At just 27, Steph Cha releases her first novel, an edgy mystery that repurposes a traditionally misogynistic genre.
Story by CHELSEA HAWKINS
Originally published in KoreAm Journal April 2013.
Juniper Song refuses to be anyone’s smoky-eyed dream girl—and thank goodness for that.
The protagonist of first-time author Steph Cha’s novel, Follow Her Home, is breaking every trope of the noir genre. The plot follows Song, a 20-something Korean American wannabe-detective, as she sleuths around Los Angeles, after her friend Luke suspects his father is having an affair. But when Song finds a dead body stuffed into her car trunk, she realizes she’s quickly spiraling into a seedy urban underbelly.
“I wanted [the story] to be one where it wasn’t just an Asian sidekick. I have a white male sidekick,” Cha says matterof-factly, as we sit in a dimly lit Koreatown café. It seems fitting to be discussing noir in the middle of L.A.—with the backdrop of city bustle and warm sunshine, as we’re cloistered inside, sipping coffee in a dark corner, the sounds of jazz horns playing.
Cha was largely inspired by the canonical works of hardboiled detective fiction, particularly those of Raymond Chandler, creator of the fictional private eye Philip Marlowe, and author of books like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. It’s no surprise then to find Song herself is an ardent Chandler fan, referencing the iconic writer throughout the novel.
But Song’s creator always thought the stories of Marlowe were missing one vital component: diversity. The Los Angeles of 1940 is a far cry from the multiethnic 21st-century city.
“[Chandler] was great, but his work always featured a femme fatale—an evil woman—and … there were just little shots of masculine homophobia and casual racism all over his work,” says Cha. “He was such a great writer, and he had such a great vision, but … I wondered what it would look like if someone were to write a Chandler-esque novel in Los Angeles from a female point of view.”
Follow Her Home’s strength is in the creation of a relatable, dynamic, modern protagonist; as we follow Song throughout the city, we learn of her emotionally intimate relationships with her sister and mother, and of a deeply painful secret from her past. Song’s Koreanness is second to her humanity.
The fact that the character is Korean American, Cha explains, shapes her worldview, but it isn’t the only thing she’s about.
“I really wanted to write a Korean American novel that wasn’t an identity novel,” Cha says. “By that, I mean I wanted to write from a perspective that is firmly Korean American because that’s what I experience every day, but I didn’t want it to be about being Korean American.
Cha has penned a well-written, atmospheric text. But Follow Her Home is also a gritty tale that serves up social commentary on cultural fetishization.
“Living in L.A. and going to Stanford and studying Japanese, you just meet a lot of people that are interested in Asian women because they’re Asian,” says Cha, who studied English Literature and East Asian Studies as an undergraduate at Stanford. “I always thought that was really … reductive. There are all these archetypes of the Asian woman being this quiet, submissive [person]. I wanted to write female Asian characters that were three- dimensional, and I wanted to make sure that I addressed this idea of Orientalization of … Asian women by men in power.”
Noir, which has arguably clung to gender-binaries and racial stereotyping, may seem like an odd genre to call out the eroticization of “foreign women.” But Cha notes that the world of “traditional” noir is imploding; what we expect or know of the detective fiction formula is going out the window.
“Female noir is having a resurgence,” the author says. Over the last five years, as Cha worked on her novel, she met with numerous up-and-coming female authors in the otherwise male-dominated genre. “It’s cool because it’s a repurposing of a traditionally misogynistic genre. I’m happy to be publishing against that background.”
A Los Angeles native herself, Cha grew up in the San Fernando Valley and spent her early 20s haunting Koreatown late-night staples like Le Cercle; she knows the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of L.A., and wanted to bring them to life in her novel.
While Cha was writing Follow Her Home, she would go on frequent drives in the city to get a feel for the lay of the land. Nearly every location and every street mentioned in the book exists, with the exception of a fictionalized hostess club.
“It was important to me that this exists in a Los Angeles you can map out,” she says. “One of my favorite things about Chandler is that he evokes Los Angeles in a very real way, and you have a great sense of his geography, and he covers a lot of ground.”
Juniper Song’s Los Angeles, and the mystery that begins to unravel have been “five years in the making.” But after a long process of editing and revising, Follow Her Home will finally be filling shelves April 16.
“It’s funny—it’s a novel I started when I was 22. I did most of the work on it between 22 and 24,” says Cha, now 27. “When I started writing it, Song was older than me, and I saw her as this mature person, and now she’s younger than me.”
Steph Cha’s LIST OF 5 MUST-READ CRIME NOVELS by Female Authors
Hell or High Water
“Hell or High Water is a twisty, uncomfortable noir about sexual violence and its legacies, set in post-Katrina New Orleans.”
Summer of the Big Bachi
“Summer of the Big Bachi is a dread-woven mystery about a 69-year-old American-born Hiroshima survivor who is forced to reckon with the secrets of his past.”
The Cutting Season
“The best mysteries use crime to highlight large, difficult themes and histories, and The Cutting Season takes on slavery and racial injustice in a big way.”
The End of the Wasp Season
“This is a dark, atmospheric Scottish crime novel that features Alex Morrow, a smart, hard-bitten police detective who happens to be very pregnant.”
“A Japanese American woman and an African American man uncover their family histories as they study a 30-year-old murder [case] that took place during the Watts Riots.”