In college I was assigned to read Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight Los Angeles (1992). To say it is a book that has stuck with me would be an understatement. Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay (2019) reads as a companion piece, or perhaps a sequel, toggling between the early 1990s and the late 2010s to examine what happens when a racially-charged crime goes unpunished.
The protagonists are Shawn Matthews, a Black man whose sister‘s murder in the 90s by a Korean shop worker became a rallying cry for racial justice, and Grace Park, a Korean-American woman who belatedly discovers her family’s connection to this event. The book investigates the insufficiency of rhetoric about “moving on” without holding people responsible. The characters find themselves unable to escape the teenage Ava Matthews’ death 25 years after the fact because justice was not served and change did not happen. Yet Cha’s novel avoids binaries and instead explores the gray areas of these tragic events, from journalists accused by some of using Ava’s death for their own agenda to a woman trying to reconcile the brutality of a crime with the attentiveness and care of the person who committed it. Your House Will Pay is characterized by its sympathetic treatment of almost everyone caught up in what is ultimately revealed to be an act of revenge on Ava’s behalf.
Shawn Matthews in particular emerges over the course of the novel as quietly heroic in his quest of honoring his sister, caring for his family, and building a life of humble stability after gang involvement in his youth (for which he has been, predictably, harshly punished). When he finally rages against the unjust system that disregarded his sisters life and his own, it is a shining example of how fiction can often express more than statistics and facts. It is a passage I won’t soon forget.
This is an excellent book in its own right, but I found it particularly relevant and insightful after the protests in Summer 2020 and what I hope is an ongoing movement for racial justice in America.