Stay Free: Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
When we first meet forty-four-year-old Shawn Matthews in Steph Cha’s newest novel Your House Will Pay, he’s standing in a prison parking lot with what remains of his family, waiting to pick up his cousin Ray. The sun beats down on them, but they don’t retreat to the air-conditioned car out of respect for the gravity of the moment. Ray has been down for ten years. He’s free now. Everyone involved is filled with a mixture of optimism and dread. As a reader, you feel it, too.
It’s a tender scene. It’s also one I’m used to witnessing from afar in my real life. My wife is a prison psychologist. Occasionally, when I’ve dropped her off for work in the morning, I’ve seen some facsimile of this: a nervous, joyful family picking up their father/brother/son who suddenly has a new chance to rebuild his life. I feel optimistic for these men as they leave the prison. At least they have a family that cares enough, that has resources enough, to come pick them up.
When I catch the train out of San Luis Obispo, I often see California Department of Corrections vans dropping off men who’ve just been released from prison. These are the men who don’t have the family or resources. The faces change, but they share similarities: these men are usually discharged in black sweatpants, a plain white T-shirt, and a black hoodie. They always have a paper grocery bag full of whatever they’re taking out of prison with them. They’re almost always black.
These men look so full of hope that I get a little hopeful for them, too. Maybe this time, they’ll stay free. I’m silently rooting for them. I’m also trying not to think about how steeply the odds are stacked against them. Imagine being that black man, boarding a train in clothes that most people wouldn’t wear outside of their house. All of your belongings are in a paper bag. You don’t have much cash. In a few hours, you’ll be in Los Angeles, a town with lousy public transportation, a very large homeless population, and a police department that will forever see you as a suspect and an easy arrest. On top of that, you’re starting the journey in San Luis Obispo, a city that has five hundred and thirty-two black residents, just over one hundred and fifty black students enrolled in the state university in town (a full .7 percent of the overall student body), and about twelve hundred black people living in the prison that’s next door to the university. And this is a city that’s often cited as the happiest one in America. This is a state that’s supposed to be the most liberal, the most progressive, the least racist.
I see scenes like this play out often. Every time I do, I wonder if there are real ways to have a conversation about the racism inherent in a state, and nation, that disproportionately incarcerates black men. But also, more generally, I wonder how we might talk about race in a meaningful way.
Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay opens a door to this conversation. The story follows two protagonists, Shawn Matthews and Grace Park. Shawn is an ex-con, ex-Crip from South Central Los Angeles. After his own prison stint, he has his life on track. He works for a moving company. He lives with his long-term girlfriend and her three-year-old daughter. They have a good relationship. While he no longer has an immediate family, he’s close with his aunt (who raised him), and his niece and nephew. As his cousin Ray is released from prison, Shawn hopes to help him assimilate to life in Palmdale. Shawn also carries the weight of a heavy memory: His sister Ava was murdered when she was a teenager. The Korean-American shopkeeper who killed Ava was convicted of manslaughter but served no jail time. Because the case happened in the wake of the Rodney King beatings in 1991 and because Ava was black, her murder was a bit of a media sensation. In 2019, Shawn just wants to move on.
Grace Park, in the meantime, is living a sheltered life that revolves around her Korean-American community. She’s a pharmacist in her parents’ drug store. She lives with her parents in Granada Hills. Grace isn’t close with them, but she feels responsible for taking over their business and carrying on their legacy. In the meantime, her sister Miriam hasn’t spoken to her mother in two years. No one will tell Grace what their conflict is, so Grace is stuck in this world of secrets. When a violent crime strikes the Park family, the secrets start to leak out.
As one would expect in any novel with co-protagonists, Shawn and Grace are on separate courses steering toward each other. Through Shawn and Grace, Cha constructs a Los Angeles sharply different from most representations of the city. Beaches and palm trees are nowhere to be seen. Hollywood and the film industry are a vague presence on the outskirts. The white world that we’re so used to seeing in representations of LA is cast to the margins. Instead, we visit Los Angeles as most residents of the greater metropolitan area do: through diverse neighborhoods where clusters of immigrants, migrants, and marginalized people—many of whom are brown or black—struggle to get a foothold in the middle class. In the liminal spaces where these communities overlap, we see the regionally specific prejudices that develop. Cha unpacks the legacy of tensions between black people and Korean-Americans that traces back to the racial unrest of the early 1990s. Much of this tension is rooted in actual events. Even the murder of Ava is a recreation of the real-life murder of Latasha Harlins by the shopkeeper Soon Ja Du on March 16, 1991. Cha is faithful to what actually happened, right down to the shopkeeper’s manslaughter conviction coupled with no jail time.
Despite its roots in the early ‘90s, Your House Will Pay is a very contemporary novel. Everyone is online; Twitter shapes some of the characters’ actions. Grace goes viral at one point. Cops shoot unarmed black kids and the media moves on from each killing at the same rate that ESPN moves on from yesterday’s scores. It feels like the novel is taking place right now—and in a sense, it is. Most of the events occur between June and September of 2019, which would have been the future for Cha when she wrote the book (published in October 2019). This creates a sense of immediacy: the book’s conflicts can’t be dismissed as part of the past. The characters’ actions matter because they impact the world we live in right now. The issues matter because they’re issues we’ll face when we wake up tomorrow.
Many of these events are difficult to discuss in a review because each of the book’s four sections is based on a reveal. It is, after all, a crime novel. Instead, I’ll focus on a moment that demonstrates the novel’s richness: At one point, the Park family is in the news. Grace, who has built her life around anonymity, has no idea how to act under the spotlight. She’s harassed by a white activist who sees himself as a journalist. As she tries to escape, she slips and cuts her lip. In her anger, she lashes out at the activist. He films it. In her anger, she says something mildly racist. The video of her tantrum goes viral.
Cha presents the scene with a delicate touch. On the one hand, readers understand why Grace would lose her temper. She’s under undue stress. She’s a small woman being hounded by a large and threatening man. She’s confused about recent events in her life, and she’s being expected to process information way too quickly. As readers, we feel for her. At the same time, stress and confusion don’t make racist outbursts any less racist. Grace masochistically reads all of the social media reactions to her tantrum, and, as Cha writes:
For the first time in her twenty-seven years, Grace felt herself hated. Her whole body burned, her skin crawling with a hot itch she couldn’t scratch away. Hers was a modest existence—her social circle had always been comfortably small, her opinions vague, her presentation inoffensive.
Another way of framing Grace’s self-perception is this: she’s always been the model minority. By acting as such, she’s avoided much of the scrutiny and hatred that many brown people can’t avoid. At this moment, though, Grace is confronted with the fact that she’s still not a part of the dominant race in a racist society. She’s still other. She’s disobeyed the culture’s demands of her otherness, and now she’s being punished. Of course it’s confusing for her.
She turns to her sister, Miriam, for solace:
“Do you hate me, too, now?” [Grace] asked.
“Of course not.”
“But you think I’m a racist.”
“Grace, I think everyone’s a racist.”
In that simple reply, both Miriam and Cha shift the paradigm for how we need to talk about race in this country. It stands to reason that, if Miriam thinks everyone is a racist, she includes herself. What if we all started from this point? Instead of asking if anyone is a racist, we all admit that we all are. If you’re drinking in a dive bar at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, you’re an alcoholic; if you live in a country where, in the happiest city in the most progressive state, two out of every three black people are incarcerated, then you live in a racist country. Our culture is bigger than all of us. It’s the ideological air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. It shapes our views. So, as a member of this culture, is Grace a racist? Yes. Is Miriam a racist? Yes. Am I a racist? Yes. Are you?
And could we, by starting at this point, shift focus away from “racist” as an identity and instead examine the actions, the language, and the institutions that perpetuate racism? Could we move beyond judgment and into a place where real progress can happen?
When Grace goes viral, everyone in the novel is quick to judge her, to call her a racist, to attack her. In doing so, no one has to look inside himself or evaluate his culture very deeply. Instead, they can scapegoat Grace. This is something we do in real life all the time. We’re all a little thankful for knuckleheads like US Representative Steve “Since When Did White Supremacy Become a Bad Thing” King. His racism is so much worse than ours and his power so much greater than ours that we give ourselves a pass. For Miriam, though, no one gets a pass. More importantly, judgment isn’t so much the point. Racist actions must be redeemed.
And, really, redemption has to be the goal. In this sense, Cha taps into the Christian traditions of her characters. Your House Will Pay isn’t a religious novel. Sure, the characters attend church and one of the main characters is named Grace, but Grace is no medieval allegory. She doesn’t mimic God’s grace by learning to love those who deserve it the least. Catholic grace isn’t the goal, nor is vengeance—the primary idea from the Old Testament our society clings to. (What is our prison system but an act of vengeance?) Vengeance often creates an endless loop. But instead, after her racism goes viral and comes to define her, Grace seeks to redeem herself. She begins the process of understanding what beliefs she still holds that she needs to release. She allows herself to be imperfect. She starts down a path of action that allows her to be an imperfect person working for positive change.
And this is just one part of Your House Will Pay. The novel is by no means didactic. As I said, it’s a crime novel. Like all of Cha’s work, the novel starts with a slow burn and builds into a wildfire. By the time you get to the last hundred pages or so, there’s nothing to do but watch it burn down everything you thought you knew about Los Angeles. And, like the massive wildfires that have been burning through Southern California for the past few winters, you’re left with both devastation and the promise of new growth—with the drive to build something new and better.