not sure there is one clear answer. Part of the reason is that Crenshaw was an outlying area, much more country than city. It’s only about six miles southwest of downtown, but that was a long way back then. In some neighborhoods, you didn’t have the restricted covenants you had in other parts of the city—Crenshaw was so far outside the downtown power structure that it took awhile for the laws to catch up. And maybe, as the area formed its own distinct identity, people developed a common stake in the neighborhood. I do think that this is part of why folks got along better—the neighborhood was theirs, and belonged to all of them.

This common stake may be part of the reason why Japanese-owned stores weren’t widely looted in the ’65 riots, while Korean stores got hit hard in ’92. Koreans storeowners—fairly or unfairly—were perceived as coming in from outside and profiting off of local residents. Japanese-Americans actually lived in the neighborhoods where their businesses were, and were part of the community. They were also subjected to much more blatant, widespread racism than Asian-Americans are today, and thus had more in common with blacks. World War II and the internment camps weren’t that far past, and Asians were still feeling the effects of racial covenants. The dynamics between blacks and Asians in the 50s and 60s were different, I think, than what they are today.

The Crenshaw district you describe in the 1990s seems pretty desolate. What happened to the neighborhood?

The same things that happened to other urban, minority neighborhoods. Factories closed down and moved elsewhere, and the departure of local industry translated into lost jobs and a damaged economy. Schools got overcrowded and run-down. The middle- class fled, and I mean the middle-class of all colors. Whites and Japanese-Americans left en masse. In the last ten years, a lot of well-off African-Americans have left LA County altogether, and moved east to Riverside or San Bernadino County. Crenshaw was also devastated by the ’92 unrest, and I’m not sure it’s ever really recovered. There are still some wealthy black neighborhoods, mainly up in Baldwin Hills and View Park. But most of those folks send their children to schools, private or public, outside of the neighborhood, and they spend their dollars elsewhere as well.

What has changed for Japanese-Americans between the time periods depicted in Southland (40s, 50s, 60s) and today?

Japanese-Americans, in general, are more a part of the mainstream than we were forty or fifty years ago. While racism certainly still exists, it’s less virulent and systemic than it was then. Japanese-Americans are more accepted and acceptable, and I think the efforts of men like Frank Sakai—men who fought in World War II—helped change the minds of the larger society. On the other hand, that acceptance has come at a cost. After the war and the internment, there was a willful attempt on the part of the Japanese-American community to distance itself from its past—both because of the shame people felt about being interned, and because they were trying so hard to prove they were loyal Americans that they cut themselves off from a lot of what marked them as Japanese. People stopped speaking Japanese, stopped eating Japanese food and participating in Japanese cultural events. They aligned themselves more with white mainstream society and distanced themselves from other minorities. The result is that a couple of generations down the line, you get people like Jackie Ishida, who are totally out of touch with their own histories—and, even more troubling, totally ignorant about the realities of present-day racial dynamics.

Is Jackie based on you? Is Southland autobiographical?

No. Jackie grew up in the suburbs, in a two-parent household, the daughter of two doctors. I was raised by a single parent who struggled to make ends meet, in a neighborhood where I heard gunshots on a regular basis. Jackie is modeled after some of the upper-middle-class Asian kids I met in college who seemed more interested in parties and high-class jobs than in social issues. Because of her limited life experience and disconnection from her past, she’s not very comfortable around Asians or other people of color. We’re pretty different. That said, however, I did give her some of my most irritating faults.

What does Jackie learn through the course of the novel?

On the most basic level, she learns the truth about her history—both in terms of her own particular family, and in terms of the larger Japanese-American community. Just as importantly, she learns that she can’t be a complete person until she understands and incorporates her family’s past. At the start of the book, she thinks she’s fine and together, but she’s not. There’s an emptiness, a disconnection, that comes from being sent out into the world without a real foundation, a real understanding of herself and her family. Her movements through the course of the book help her to forge those connections, to fill that emptiness she didn’t know was there.

Why is this story told through the eyes of a gay character? The novel seems to be concerned primarily with race, interracial dynamics, and history. Why throw sexuality into the mix?

Why not? Gay people also have histories, and racial identity issues, and issues of class and family. I don’t accept the notion that if a book is concerned with race or class, it can’t also have a character who’s gay. I think we’re past the time when having a gay or lesbian character means that the book has to be “about” sexuality. Look at a book like The Hours. That novel is about so many things—the importance of literature; the community of people that develops around art or writing; the way lives can turn upon whether someone seizes or doesn’t seize a particular moment. The Hours has gay characters, but homosexuality isn’t the “subject” of the book, and I find that tremendously encouraging. I’ve been told in connection with both my novels (The Necessary Hunger, 1997) that the reading public “wasn’t ready” for a book that explored larger sociopolitical issues through a protagonist who’s gay. But I don’t think that’s giving readers enough credit. Besides, if I, a gay writer, don’t push those kinds of boundaries, who will?

Frank Sakai, Jackie’s grandfather, is such a rich, complex character. James Lanier and Curtis Martindale are also vivid male characters, and you have another strong male character, Wendell (the protagonist’s father) in your first novel. How is it that you’re able to create such fully developed portraits of men?

I was raised by a single dad, and his father, my grandfather, was my idol. In my family, the men were the nurturers. It was my father who gave up his social life and compromised his career in order to be around to take care of me. It was my grandfather who had me tag along on everything he did and bragged about me endlessly to his friends. The women were the ones who left, who weren’t dependable, who chose their own fulfillment over being with the family. And that experience, that acceptance and safety in the company of men, certainly plays out in the male characters I create. So many of my women friends have had horrible, abusive relationships with their fathers, stepfathers, uncles, boyfriends. It’s been important to me to portray a different kind of guy—the kind who’s supportive and decent; the kind who makes mistakes and sometimes struggles, but always does the right thing in the end.

Your portrayal of the relationships between African-Americans and Asian-Americans is pretty hopeful. Yet race relations in LA and America in general are still touchy at best. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about people getting along across racial lines?

I’m generally optimistic, but progress is slow, and every step forward seems to be followed by a step back. After the ’92 unrest, there was a lot of dialogue between African-Americans and Korean-Americans, a lot of discussion in general, and that was positive. Now, of course, the main story in LA is the surge in the Latino immigrant population. This has had a huge impact on the region in general, and particularly in African-American neighborhoods. Many historically black areas, like Watts, are now predominantly Latino. There is enormous tension between the two groups, particularly around jobs and resources.

A lot of this demographic change plays out in politics. For example—when Antonio Villaraigosa ran for mayor in 2001, his campaign generated tremendous excitement, and energized whites, Asians, and younger African-Americans as well as Latinos. That’s progress. But then two groups who are not normally allies—conservative whites and middle-class blacks—banded together to keep him from winning. The thought of having a Latino for mayor was too frightening for both these groups, so they voted instead for an uninspiring white candidate. That fear was exploited by a horrific TV campaign that basically implied that Villaraigosa was a crackhead. It was blatant race-baiting, and it worked.

On the flip side, a Jewish lesbian defeated a Latino for a State Assembly seat in a district that is predominantly Latino. She had a lot of support from Latino unions because of her years of pro-labor activism on the City Council, and people saw past race, religion, and sexual orientation to vote for the better candidate. There are several other examples of blacks or Latinos being elected out of largely white districts; Asians being elected out of Latino districts, etc. So things are changing, but very slowly.

This novel is notably different from your first novel, The Necessary Hunger. What accounts for the difference?

Well, it’s different and it’s not. The second novel is much more complex in terms of structure, and in terms of all the different time periods. I wanted to challenge myself on both counts—to delve into history, and to try and construct a story that didn¹t play out in a traditional linear narrative. That said, however, there are also similarities. Certainly my concerns with race and family still exist in the second book. I think my love for Los Angeles is reflected in both novels. Also, there are some thematic similarities, particular in terms of what people do—or don’t do—when faced with key moments in their lives. Maybe most importantly, though, Southland, like The Necessary Hunger, is the story of people trying to forge connections with each other despite all the obstacles. It’s been talked about as a meditation on race, as a mystery, as a historical novel, but ultimately this novel is a love story.