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John Cho’s Novel About the Los Angeles Riots Goes Beyond “Koreans on the Rooftops”

Some of the most enduring images of the Los Angeles riots are the photos of armed Korean shopkeepers patrolling the rooftops of liquor stores and laundromats to deter rioters.

For some Korean Americans, these images inspire pride, and for others, shame. Actor John Cho, he told me, mostly felt panic and fear. Then 19 years old and a student at UC Berkeley, he could see how the images were interpreted and feared that they would arouse more hostility towards Koreans.

In his new young adult novel he wrote with Sara Suk, “Troublemaker,” his goal was to start with these photos and zoom out.

“We wanted to start from this stereotypical image of Koreans on the roofs. Our thought was, ‘What if we could humanize this person? What would that look like? »

Although written for a young adult audience, Cho’s novel is a heartfelt attempt to make sense of an event we are still trying to make sense of. This year is the 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, and while we’re still trying, I don’t think we fully understand what happened. In 2017, for the first time since the riots, a Loyola Marymount University poll found that 6 in 10 Angelenos polled thought another uprising was likely within the next five years.

Cho does not consider himself an expert author or historian on the subject. But now, at 49, he is also a father, struggling to find the words to explain an event his own parents always discussed in Korean in low voices behind cupped hands.

So last summer, as the George Floyd protests erupted and anti-Asian violence escalated, Cho decided to write a book about the Los Angeles riots. He describes it as the book he wished his youngster could read to him.

The novel follows a young Korean American boy named Jordan trying to reach his liquor store owner father the night the riots broke out. His goal is to deliver a gun he found at home to his father, so he can help protect the store. The narrative is set around the violent chaos of that night, but never within it, lowering the volume to focus on the relationship between Jordan and his father.

During his trip, Jordan meets a black neighbor who helps him bandage his cuts and a Mexican gardener who helps him take a ride. When he finally joins his father, they have a conversation that can only exist in fiction. It was a conversation that Cho and his father, a Korean American pastor in Glendale, had had in bits and pieces over the years, and Cho decided to fill in the blanks.

In it, Jordan’s father apologizes for calling it a disappointment and shares his concern that coming to America may not have been the best decision. He tells Jordan that he is tough on him because society won’t look out for Koreans. And he refuses the weapon, rejecting the idea that we must respond to violence with more violence.

“When I heard what happened to Latasha Harlins,” her father said, “I realized things weren’t different after all. People will make a lot of terrible choices in the name of protection.

When I read the book, I felt comforted by the idea of ​​a Korean-American merchant and war veteran who learned the futility of violence. I was deeply moved by the simple idea of ​​an immigrant father having a heart-to-heart conversation with his son.

Fiction can give us the conclusion that reality has not, especially around the events of 1992. In Cho’s story, different races can see past conflicts and help each other. The LA riots become a fable about the futility of violence. The scales of justice are rebalanced, families and neighborhoods come together instead of moving away. With this reinterpretation of the past, it becomes easier to imagine a better future.

Growing up in the aftermath of the riots, traumatized by the sight of emergency lights and sirens abandoning Koreatown, Cho’s parents taught him to be wary of the outside world. Expect disrespect, insults and injustice, and overcome them.

“It was, tighten your abs and prepare to get punched when we come out,” Cho told me in a previous episode of The Times’ Asian Enough podcast.

It was a childhood that left Cho feeling cynical and alienated. It taught him to be on his toes as an Asian American actor trying to navigate Hollywood racism and to keep a smile on his face as he clenched his fist in his pocket.

But that’s not what he wants his own son to learn, Cho said.

“I would have liked a book that spoke honestly to me about adult events,” Cho said. “My children are curious and we need to help them understand what is happening in their world. It’s a fantasy that we can compartmentalize these things.

If the riots had a major impact on his family, it was a sense of affirming one’s belonging rather than waiting to be rewarded, Cho said.

“There was this shift,” Cho said. “It was like, ‘We shed blood here, now this is our land too.'”

Los Angeles Times

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