Southlandby Nina Revoyr
Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon
Southland brings us a fascinating story of race, love, murder/i>/i>
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"[A]n absolutely compelling story of family and racial tragedy. Revoyr’s novel is honest in detailing southern California’s brutal history, and honorable in showing how families survived with love and tenacity and dignity."
Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon
Southland brings us a fascinating story of race, love, murder and history, against the backdrop of an ever-changing Los Angeles. A young Japanese-American woman, Jackie Ishida, is in her last semester of law school when her grandfather, Frank Sakai, dies unexpectedly. While trying to fulfill a request from his will, Jackie discovers that four African-American boys were killed in the store Frank owned during the Watts Riots of 1965. Along with James Lanier, a cousin of one of the victims, Jackie tries to piece together the story of the boys’ deaths. In the process, she unearths the long-held secrets of her family’s history.
Southland depicts a young woman in the process of learning that her own history has bestowed upon her a deep obligation to be engaged in the larger world. And in Frank Sakai and his African-American friends, it presents characters who find significant common ground in their struggles, but who also engage each other across groundshistorical and culturalthat are still very much in dispute.
Moving in and out of the pastfrom the internment camps of World War II, to the barley fields of the Crenshaw District in the 1930s, to the streets of Watts in the 1960s, to the night spots and garment factories of the 1990sSouthland weaves a tale of Los Angeles in all of its faces and forms.
Nina Revoyr is the author of The Necessary Hunger ("Irresistible."Time Magazine). She was born in Japan, raised in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and is of Japanese and Polish-American descent. She lives and works in Los -Angeles.
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Read an Excerpt
By Nina Revoyr
Akashic BooksISBN: 1-888451-41-6
Ten days after her grandfather died, Jackie Ishida pulled into the entrance of the Tara Estates, the apartment complex where he'd lived with her aunt and uncle. It was eleven a.m. on a Saturday, February, 1994. Normally at this time she'd be studying already - she was in her third year of law school at UCLA - but Lois had called the night before, voice rough with cigarettes and tears, and asked her to come over this morning. And since her aunt Lois was, hands down, her favorite person in the family, she'd decided that the library could wait. It was a beautiful day, she noticed, but Los Angeles always looked best in winter - free of smog, crisp and green, cradled by the mountains. She stared out the window at the snow-capped peaks and waited for the security guard to write her a guest pass, wondering, as always, why she had to complete this particular formality. The two shootings and numerous hold-ups that had scared the residents lately had all occurred within the Estates, not outside of them, so she didn't see why the guards were so concerned with visitors. Jackie, who'd grown up on the quiet, tree-lined streets of Torrance, could never get used to this haphazard clump of dingy, tan, threatening buildings. Some clever developer had named the complex after Scarlett O'Hara's plantation - which was, it turned out, not in Georgia at all, but instead had been built right there in Culver City, on the old RKO Studios lot just a mile away.
The security guard was a bulky young Latino man, and as he leaned down out of his parking hut, he stared at the pass he'd just filled out himself as if seeing for the first time what was written there.
"You're visiting Miss Sakai?" he asked, sitting back up in his chair. "Lois Sakai in 3B - Frank's daughter?"
"Yes," Jackie answered, holding her arm out the window. "I'm actually her niece. And his granddaughter."
"Aw, man," the guard said, clutching the pass. "Mr. Frank ... It's just ... See ... Aw, man."
And as she watched him, her hand still extended to receive the blue pass, she saw that he was struggling not to cry. His name tag read "Tony," and he was about twenty-five - Jackie's age - but suddenly he looked like a child. "Hey," she said. "Hey, are you all right?"
He nodded, and then pulled himself together, finally giving Jackie her pass. "I'm sorry. I mean, you're family. And Miss Sakai, too. I guess I have no right. But it was just a surprise is all, and Frank ..." He trailed off.
"It's OK," she reassured him again. "He had a good long life, you know? And we were all really lucky to have him."
Her words sounded empty and false to her, but they seemed to work for Tony. He nodded resolutely, gave his condolences, and then raised the gate so she could drive into the complex. And Jackie thought, not for the first time, that her ability to comfort people revealed a deficiency on her part, not a virtue. It is only those who aren't totally shattered by a loss who can comfort the others, who are. Lois, who'd stopped a mugging the previous fall by telling the three young would-be thieves that they were shaming their families; who'd once pulled a dying child out from under the wheel of a bus and held him while his mother fainted, had completely fallen apart at the death of her father. She'd collapsed in on herself - she wouldn't eat, would hardly talk, and she shivered no matter how warm it was. For the first time in her life, someone else - mostly Ted - had to watch after her and make sure she ate. All of this while Jackie made continual check-up phone calls, and while her mother Rose, Lois's sister, took care of all the funeral logistics.
Tony was right - her grandfather's death had been completely unexpected. At seventy-one, he'd still been in seemingly perfect health - he walked every day, ate lightly and well, and did repair jobs all over the neighborhood. With his tight, lean body, handsome grin, and just-graying hair, he'd looked twenty years younger than he was. The day he died, he walked a mile to an old widow's house to cut her overgrown front lawn. It was she who placed the call to 911 an hour later when she found him, laid flat out behind the idling mower.
Jackie parked her Accord in a visitor's spot, and then, sighing heavily, she walked up to her aunt's apartment, the last place she'd seen her grandfather alive. They had been close once, when she was much younger and had needed watching because her parents were so busy - her father practicing medicine and teaching at Cedars-Sinai; her mother going to medical school and then vanishing completely into her internship and residency. He'd lived in Gardena then, with her grandmother and sometimes Lois too, and Jackie had spent whole weeks with them when her parents were especially swamped. But then Jackie had gotten older, and her soft-spoken grandfather had been no competition for the excitements of the social world at school. He'd tried to stay involved in her life, right up until the end - he'd sent her clippings about women lawyers; he'd called her twice a month and pretended not to notice how she rushed him off the phone; he'd even sent her frequent e-mails on the computer her parents had bought him. But more often than not, Jackie hadn't answered, hadn't thanked him, hadn't noticed him much at all. By the time of his death she hardly knew him, and so her sense of loss now seemed shallow and unearned.
When Lois answered the door, she had the phone tucked between her shoulder and ear, and she was shaking out a section of the newspaper. She beckoned for Jackie to enter, which Jackie did, taking a seat on the couch. Lois held the paper in one hand now, and gestured as if whomever she was speaking to were standing right in front of her.
"You're being silly, Cal," she said. "If someone tells you she's prepared to spend a whole lot of money, it's not in your best interest to try and stop her." She paced silently for a moment, listening. Then, "Listen, don't mess with me. My dad just died, my cat has hyper-thyroid, and one of my students just got arrested for robbing a bank. If one more bad thing happens, I'm likely to snap. I'm a woman with nothing to lose."
Jackie was glad to hear her talk like this, even if her aunt's firm words were undercut by the fact that she was still in her blue plaid pajamas. Jackie had been worried about Lois these last ten days. Her aunt, a strong, brash, stout, stone lion of a woman, had been unusually subdued since Frank died. For the first time in years, she'd even taken time off from her job as head guidance counselor at Culver City High School. She'd lost weight, had to be forced to come to the phone, had been dazed and barely audible when she managed to speak at all. This return to her usual attitudinal self suggested that she was starting to recover.
"All right, then. Three o'clock." She hung up the phone. "Ted?" she called out in the direction of the kitchen. "We've got a date. Cal said three o'clock."
A vague sound of acknowledgment came from the kitchen. Ted was doing the dishes - Jackie heard the clinks of silver against stoneware, smelled the ghosts of burned eggs and onions - and she was sure he wasn't happy about it. "What's happening?" she asked, when her aunt turned toward her.
"We're getting out of here," Lois said. She pulled a cigarette out of a half-empty pack and lit it; she'd started smoking on the day of the funeral. "Ted and I are finally going to buy a house."
Watching her aunt cough a few times, lower the cigarette, and then take another pained drag, Jackie thought that maybe she wasn't improving after all. "A house?" she repeated, and then she noticed what her aunt had been holding - the real estate section, spotted with circles of red ink, question marks in blue, indecipherable notes in dark green. Lois had put the paper down on the coffee table and now her cat, Winston, jumped on top of it, circling and batting at the billowing corners.
"It's actually a great time to buy," Lois informed her, sitting in the armchair that was opposite the couch. "Prices have been plummeting because of the quake."
Jackie nodded. Not quite a month before, the Northridge earthquake had struck the city, destroying or damaging thousands of buildings, killing fifty-seven people, and terrifying everyone. Since then the aftershocks had been appearing like unwelcome guests, brazenly and when you least expected them. Frank, Lois told her later, had been oddly unperturbed by the quake, by the frequent aftershocks, as if he knew he wouldn't be taken by that catastrophe, but by one of a more personal variety. But Jackie wondered now if the heart attack hadn't been some delayed reaction to the trauma of the quake. The week before he died - just after the buildings on campus had been declared safe and classes had started up again - she'd come home to find her floor soaked, her carp wide-eyed and lifeless at the bottom of the empty aquarium. The tank's corner seam had been weakened by the quake; had finally given nine days after it. Maybe some seam in Frank's heart had been weakened as well, some internal fault line which waited two weeks, until the panic had lessened, to write its own smaller disaster.
"But isn't it kind of soon?" Jackie asked. She didn't press her on the rest of what she wondered, which was why they were doing this now. For six years, Lois, Ted, and her grandfather had lived in this small, cramped apartment, in this increasingly dangerous complex. It had never seemed strange that Frank had stayed here - when her grandmother died, it was a given that her grandfather would move in with Lois and not with Rose, even though the Ishidas had a huge place up in Ojai now, a four-bedroom house on a lovely five-acre lot. Lois was closer to Frank, always had been, and Rose had been closer to their mother. Now, with Frank gone, she and Ted would have more space - yet Jackie understood immediately why they had to leave. It was strange and awful to sit in this apartment, even for just a few minutes. She kept expecting her grandfather to enter the room, grinning when he saw her.
"I've just got to get out of here," Lois said, crushing out, to Jackie's relief, her half-smoked cigarette. Then suddenly Jackie was afraid that Lois, too, would leave her, move someplace where they couldn't see each other regularly. Her parents' departure she hadn't minded - they'd moved out of the house in Torrance and up to Ojai while she was going to school at Berkeley. And it was their absence, partly, that had made her spend more time with Lois when she moved back down to Los Angeles three years ago. That, and the fact that she liked her aunt - as opposed to how she felt about her parents, who were too much like herself. All of their major faults, all the things she'd spent her adolescence railing against their tension, their rigidity, their inability to deal with strong emotion - she'd inherited right along with her mother's thin nose and hazel, light-for-a-Japanese-girl's eyes; and to avoid the reflection, she saw them as little as possible. Lois, on the other hand, was easier to be around - more generous, more interesting, both more intense and also somehow more relaxed. And if Lois was going to leave now, she didn't know what she'd do. There'd be no one in her corner, no relief.
Lois seemed to sense Jackie's fear, and she reached out and patted her niece on the arm. "We're sticking close by, don't worry. Culver City or West L.A. I just don't want to be here anymore - I'll never get used to Dad not being around, and I don't really want to. I mean, the day he died, all I could think was that I had to hurry home from the hospital so I could make him dinner in time for him and Ted to go out bowling. He told me that morning that he wanted black bean chili, and I took the cans down out of the cupboard before I went to school. They were still sitting there on the counter when we got home." She began to tear up at this, and Jackie looked away. "And I keep missing the stupidest things," Lois continued. "I mean, like the toilet flushing at two in the morning. Or the coffee grinder waking me up at five."
"Every day, including Sunday. Drove me fucking crazy, to tell you the truth. But I think it was something left over from when he used to have the store. Even after all these years, he always lived like he had to be at work by six-thirty."
The store. It was one of the many parts of her family's past that Jackie's mother had never discussed. Before Jackie, before marriage, before medical school, Rose and the rest of the family had lived in the Crenshaw district, where Frank owned and managed a little corner market. Jackie didn't know very much about that era - just that they left sometime in the sixties, after the riots down in Watts. As for Crenshaw itself, Frank's boyhood home, she'd only driven through it - by mistake mostly, and once or twice on purpose, when she was trying to avoid the traffic on the freeway. It was pretty much a black ghetto, as far as she could tell - an image that had only been confirmed by the funeral.
The service was held in Culver City at her grandparents' church, which she Hadn't entered in six years, since her grandmother died. That funeral had been uneventful, attended mostly by family and a few long-time neighbors from Gardena. But when Jackie walked into the church for her grandfather's service, she was surprised to see that half the people in attendance were black. She was even more startled, and then slightly embarrassed, when, during the service, the black mourners - who were mostly clumped together on the right side of the room - began to answer the pastor, to shout "Amen" after each of his supplications. Jackie had only been to this church once or twice, but she was sure this call-and-response wasn't a usual part of the proceedings. She learned later that the one thing Lois had managed to do in the days after her father's death was to put a notice in The Sentinel, the local black newspaper. Lois still seemed attached to the old neighborhood, unlike Jackie's mother, who always grimaced when she spoke of it. And it was Lois, mostly, to whom the mourners expressed their condolences - although some of them smiled at Jackie, too, or spoke to her warmly, gestures of reflected sympathy she knew she didn't deserve. One thing they made her realize, though, and she was seeing it more and more: Frank had had an existence outside of her, outside of the whole family. All the strangers at the church knew Frank Sakai not as an aging old grandfather, but as an individual with a story, as a man.
Jackie was about to ask her aunt why Frank had given up the store when Ted Kanda appeared, his booming voice filling the room. "Hey, gorgeous," he said to Jackie. "What's cooking?"
"Breakfast was, I guess," Jackie replied.
Excerpted from Southland by Nina Revoyr Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Nina Revoyr was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a white American father, and grew up in Tokyo, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles. She is the author of three novels. Nina has been an Associate Faculty member at Antioch University, a Visiting Professor at Cornell University, and the Remsen Bird Visiting Writer at Occidental College. She has also worked for more than a decade in the fields of child welfare and public education. Nina lives in Los Angeles with her English Springer Spaniel, Russell.
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My wife ran across this novel in one of her Japanese language newspapers, and recommended it to me. Set in Los Angeles in the era between World War Two and the Watts riots of 1965, Nina Revoyr writes a gripping tale of racial hatred, suffering, denial and murder. When a young law student, Jackie Ishida goes through papers left by her grandfather Frank Sakai, she runs across a reference to the unsolved murder of four young black men who were found dead in her grandfather's store after the riots ended. Picking up the trail leads to a surprising revelation about who the killer is. I lived through the era that Ms. Revoyr writes about, and reading the novel brought back many important memories that stand as reminders about the work we have yet to do to make our country what it can be. We have come a long way since that era, but we have not finished the work that was begun so long ago. Kudos for Nina Revoyr for writing such a fine book. I look forward to more fine writing from her.
This book is absolutely a must read.
This is a generous, beautiful work of fiction that illuminates some of the ugliest moments in our American experience but also lends room for hope with rich characters that prove there is goodness in the human spirit. I have spent a lot of time in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, having made weekend trips there my entire life and attending USC, and then working in a Japanese restaurant in the area post-graduation. I loved that this book takes place in an area I have come to know so well. Being historical fiction and a murder mystery, this story manages to transcend even those labels. This book shook me to my core, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
This book will keep you guesing and the characters are well developed as well. A pleasant surprise - excellant book.
This one is tightly written and will hold your interest till the end. The characters are well developed and plausible. Highly recommended.