Brutal scenes of racially-motivated violence are juxtaposed with beautiful moments of tenderness, passion, and humanity in Southland, Nina Revoyr’s second novel. Set in 1994 Los Angeles, but rife with flashbacks to the 1930s, 1940s, and especially the 1960s, she evokes an LA of neighborhood bbqs, corner markets, bowling alleys, and community centers. Japanese-American, African-American, European-American—they all live and work (and sometimes love) together, though not all the time and certainly not with equal access to resources and rights. Her accounts of the Japanese internments during World War II and the 1965 Watts riot—the events in Watts are the true centerpiece of the book—are written in a journalistic, matter of fact manner and serve to put the present day in perspective. With all this going on, a lesser author might lose track of the threads that hold it all together. Revoyr stays on track, telling a powerful story, full of poetic and at times gritty detail.
And it is in the detail that Revoyr excels. Whether it is a character’s beautiful, tapered fingers or the blood soaking a white shirt after a policeman’s beating, such details bring the narrative alive. Her research, both historical and personal, is meticulous, leading me to think Revoyr could write non-fiction with flair. However that form might suit her, novels allow her to reach an audience that doesn’t usually read non-fiction and reach them with a story that she clearly thinks should be told. It’s a personal story and also one of injustice and pain and denial of opportunity for people in a U.S. that proclaims itself the land of the free. Southland reminds us that we can’t run from our personal or cultural history and that, in case you forgot and despite what some seem to imply, the struggle against prejudice and injustice is not over.