Higher Ground

I surprised a younger co-worker a few years ago.

I don’t exactly remember what precisely we were talking about–it had to be a famous court case of some kind involving a teenager or someone in their early twenties, it may have been Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist–and I remarked that one of the things that always surprised me, and caught me off guard, about these kinds of cases was how the parents “will spend every cent they have defending that child, and will never consider, under any circumstance, that their child might actually be guilty.”

She looked at me in horror. “Why is that a surprise? My parents would.”

“Mine,” I replied, “wouldn’t. They also wouldn’t, under any circumstance, believe that I was innocent of any crime of which I might be falsely accused of committing. They would always, always, believe the police before they would believe me. They’d get me a lawyer but they would expect me to plead guilty.”

“Even if you were innocent?” The horrified look on her face was something I’ll probably never forget.

“They’d never believe I was innocent unless someone else confessed.”

I wrote about that in my journal at the time; I came across my documentation of the conversation recently when I was looking through my journals for something else (they really do come in handy; I am so fucking glad I started carrying them around and using them again, you really have no idea, Constant Reader!) and it made me smile. My parents have always believed in law and order, you see–despite almost regular evidence to the contrary, my parents believe all police officers are honest, upright, and do their jobs properly–and should always be believed. Certainly, they believed this when I was a child and it was something I was taught; it’s so ingrained into my psyche that the police are always in the right that evidence they aren’t quite so honest, to this day, is jarring; belief that the police protect and serve the public interest, and their commitment to justice is pure, is the foundational bedrock our entire civilization and country was built upon.

The truth is that reality is a lot more complicated than that.

your house will pay

“Well, this is it,” said Ava. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to find these fools.

Shawn gaped at the crowd gathered across the street. The movie wasn’t supposed to start for another hour and a half, but there had to be hundreds of people waiting outside the theater. It was dark already, too, hard to make out faces even with the neat row of lamps lining the sidewalk. Ava said Westwood was white people territory, but almost everyone here was black, a lot of them high school kids. They’d have to get closer to pick out Ray and his friends.

Ava grabbed Shawn’s hand as they crossed the street. He pulled back, thinking of all those older kids seeing him get dragged along by his sister. “Aw, Ave, I’m not a baby,” he said.

“Who said you were a baby? I just don’t want to lose you.”

They walked slowly down the sidewalk, starting from the box office, where the marquee overhead announced the showtimes for New Jack City. Shawn smiled. He’d been looking forward to this night all week. Everyone at school was talking about this movie, and he was going on opening night. It didn’t matter that Aunt Sheila had made Ray and Ava take him when they said they’d be watching White Fang. He was here now, sneaking into an R-rated movie, just like them.

Steph Cha’s latest novel, Your House Will Pay, drops this October, and if you’re smart, Constant Reader, you will preorder this book from your nearest retailer or wherever you get your books from immediately.

It is, simply put, quite extraordinary.

There are two central characters to the book, Grace Park, the daughter of Korean immigrants who works as a pharmacist in the family pharmacy, and Shawn Matthews, a middle-aged man of color who works as a mover, is married, and has a young daughter he adores. The two have no idea that they are connected in any way, but as the book progresses we find out that not only are they connected, they are connected in the most terrible of ways; connected through a horrific crime of violence from decades ago, in the early 1990’s, and the fallout from that terrible tragedy nearly thirty years ago is continuing to wreak havoc in the present day for these two characters, and their families.

The beauty of the book lies in how it’s told. Both point of view characters seem absolutely real and are completely distinct from each other; it’s not just a story about racial conflict and racial divides, but a melancholic examination of grief and trauma. By not choosing sides, Cha exposes both sides to her audience, and leaves the complicated nuances to her readers to sort. There are no easy answers in reality, and there are no easy answers in Cha’s novel, which makes it all the more heartbreakingly real, honest, and raw.

It’s also a searing picture of Los Angeles, a city riven by racial divides and strife, that has never worked out any of its own problems or made any effort to bring communities together. It’s also about grief, about dealing with your parents and your family as flawed adults–as well as loss; lost lives, lost potential, and the damage violence can do to its survivors, and how denial can also lead to not healing.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ve read some extraordinary work this year. I urge you to preorder it, Constant Reader–you won’t regret spending time with it.

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