You’ve written a nonfiction book about gangs, Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, and now a novel about a gang called Skin of Tattoos. Girlfriend, what’s up with all the gang shit?
I first encountered gangs as a young newspaper reporter in New Jersey, USA, when I was assigned to write a story about a notorious motorcycle gang delivering Christmas toys to a local hospital. I went to interview them in a small suburban house, very normal-looking apart from the bunch of Harley choppers out front and its rather gloriously hirsute occupants, who insisted they belonged to a “club” not a gang. I was fascinated by them and their lifestyle. Years later, I interviewed gang members deported from Los Angeles to El Salvador, where they had landed like fish out of water because they’d left Salvador as babies and small children during the civil war. Some barely spoke Spanish. That was before gangs spread like a pandemic and really took control of northern Central America. Anyway, their stories resonated with me, and formed the genesis of Skin of Tattoos, which is about a Salvadoran family who fled one war zone only to arrive in Los Angeles and find themselves in another, which is basically what happened to thousands of refugees.
You’re a white, middle-class, middle-aged lady, so how the hell did you write so convincingly about this whole other world?
Research. Much of it was done in the context of my job as a journalist. I was able to interview gang members, their girlfriends and parents, prison inmates, as well as numerous sociologists and other experts who study gangs, and police officers who work in gang units. I also read a heap of books about gangs, including memoirs by gang members, who tend to write their stories whilst they’re incarcerated, and others who work with gangs, ranging from priests to anthropologists. I also had the benefit of co-authoring a book on gang intervention – that’s the Peace in the Hood book you mentioned. Before you ask, gang intervention is about taking former gang members and training them to be street peacekeepers, to interrupt the cycle of retaliation that drives gang violence. My co-author is a former Black Panther who’s been working with gangs in South L.A. since the seventies. I’m proud to say the book is being used a textbook for various courses at the University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Hmm, do you think we can ever get rid of gangs?
As long as we have economic inequality and discrimination in societies, gangs will exist. You don’t see middle-class kids joining gangs, for the most part, or middle-class neighbourhoods being claimed as gang turf. The key element that fuels gang formation and membership is the perception in disenfranchised sectors of society that gangs offer more opportunity – money and status - than conventionally accepted paths in life. It’s worth mentioning that not all kids in these neighbourhoods join gangs. In fact, most don’t. Gangs particularly appeal to youths who have little family stability. The gang becomes their surrogate family; it gives meaning to their lives. One interesting thing I found in Los Angeles, where gangs really took hold in the 1970s and are now in their third generation, is that gang affiliation runs in families and is a source of pride, even among former gang members! The real way to combat gangs is improving access to education and jobs in disadvantaged areas because that diminishes the need for belonging to a gang and resorting to a life that ends in death, prison or the hospital.
This is starting to sound way too much like some stodgy BBC interview.
Well, you did ask.
I have a recently released YA suspense novel called Girl on the Brink. It’s sort of a romantic thriller, but it’s got an important social message. It chronicles a teenager’s abusive relationship and her recovery from it.
Crikey, you’re really into these cheery themes, aren’t you?
I’ll put it down to my background as a journalist. I’ve spent years, decades, actually, writing about the problems of the world.
It certainly shows. I’m starting to crave a Xanax talking to you.
I really don’t want to drive you to pills. Do you want me just to tell you some of my favourite crime novels?
One is Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the story of a Mexican woman who ends up running a drug empire in Spain. It was really before its time, before all the cartel violence in Mexico, another favourite theme of mine. Okay, okay, I won’t go there. Anyway, I couldn’t put it down. Another is Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, an Australian classic first published in 1881 about bushrangers and cattle rustlers in western New South Wales. Loved it. My favourite fictional detective, by the way, is Australian, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, a half-Aborigine who solves crimes in the western Queensland. Arthur Upfield wrote the books in the early 20th century.
Two from Down Under? What gives?
I was born in New Zealand, grew up in Sydney.
And now you live in Los Angeles? Wait, I’m not even going to ask that one.
I was hoping you wouldn’t.
Christina Hoag is the author of Skin of Tattoos, a literary thriller set in L.A.’s gang underworld (Martin Brown Publishers, August 2016) and Girl on the Brink, a romantic thriller for young adults (Fire and Ice YA/Melange Books, August 2016). She is a former reporter for the Associated Press and Miami Herald and worked as a correspondent in Latin America writing for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the co-author of Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, a groundbreaking book on gang intervention (Turner Publishing, 2014). She resides in Los Angeles. For more information, see www.christinahoag.com.