I first encountered the new novel by Ryan Gattis, “All Involved” (Ecco, 2015), when readers of the Guardian were discussing in an online forum whether the book should be nominated for the Man Booker Prize. (The book was favored by many for a nod, but ultimately did not end up on the list.)
My interest piqued, I submerged myself into a day back in the Los Angeles of 1992, when, after the acquittal of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who had been filmed on videotape beating the motorist Rodney King, the streets of L.A. erupted in violence, leading to six days of rioting. By the time the riots came to an end, some 2,300 people had been injured, 60 of them killed.
Ryan Gattis tells the story of the ’92 riots through the eyes of 17 individual characters, ranging from Chicano/a gang members to Los Angeles firefighters, Korean grocers to nurses working in the hospitals where the injured were brought for treatment. Each time he turns the narrative over to a new character, the reader is immersed in a worldview that feels fully lived in.
Such a project is not without its pitfalls. Gattis was a young teen in 1992, and experienced the riots through watching the news in his Colorado home. In this interview, Gattis talks about the glaring problem of being a white man writing from the hearts of characters with whom he does not share race, ethnicity or gender. Is this an act of appropriation? And how does he capture what it feels like to be stabbed, shot, dragged behind an automobile?
This interview was conducted in mid-August, over the telephone. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I remember the first 24 hours of the riots in L.A., thinking that we were watching class warfare finally break out in an American city. We were seeing the rise of the working classes and the lower classes revolting against this system they were trapped in, and in 24 hours the discourse very quickly turned into that this was a race riot. Did your perceptions about what the riots were about change significantly as you did this research?
I couldn’t help but be dependent upon the coverage and the way that it was framed, and to actually have that balanced by people who had had a pretty direct experience of it, primarily firefighters as well as gang members, former gang members, it was just one eye-opening moment after another.
I won’t say as if I felt I ever understood the riots, but I definitely didn’t anticipate that it was as broad and strange as I ultimately found them to be.
And I think, and this might sound ridiculous, forgive me, coming from someone who essentially wrote a book about those six days, and [who wrote] 17 different characters, I don’t think there’s any way to really know what exactly happened. I mean, L.A. County is just too big. It’s almost 5,000 square miles. And the rioting area is over 100 square miles, which is, you know I think the Watts Riots—which we’re right on the anniversary, the 50th I believe—I may very well be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that was an 18-block radius.
It’s very difficult to have a concept of just how big and broad [the ’92 riots were].
Even in the book, you have done such a fantastic job of, on one hand, bringing clarity by bringing us inside the heads of these various characters. But at the end of the book, I certainly did not have a clear sense of what those riots had been about, because it seemed to me that there were 17 different interpretations.
Sure. And you know, add that to the other millions of people who were living there at the time.
The only thing I tried to do was look at the different facets of it, and I tried to explore the different facets through each character. Obviously, a few of those facets were pretty close to one another, you know, especially the young men and women who are caught up in the gang life, but I found that the more time I spent there … I was just astounded at the things I didn’t know.
First and foremost, the Lynwood Vikings, an actual gang in the sheriff’s department?
You know, when I first heard it, I was full of disbelief. I think I even said to the person who had told me about it, "That that can’t be real. That can’t be true." And I remember him looking me dead in the eyes and saying, "You know, go read the L.A. Times." And he got up and he left. And I went home and I went through the L.A. Times archive that night, and I just found, just shocking thing after shocking thing, and the ways in which they deliberately participated in racially motivated hostility…
Could you talk a little bit about that? Because I’m sure a lot of people are not familiar with the actual gang that you’re talking about.
Sure. Well, the Lynwood Vikings no longer exist. However, they’ve left quite a strong legacy in L.A. It was essentially a group of men who worked in law enforcement, employed by the sheriff’s department, who had a secret gang, and that was used in many ways to gain access to the higher reaches, so to speak, and at the same time, they also, because of their loyalty to the gang, didn’t have law and order in mind. They had their own agenda. As a result, they participated in a number of shootings, a number of attacks on citizens.
There was a U.S. federal judge, when he was reviewing everything put in front of him, and he was basically levying a judgment against the county of L.A., because of what the Vikings had been up to, and he called them a neo-Nazi white supremacist gang.
And that was right within law enforcement?
And that was inside law enforcement. So you know, I think in L.A., it's safe to say that over the years, there’s been a fairly tenuous relationship with law enforcement. Especially in communities of color, there have been some pretty underhanded and scary tactics used, which to a certain extent are pretty understandable because, again, L.A. is so big, and there are so few law enforcement officers … In ’92, there were only 7,900 law enforcement officers and there were over 100,000 gang members. That is such a gulf. It’s such a disparity. I understand why some of these tactics are used when they feel like they can’t cover a given area, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
When I finally found out about the Vikings, I was hard-pressed to think of anything scarier than trying—it’s hard enough to trust law enforcement, but to not know who might be gang member on top that? But, just hiding it, hiding behind a badge: You don’t know what they’re doing, or what they might do, or how they might try to railroad you into a number of things. That was the thing that really opened me up in terms of having compassion and seeing the humanity of the people I was speaking to.
I don’t have to tell you, that for a white male writer to take on writing about characters of other ethnicities and other gender, there’s a lot of conflict in literary circles about how to approach doing this without appropriating someone’s identity.
How did you write about Chicano men and women without feeling like you were the white writer imposing your meaning onto them?
That’s an important question, but it’s a tough question. I think it’s still one I’m trying to figure out, and I certainly think it’s one we’re trying to figure out as a culture, as we move forward, but I think for me it was all about the starting point.
You know, I came at it with respect. You have got to start with respect. And that started, obviously, with the people I met, but I think it’s also because I respect the culture. I mean, living in L.A.—at least where I live, and unfortunately I can’t tell you where I live — at least for me, Chicano culture is a dominant culture. And I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for it, and more than anything I just wanted to make it clear, as I sat down with people, that it’s not about me taking a guise, it’s about me using fiction to get to at least the heart of what I thought that era was, that time was.
And I think one of the things that came up time and again, certainly with the former gang members, is I had to make it clear to them that I’m a survivor of physical violence. And, I get it. I understand that [experience]. I know what it’s like to spend time in a hospital bed. I know what it’s like to have multiple surgeries, I know what it’s like to kind of try to heal from that.
Can you talk about how your experience of violence was a way to get into not only being able to talk to former gang members, but also to your own understanding of what violence does and how it changes you?
I always push myself to, as realistically and as precisely as I can, make it clear how it feels. In one particular case, I was sitting across from a man with a fairly sizeable scar, and it was immediately obvious that [the scar] told a story.
It made it clear that there was a story there, and he deeply understood physical violence — the cost of it. And so at some point during our conversation, I knew I needed to tell him what happened to me.
And I told him I was 17 years old. I was standing at the back of my student council class; to my right is an offensive lineman from the football team who’s tripping on acid at the time, and to my left is a young woman that I much preferred to talk to. He asked me if I wanted to "play fight." I said, "No." And I turned toward her, away from him and toward her, and I didn’t see the elbow. I just saw a flash of black, and, something popped in my head, and my ears rang, and then I just went on autopilot.
I started walking up this aisle in front of me, and I just had this moment of looking down at my soccer warm-up, the white triangle in the middle of my chest and it had specks of blood all over it, explosive shot of blood down me … and I just remember looking at it — and I had been doing my own laundry since I was 12 — I look at it and think, oh man, that’s never going to come out.
That was really my first experience with the banality of shock. That it’s just strange and silly small things, in the heart of an emergency, or bad situation, that’s what you think of.
I went to a relatively diverse school. And I saw, in general — well, the white students in the class were not helping me. And the Homecoming Queen, who was Chicana, she leapt over a table like it was the hood of the General Lee in the “Dukes of Hazzard.” And she had her hands out, and I asked her about it a year later, I said, "Why did you do that? Why did you have your hands out?" And this was right when the blood was just fountaining out of me. She said very quietly and not looking me in the eyes, "I honestly thought your nose was going to fall off of your face…"
At that point the star running back on our football team, a young African-American guy, he dashed to the restroom. He couldn’t get the towel dispenser to give him enough towels, so he actually ripped the front of it off. And he brought all the towels to me.
I walked up three flights of stairs, and I looked in the only mirror we had and I saw that my nose had been torn completely out of my face, really.
And I certainly didn’t know the road I had to getting to this place now, [to where] when people meet me they can’t tell. As a result, I’m this person with a tremendous amount of scar tissue on the inside, but to the guy I’m sitting across from, he had to wear it. And people knew or were repulsed or scared just by seeing that on him.
And all I wanted to do was share my story with him and build a bridge.
I learned what I learned and I’m from where I’m from and I write how I write, but I think telling my story to people definitely, you know, lessened the importance of ethnicity or where we were from, and it strengthened the ways in which we saw each other.
I just didn’t expect to find such a strong bond with people who I thought were so different from me.
But to find that—almost to a person, they had really strong and difficult experiences with physical violence—and as a result it tied us together. I think it built trust and, to a certain degree, acceptance and respect.
I don’t know what your experience as a writer has been this summer, but I think the thing that has distressed me more than anything [when I’ve been reading], is when writers of color have made themselves vulnerable and have talked about how [racism and police brutality] feels and those essays have been published in places that you trust to have some sense of intelligent readers, like the New York Times or the Guardian, and what you get are a lot of angry white responses basically telling people that their feelings are not legitimate.
And the fact that you’re talking about how feelings allowed you to get in this door and break down these walls is really inspiring for me, because maybe we are going to get to a point where we can listen to others talk about their feelings and find it as a way in.
I hope so too very, very much. It was honestly the most unexpected thing for me. To think that making myself vulnerable and sharing what I had been through would actually be something that they’d take and trust and respect with some of the most dangerous people I had ever met. That is the last thing I thought. My initial response, whether it’s based in societal thoughts or not, is to protect myself, to hide.
Be the tough guy…
I was told by someone: "Look, the only way to stay safe is to be honest. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, and don’t hope to be someone you’re not. If you walk in a door and someone gives you shit for being white, just say, ‘Yeah, I am'. And that’s that. And then you talk about something else."
Because that’s what you can see, you can’t always see the spirit of a person. You can’t always understand what they’ve been through just by looking at them. You have to sit down, you have to see them and you have to allow yourself to be seen and I think—I’m with you, I think we need more voices; we need more bravery in terms of discussing it.
These things can’t stay hidden anymore. And that’s, in a way, the beauty of where we are right now. You know, the Rodney King incident was terrifying and crazy to a lot of people in America mainly because camcorders had just only recently become commercially available, and George Holliday is filming what’s happening, and then people are seeing it for the first time: "Oh my gosh! This exists!"
All of a sudden we have proof, you know? The black community knows it [already], the Latino community knows it, in fact when I went out and talked to people I heard again and again and again that every neighborhood had a Rodney King. Every single one.
The more research I did, I realized, the African American community was far more deeply wounded by what happened to Natasha Harlins, and the absolute lack of justice in that case, then they were about Rodney King. But again, it was just one more thing, just one more thing, that…It was just so disheartening.
And, I don’t know. I think where we are now, it’s going to take more open-heartedness, more open-mindedness, especially in the face of people who are going to hide behind a computer screen and throw whatever out there that they want to throw out there because it’s safe. Again, though, that’s hiding. That’s hiding. Someone is out there saying this is real for me. This is what I’ve been through — there’s nothing that can discount that. There just isn’t. There’s a purity to authenticity.