Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay takes a nuanced look at the difficulties of living in a world filled with intergenerational racist violence. It tells this story through the lives of two characters who come at the problem from opposite sides. Shawn is a black man still grieving the death of his sister Ava, who was shot by a Korean woman who believed Ava was trying to rob her store. Grace is a Korean-American teenager who has grown up unaware of that history. Her main worry as the book begins is her sister Miriam’s estrangement from her parents for reasons Miriam will not explain.
Grace and Shawn have never had any reason to know each other. But a new act of violence puts them in each other’s orbit while bringing the past — forgotten by some but never by others — back into the light.
With this story, Cha shows how the past remains with us, even when we choose to ignore it or are unaware of it. Grace doesn’t know anything about Ava’s death, for example, but the ramifications of it still touch her. She benefits from an injustice in the past without herself having committed that injustice. And Shawn suffers for it every day, although he hasn’t always handled his pain in the healthiest ways. It’s not easy to get past the past, and mistakes will happen, whether they come from wanting restitution or wanting absolution.
One of the things I loved about this book is how it manages to be big-hearted and grace-filled without getting soppy or treating forgiveness as an easy answer. This is not a book that pretends we can just hold hands and make things better. There are real injustices that require some kind of answer. But there’s also a sense here that resistance can be misdirected and the injustices compounded. When that happens, no progress can be made.
The book is not making an argument for non-violence exactly, but I think it is making an argument for thoughtfulness and care. It’s not a simple “both sides” argument where everyone can just stop fighting and call it peace. It this story, one side has done greater wrong and been supported by a system that refused to levy consequences. To decide to forget that and start fresh is itself an injustice. I like that the book doesn’t let its characters off easily, but it does offer hope, hope that comes with seeing people as individuals and recognizing the systemic wrongs that individuals get caught up in. It’s not tied up with a nice bow, but it is, ultimately, a hopeful book. I appreciate a hopeful book that doesn’t pretend that moving forward is easy.