Racism’s Trauma Reverberates Across Generations in ‘Your House Will Pay’

Steph Cha's depiction of systematic racism in Your House Will Pay is compelling, attesting to the complicated social structures at play.

Your House Will Pay
Steph Cha
October 2019

The tension imbuing Steph Cha‘s Your House Will Pay is immediately recognizable. Jumping between the 1990s and 2019, the crime thriller exhibits Los Angeles’ longstanding racism and injustices.

Cha fictionalizes the 1991 killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, accused of shoplifting a jug of milk. The allegation escalated to her murder by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du. Occurring two weeks after the Rodney King beating, the events triggered widespread awareness to racial inequality: uprisings calling for justice ensued.

Cha’s narrative is then connected to the contemporary moment. She sets the scene in the aftermath of the killing of a young African-American man named Alfonso Curiel. Shawn Matthews, Harlins’ fictionalized cousin, lives with the trauma caused by witnessing her murder and the visibility of the frequent killings of African-Americans. Grace Park, the fictionalized daughter of the shop owner Jung-Ja Han, finds herself thrown into the middle of the two families’ conflict. Their antagonism represents the larger struggle between African-Americans and Korean-Americans in Los Angeles while symbolic of the oppression plaguing the United States.

The agitation is palpable throughout the novel. Undeniably Your House Will Pay is a clear meditation on modern racial discord.

Cha’s observations are shrewd, she adroitly captures the connection between race and the prison-industrial-complex. The African-American characters are constantly avoiding any risk as it would ultimately result in imprisonment. Many of the male characters have experienced incarceration, some serving long sentences for minor crimes. Shawn tries to steer the younger generation away from the pathway to prison. But he admits prison is unavoidable since the injustices are entrenched and accepted by dominant society.

The very real imbalance of African-American prisoners compared to prisoners of other races is personified by the Park family. Despite Han’s conviction, she sees no jail time. In one poignant scene, Grace is baffled by her parents’ defense of the LAPD and the police super-structure. Grace’s naïvety is annoying, but it’s a testament to Cha’s writing prowess. Grace realizes that despite their status as new Americans, Asian-Americans are given the opportunity to code “white” while African-Americans cannot. Cha’s criticism is poised: the law has always been on the Park’s side, they have no reason to fear the police as African-Americans do.

The juxtaposition of family dynamics is crucial to Cha’s plot. Shawn’s cousin Ray is reunited with his family after being incarcerated for ten years. Ray sees how his family has changed, he is essentially a stranger to his children but is also overjoyed to sit with them at a dinner table again. His homecoming is emblematic of the trauma caused by incarceration.

Whereas Ray was forcefully removed from his family, the Parks control their expulsion. After Han’s conviction, she disappears into the Korean diaspora, changing her name and vocation, essentially reestablishing her life unscathed. Her anonymity is a direct contrast to the racism Ray must live with. Grace is likewise trapped by cultural expectations but never experiences the same level of oppression as the African-American characters. She has significantly more agency and privilege. Cha acknowledges the challenges new Americans endure but she also articulates the strife is often reduced by a privilege determined by skin color.

Whereas the primary story line connecting the Matthews to the Parks is compelling, there are times when Cha attempts to illustrate too many critical issues. At one point, Grace attends church with her family. The chapter disavows organized religion but is unconnected to the narrative.

Similarly, Shawn’s nephew is lured into gang culture, a problem Cha identifies but fails to fully explore. Cha sees the tumult as informed by a myriad of cultural and political conditions and she’s right. However, in fiction, the inclusion of every major social schematic clutters the story without progressing the plot.

Cha is known for writing crime fiction, but Your House Will Pay is more akin to a fictionalized cultural criticism than a crime novel. Whereas the tension is stimulating, it isn’t due to mystery or uncertainty: the suspense is rendered by its authenticity. Cha doesn’t defy reality, and anyone who is aware of contemporary issues can predict the character arches. The red-herring is weak and cliffhangers cultivate unease.

The novel ends with the characters settling their difference by hugging. This only dismantles the personal story lines, thereby leaving the systematic inequality unchecked. This is Cha’s statement: racism is unresolved. But this comes off as heavy-handed and an underestimation of the reader’s intelligence.

The novel’s strength is in drawing a direct line from the 1990s Los Angeles uprising to the modern fight against racial injustice. Cha’s depiction of systematic racism is compelling, attesting to the complicated social structures at play. Your House Will Pay is a clear reminder that the trauma caused by racism reverberates across generations.