Review of Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay and Brenda Stevenson’s The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins
In the first months of 1992, I returned to my childhood home just north of Santa Barbara, California after finishing my undergrad in history. My time at home would be brief as by mid-summer I’d be moving down south to Los Angeles to start a doctoral program in U.S. history. It was only a couple weeks into my stay at home—that generally involved burrowing myself in books, talking politics with my Dad, or visiting old friends—when LA caught on fire. I mean really on fire. The city burned across long urban-wide blocks beginning on April 29.
Twin events catalyzed the conflagration: the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality trial and the murder of Latasha Harlins and the ensuing trial of her murderer, Soon Ja Du. The murder took place in Compton in mid-March when Harlins, a young black teen, was shot dead in the back of the head as she attempted to purchase a bottle of orange juice from Du, the middle-class Korean store owner. Du was sentenced to only probation, community service, and a fine, despite a jury finding her guilty of second-degree voluntary manslaughter.
Race relations between Blacks, Koreans, and the rest of the city were tense until it all spilled over into the LA uprisings when the city burned for six days straight. Buildings were set aflame, stores were looted, and the National Guard was called in to help restore the peace. I sat glued to the tv screen during the King police brutality trial and the aftermath when the city burned. In no way justified action, but absolutely understandable, given the context of those intense race relations.
These events form the backdrop for Steph Cha’s riveting fiction novel Your House Will Pay. The book is based on the 1991 Latasha Harlins murder and aftermath, though most of the book focuses on the next generation of the Korean family, the Parks, loosely based on Soon Ja Du. Because I wanted to fill in some of the gaps raised in Cha’s novel, I turned to UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson’s The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins.
The bulk of Your House Will Pay centers on the fictionalized Du family—renamed the Parks—a family who reshaped their lives some 20 years after the murder of Harlins-stand-in Ava Matthews, a 15-year-old Black girl. Jung Ja Han, the fictionalized version of Soon Ja Du, received no jail time for the shooting death of Matthews much like the actual sentencing of Du. In Cha’s book, the Han family flees Los Angeles for Granada Hills, a suburb in the San Fernando Valley, and renames themselves Park following the murder and trial. As the story unspools, the Parks have become thoroughly suburbanized—Jung Ja Han changes her name to Yvonne, and has given birth to two daughters, Grace a twenty-something pharmacist who resides at home blissfully ignorant of her mother’s former life, and Miriam, a writer and activist who has been made privy to the family secret and distances herself from her parents as a result. Meanwhile, Cha also introduces us to parallel characters in the Matthews family who, despite not becoming fractured like the Parks, have spiraled downward following the death of Ava.
The book is told through alternating narratives—the legacy of the Matthews family is told through Ava’s brother, Shawn, and the Parks, through Grace. The Korean characters in Cha’s book are expertly drawn as the parents shroud their past in secrecy, and Grace reflects a level of complexity as she struggles to be the “perfect” Korean daughter but is also highly ambivalent about her mother’s actions once she puts all the pieces together. The Parks are written with depth by Cha, as they cling to a Korean Presbyterian Church in the Valley and prepare Korean food regularly. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Matthews characters which are thinly drawn and read in fairly stereotypical fashion.
The Mathews family withstands the death of Ava, but not without some hard times as a few of the Matthews men, including Shawn and his cousin Ray, serve time behind bars. Yet some of the language choices and food options such as takeout fried chicken had a sort of stereotypical ring to them. The Matthews characters just did not seem as well-drawn as the richly characterized Parks. It does beg the question about writing what you know: Cha is Korean-American and everything about the Parks seemed authentically drawn but perhaps the lack of first-hand understanding about the Black Matthews family attributes to the flat characters. But, where Cha falls short in the novel, Stevenson hits a stride in her history of the Harlins’ case, Du trial, and the aftermath.
In The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins, Stevenson has an interesting lens of analysis as she intends to examine the racial and class backgrounds of the three major individuals—Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Judge Joyce Karlin, an upper middle-class white woman who presided over the case. The angle into the study is unique, though I was not entirely certain that arguing from a sociological perspective necessarily explains all three individuals actions fully. However, the strength of Stevenson’s study lies in two areas: the micro- and macro-level analyses offered as it relates to Latasha Harlins’ life and also the insight into the trial and sentencing of Du.
The Harlins family reflects a migration pattern similar to many African Americans in the west. The family moved from Alabama to East St. Louis, Missouri during the second wave of the Great Migration—the period of Black mass migration to the north due to racism of the Jim Crow South and the poor economic conditions in agriculture there—in 1940. Several decades later, the family uprooted itself and headed west to LA. And, for all of its promise of economic stability and freedom from violence and crime, the Harlins family experienced great hardships similar to their life in East St. Louis. This was, after all, the era of crack cocaine and deindustrialization. Still, the history that Stevenson paves typifies life in South Central circa late 1970s-1990s. We understand well how family dynamics play out in a single-parent, multi-generational household, as this sets the stage well for the murder and trial of Du.
The travesty in this case is that despite the jury finding Du guilty of second-degree voluntary manslaughter, Karlin’s own biases may have prevented her from meting out a sentence that fit the crime. Politics and economics may have played out in this case as then-Mayor Tom Bradley took a conservative, mediating position walking a fine line between the economic stronghold occupied by Korean businesses and the Black community of South Central-Compton. Stevenson concludes,
“Whether it was the actual details of People v. Du, especially the murder and light sentencing that caused protestors and rioters to attack Korean shops and their owners, or the recurring image of it in the media, the belief that a Korean shopkeeper had killed an unarmed black girl and was not sentenced time in prison for doing it was a tremendous spark on April 29, and over the next few days.”
Both of these books teach lessons about relationships between Black and Korean communities of Los Angeles. And, what, if anything has changed since the City of Angels went up in flames? Have relations stayed the same or improved? There had been a sense that Black lives did not matter since miscarriages of justice occurred in both the Harlins and the King cases which led to the Los Angeles uprisings in the first place. Since that time with the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, there has been a nationwide movement in protest of racially charged deaths and police brutality in the United States. Cha features some of the Black Lives Matter movement in some of the scenes in her novel.
To be fair, however, sparks of those movements were evident in the actions of Black leaders in Los Angeles who protested the Harlins case. Now, with the advent of smartphones and social media, the issue of police brutality and racially charged altercations do not remain in the shadows. And, in terms of relationships between Blacks and Koreans in LA, it seems that relations have improved since that fated week in 1992.
Your House Will Pay
By Steph Cha
320 pages. 2019.
The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots
By Brenda Stevenson
411 pages. 2013.