In late spring 1992, Los Angeles seized and erupted. This time it wasn’t an earthquake or wildfire or landslide from flood—“natural disasters” that came with the Southern California turf, so to speak—but a “social disaster” that nobody could have foreseen.
It started on April 29, a few hours after three policemen were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. At the corner of Florence and Normandy in south Central Los Angeles, people drained into the streets, waving guns and bats in the air, and soon pummeling cars and their drivers. We watched it all unfold on TV, expecting at any moment for the LAPD, notorious for its efficiency and brutality, to quash the mayhem. But they never showed up. By the next morning, we discovered that their absence wasn’t an aberration or miscalculation: The police had deliberately stayed away and would stay away for the next two days.
A Free-For-All commenced. Random people set random buildings on fire with about as much leisure as farmers burning leaves out in the country. Gangs rolled up and down the streets with firearms leveled out the car windows (just like we’d see them do a year later in Mogadishu). Angelinos crashed through doors and windows emptying stores of everything but the shelving: TVs and crockpots and cameras were taken, as were six packs of beer and cartons of Top Ramen. Neighborhood stores to major retailers were ransacked, and the whole rainbow-coalition of colors was in on the act. When it was all said and done, what became known as the 1992 Los Angles Riots was the most destructive social rampage in American history.
I lived in the heart of Los Angeles then, in a district called Mid-Wilshire, and was about 100 pages into a semi-autobiographical novel set in LA when the riots broke out. My main character, a 20-something hipster, was suffering from vertigo—a clever metaphor, I thought, for what it was like to live in a city full of addling complexities and contradictions. But true to LA as the writing might have been, neither I nor the character I was drawing up was prepared for the social hurricane unfolding just outside my window.
I dropped my novel and tried to put into words what I was experiencing and witnessing. It was an anarchic and surreal William S. Burroughsish rush of writing, and I continued plugging away at it until the well after the riots had burnt out. When finally I caught my breath and picked up where I’d left off on the semi-autobiographical book, I realized that the LA my character inhabited had changed dramatically, and there was no way for me to continue. On the other hand, what I’d written about riots was too raw and disoriented to amount to anything. I shoved both writing projects deep into my desk, and tacked in a different direction.
Writers wisely advise other writers, “Don’t throw anything away. You may have reason to use it somewhere down the road.” It would be nearly 18 years down the road, though, before I’d pick those fragments up. Alone they didn’t work, but combined and refined I found that they provided a fertile basis for a novel about the riots. I say basis, because enough time had passed that I felt I owed it to myself and to the reader to reach a higher level of understanding than I had back then about what was at stake in the internal collapse of one of the world’s greatest cities. I didn’t want to write a work of “historical fiction,” but a work that could be used as a lens to look at contemporary society.
I also didn’t want to be bothered or influenced by what else had been written about the riots, especially fiction, so I did very little “research” in the course of writing the book. In fact, I’d very nearly finished before turning to see what my predecessors had done, only to find the answer was “not much,” at least in terms of novels that broached the subject matter head-on. (This dearth was confirmed in three retrospective of the literature of riots just before my book was published). I was surprised, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been, because what I discovered in writing was that the subject was full of landmines.
First, resurrecting a monumentally destructive event in the not-too-distant past risked disputing the memories of that event by people who had lived through it. Second, I couldn’t avoid, nor could I imagine, anyone avoiding setting in motion characters who, in registering the raw immediacy of the riot, spoke bluntly and even “offensively” about race. Following close on the heels of that challenge was the one of creating main characters and a narrator that could withstand the criticism of “privilege”; what authority could a white boy bring to a racially charged event that was incited by years of police brutality and abuse against its black citizens? My young, hip Angeleno, the one who had vertigo, would have withered under that criticism, and so I stumbled around this gargantuan issue for months until, by chance, I was telling Arno Yeretzian of Abril Bookstore in Glendale about the novel and he suggested, “Why not make the main character a Beirutsi?” The choice of brothers Eric and Adam Derderian, refugees of the Lebanese Civil War, gave me the cover I needed: Who could accuse boys who’d escaped the horrors of a civil war of being a part of the privileged class? I would also be a first (at least, as far as I knew) in literature—a Lebanese-American protagonist of Armenian descent. Indeed, in the wake of September 11, I decided to follow the direction the novel was taking me, and make nearly every character in the novel of Middle-Eastern heritage.
The choice of a Beirutsi for a main character gave me many other opportunities, and provided some uncanny parallels: Beirut, like Los Angeles, was a cosmopolitan city, home to multiple ethnicities; both cities unfolded along the water and were renowned for their beauty; and of course, one was torn asunder by a civil war, and now so was the other. So rich were the parallels, that the rapper Dr. Dre—I found out later—had beaten me to the punch: “(N)iggaz start to loot and police start to shoot / Lock it down at seven o’clock, then again it’s like Beirut.”