Nisei Narratives

Photo by Leslie Barton

Living in L.A., it’s all too easy to burrow into one’s own little corner of urban reality, to forget the existence of the rest of the city, with its unfathomable differences. But sometimes those other L.A. realities are impossible to avoid. The other day, a Toyota cut me off during rush hour. A bleached-blond Latina was behind the wheel; a decal on her rear window declared “Made by Jap, Powered by Mexican.” I was left wondering, What essential part of the city’s ethnic narrative had I missed?

It was my luck, a few days later, to pick up a copy of Southland, Nina Revoyr’s second novel, a multigenerational story about a Japanese-American family struggling to make a life for themselves in Los Angeles. Revoyr, an L.A. native of Japanese and Polish descent, takes the reader on a journey into parts of the city we’ve seen depicted in fiction a hundred times before: West L.A., Watts, South-Central. But this is no tired noir, nor a clichéd tale of life in the hood. Instead, we follow a Japanese family caught in the middle of a series of wars — World War II, the L.A. war between black and white, black and brown, and, less well documented, between black and black. In each case, though the family was not at the heart of the dispute, they suffered as much as those who were.

Jackie Ishida is a law-school student born into privilege who’s as ignorant about this stuff as we are until she’s forced by her grandfather’s death and a long-ago multiple murder to delve into her family’s history. The secrets she unearths drive a narrative stocked with details — at turns fascinating and heartbreaking — about the lives of Japanese-Americans in L.A. during the second half of the 20th century. We learn, for example, of both the Japanese tradition of picking over the ashes of the dead with chopsticks and of the warehousing of Japanese-Americans in horse stables at a Santa Anita racetrack during World War II.

Southland (Akashic Books) zigzags across decades and sometimes tries to do too much. But Revoyr has a knack for getting into her characters’ heads, and this keeps the story moving. In the case of an addled old man named Kenji, a welcome sense of humor appears. This character, Revoyr tells us, “was closer to Jesus than most people, so when He advised him to take up bowling as a way to occupy his hands, Kenji went down to the Family Bowl that very day.”

Revoyr documents an essential part of L.A. history, capturing it on paper before it disappears, like the ashes of Jackie’s grandfather, in the wind.


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