Nina Revoyr's Southland Stakes Out a Different Los Angeles

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The literature of Los Angeles is written by outsiders.

By Raymond Chandler, for instance, of Illinois, by way of England. By John Fante, from Colorado. By Joan Didion, born in Sacramento.

And now, in the 21st century, by Nina Revoyr: born in Japan and raised in Wisconsin, before moving to L.A. at age nine.

It was in Wisconsin, though, around age seven, that Revoyr -- author of the novel Southland (Akashic), a Book Sense 76 pick for May/June -- first began to write, in order to create a fictional place in which to feel more at home.

"I didn't really fit in, where I was," Revoyr said of her central-Wisconsin childhood. "I'd moved to the States recently, I didn't speak great English" (Revoyr's mother was Japanese, her father Polish-American) "but perhaps most importantly ... I was the only non-white kid in the community where I was living. Faced some pretty intense lack of acceptance, and racism, in the neighborhood. Didn't have kids to play with, all that kind of stuff. So I basically started writing an alternate world for myself to move around in, just a place to exist and work things out.

"And in some ways, I think that the impetus that I had when I was eight is probably the same impetus I have now. Part of the reason I'm drawn to writing novels, as opposed to shorter pieces, is that I really like creating a completely alternative, different, more exciting life for myself."

Revoyr was encouraged in her childhood efforts by a couple of babysitters and "teacher-mentors" who instilled in her a love for books. "They were a complete godsend, in retrospect," said the 33-year-old author. "The fact that I had teachers and babysitters when I was six, seven, eight, nine, giving me books instead of toys, reading to me instead of watching TV with me, was incredibly influential."

At nine, Nina Revoyr moved to Los Angeles, where she spent her adolescence. There her writing and reading were further encouraged by "some amazing high-school English teachers, who just made it seem like there was no more important thing to do than write and reflect on the world around you."

Among Revoyr's favorite writers during her years at Culver City High School -- "a big, urban, larger-minority, not-very-well-off public school" -- were Harper Lee, John Knowles, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, and Shakespeare.

"One of the key things of books like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace that stuck with me," she said, "was the sense that there is responsibility in literature: that you should not just be writing for the fun of writing, but you should really be trying to influence the way that people live in the world."

Revoyr cites as a central event in her high-school education a class in American Civilization co-taught by her English and history teachers: "The whole premise was that while a particular time and place in history affects the literature that comes out of it, by the same token the literature that is created very much influences the time. That interconnectedness of the real world and art was something that has stayed with me. I've never seen any kind of artistic enterprise as being separate from everyday life; I see it as really trying to influence how people live that life."

Revoyr took this conviction with her to Yale, which recruited her out of Culver City High as a basketball player. "It never would have occurred to me to go to a school like that on my own," Revoyr said. "That was like a totally different world. People from my school did not leave California to go to [college]. Kind of the height of accomplishment would be to go to Berkeley, occasionally ... Stanford. When I started getting recruitment letters from Yale -- I thought that was pretty cool."

At Yale, Revoyr was an English major and also studied Japanese. After graduating, she taught English for two years in a rural mountain area of Japan, where her mother's family still lives. She worked for a Head Start agency in Los Angeles' Watts area for a year, then entered Cornell's MFA program, where she continued the fiction-writing she'd begun while in Japan.

"The faculty there (at Cornell) were great," Revoyr said. "Probably the most important thing that happened for me was that my first year, Dan McCall, who's a novelist, looked at a novella (I wrote when I was in Japan) and said, 'Why the hell isn't this a novel? Why did you stop at page 80?'

And kind of insisted that I keep working on it, and he was absolutely right."

That work became The Necessary Hunger, a well-received, "somewhat autobiographical" novel about two female high-school basketball players who fall in love, published by Simon and Schuster in 1997. Not long after, Revoyr returned to Los Angeles, where she has a fulltime job working for a nonprofit children's service and advocacy organization.

Writing on weekends and in whatever other hours she could find, Revoyr then wrote a second novel: Southland, a not-at-all-autobiographical work in which a female Japanese-American law student in 1994 L.A. probes into the killings of three African-American youths during the 1965 Watts riot.

Southland's narrative shifts back and forth in time, from the 1990s to the '60s, the '40s, the '30s, and the '50s, to tell a story of relationships that cross racial lines and span decades. Though Southland has some of the characteristics of a detective novel, Revoyr said: "I didn't really conceive of it as a mystery, although I'm delighted that people are embracing that aspect of it.... But this situation ... was the mechanism through which [the female character] was going to go back and discover all of these things about her and her family's past. What I was very intrigued by was ... what were the dynamics of the Crenshaw district, and interracial relations, and economics in Los Angeles that could have caused the riots to have happened in the first place.... The real revelation ... has to do with some of the relationships between the people in the past; that was always where I was trying to get to."

Revoyr has been especially gratified, she said, by the response of some who've come to her readings whose parents or grandparents were from L.A.'s Crenshaw district: "They've said, 'I remember this, I grew up there, and you got it right.'"

Such reactions encourage Revoyr, the outsider who became a "native" Angeleno, in her fictional chronology of the city she now calls home.

"I do feel like I'm trying to stake out a Los Angeles in writing that I think isn't depicted enough. Often there's the sense that any story about Los Angles has to involve Hollywood -- or that there is no history of the city. And I actually do think that we have a really fascinating history, but much of that is located in our neighborhoods, in our families. And it's not the stuff that necessarily makes the front pages of the newspaper." --Tom Nolan