Harmful Stories Are on the Rise: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

Susan Choi is highly accomplished. She teaches at Yale University. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award, while her second novel, American Woman, was named a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her next work of fiction, A Person of Interest, was as finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently her novel My Education earned the Lambda Literary Award. Next month her children’s book, Camp Tiger, will be published, and this weekend a film adaptation of American Woman will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival under the direction of Semi Chellas. Our focus, though, is on her newly released novel, Trust Exercise, which was one of the year’s most anticipated books.

Trust Exercise follows Sarah and David, two teenagers in a high school dedicated to theater arts during the early 1980s. They fall for each other but are pulled in different directions by the drama of teenage life, both on and off the stage. As the story progresses, the reader must consider the power dynamics of storytelling and performance: who is granted a voice and who is seen as merely an object rather than a subject. It is a story that spans 30 years, an intricately crafted novel that asks important questions about power and identity.

I recently caught up with Choi to talk about education, theater, the #MeToo movement, our distance from our teenage selves, and the writing process.

The Millions: I wanted to start with the topic of education. In your previous books you’ve engaged with the educational sphere at the college level, but in Trust Exercise you’ve moved to high school. One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about your take on this age group is how you show the power of the heightened emotions of being a teenager. What made you shift your focus to this younger group?

Susan Choi: For me these things are never premeditated. I write a lot of things that never make it out of my hard drive, and then, every once in a while, there’s something that I stick with. In this case, I think my preoccupation with all our past selves—all of us adults were teenagers once—predated my work on this book. In My Education I was preoccupied with the way in which the selves we were at earlier periods of adulthood might come to seem like strangers—incomprehensible and even kind of crazy—once we’ve aged a little more. In Trust Exercise that same preoccupation shifts back further in time.

TM: Your writing about high school theater training really captures how this activity creates a space for forming identity and a sense of an artistic self. Why did you want to write about theater?

SC: The tension between unleashing emotion and controlling emotion is really interesting to me. And theater is a context in which, it seems to me, that happens in particularly fascinating ways. And there’s a parallel there, to writing, which never occurred to me until later.

TM: While this novel is treading its own path, I also see its connection to some of your earlier work. Let me give you one small example: Trust Exercise includes a scene that recalls one from American Woman. In both a young woman is identified merely by the texture of her jeans. What interests you in the reworking of themes and images over the course of your novels?

SC: I don’t rework themes or images very often, and in this case I didn’t choose to do it so much as I just couldn’t resist recycling that idea. Once I’d done it, I fretted about people noticing it and indeed they have! I wish I hadn’t used it the first time around because I think it’s far more indispensable where it happens in Trust Exercise. But maybe we can view the previous iteration as a rehearsal?

TM: I enjoy the historicity of your work, whether you are positioning your reader in the 1970s California of Patty Hearst or in the Korean War and its aftermath in The Foreign Student. What kind of research did you do for this book to create this world? What did you draw from your own experiences during the early 1980s?

SC: I didn’t do research specifically to support this book because, unlike with the time periods of some of my other books, I have clear memories of the ’80s, just as I have clear memories of the ’90s setting for A Person of Interest. But I was, on a separate track, doing research into Scientology a handful of years ago, and that research ended up feeding into this book in very unexpected ways. With that research I was also thinking about charismatic leaders, and the sorts of rituals those leaders impose on their followers, to forge those followers into a compliant collective.

TM: Interesting, what are some of the ways that you see Scientology connecting to Trust Exercise?

SC: Some of the trust exercises—the repetitions for example—bear uncanny resemblance to Scientology practices, and it’s my understanding that both derive from a common source, a type of actors’ training. I found this intersection really striking, and it contributed a lot to my thinking about the world of the book, in which a charismatic leader uses specific rites and rituals to mold disparate and in some cases unruly individuals into a compliant cooperative group.

TM: My Education dealt with issues of sexual identity, and this book continues with some of those questions in its own way. Did you begin this book to address some of those continuing questions or were you thinking about more timely topics like #MeToo?

SC: Honestly, I almost never begin a book to address questions. If I did, I don’t think I’d get very far. I begin books because certain situations, involving certain characters, interest me and I want to see what might happen. The questions that preoccupy me start exercising their influence right away, but I’m not particularly conscious of that process, any more than I’m particularly conscious of the way in which the questions that preoccupy me exercise their influence on all the choices I make in every aspect of my life. However, once this book was well underway it did become glaringly clear to me that its trajectory, and real-world events including #MeToo, were intersecting in really interesting ways.

TM: Yes, in my reading, I certainly thought about #MeToo issues and the related questions of consent and power. Are there any particular ways that you see the novel reflecting these issues?

SC: Karen in particular is a character struggling to make sense of a past experience for which she blames herself, for making an ultimately damaging choice, and blames the other party involved, for taking advantage of her inexperience and credulousness. What happened to her has happened to countless women who, if they heard her story, would echo the refrain of “me too” that gives the movement its name—but the very fact of the experience being so widely shared only makes Karen harder on herself. She isn’t able to resolve the contradiction between self-blame and righteous accusation, and she isn’t able to ally herself with other women in similar circumstances. Her problem is both eternal and—because recently the cultural conversation is finally echoing all our private conversations—timely.

TM: This book is very much attentive to its structure. Through its three major sections, readers must resituate themselves in relationship to the narrative and their confidence in their perception of it. At what point in the development of this project did the structure come to you?

SC: The structure of the book really evolved out of the writing process, the way most of my books’ structures do. I never sat down and thought, I want to write a book with this particular structure. Structural aspects presented themselves along the way as solutions to problems that had arisen in the course of the writing. That’s how it always happens, for me. I never outline in advance and most of the time I have no idea, in advance, how something is going to end. It’s possibly a very disorganized way to write, but I find it more generative and interesting than planning everything ahead—not that I’m even able to do that.

TM: Earlier you mentioned one of the acting exercises I wanted to talk about because it creates quite a memorable scene. In it, two students repeat the same phrase to each other while trying to alter the meaning of the words through emphasis and delivery. This moment encapsulates the work’s interest in point of view, shifting context, and the change of a person from subject to object. What were your thoughts about perspective in this book?

SC: I’ve always thought a lot about point of view or perspective with all my books, but usually in pretty narrow terms that have to do with the book itself and what perspective will solve the most problems, what perspective will best convey character and give me what I need to communicate information and so on. It’s often a mess; with My Education I wrote a lot of the book in the omniscient third person and it just didn’t feel right so I rewrote it in the first person and again, it didn’t feel right, so I had to rewrite that first person voice from a specific point in time that was more retrospective…there was lots of trial and error. With this book I had all the same craft-centric thoughts about what perspective would work best, but it’s true that I was also thinking a lot more about the role of storytelling in our lives and not just in the books we read.  Our culture and our politics are all stories, often contending stories, often harmful stories—and harmful stories are on the rise right now, it seems to me. So, I was thinking a lot about who gets to tell these stories, and who gets told about, and all the harm that can be done.

What Are We Willing to Sacrifice? On Crystal Hana Kim’s ‘If You Leave Me’

I’m normally not someone to pick up a novel described as “epic.” Perhaps it’s a sense that such large-scale works can’t capture the particular or that this genre is often the terrain of oversimplified, masculinist war stories. Such a large canvas has been popular of late, though, and women have been using the full breadth of their palettes to beautifully render key yet underrepresented stories about the United States. In the last year, narratives such as Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach about women during World War II in New York, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers about gay men during the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing about African-American trauma in Mississippi have embraced and transformed the genre, each in their own way. Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me belongs on that list, as it also covers 20th-century war and trauma in its epic sweep. Unlike those other narratives, though, Kim’s work makes the desires and concerns of the destructive United States a distant background to the full rendering of South Korea and its local inhabitants during and after the Korean War. This book is no narrative of triumphal imperialism or essentialized nationalism; Kim alters the expectations of the genre to include a much stronger focus on women and the multigenerational cultural changes that occur in and after a war caused by a global power struggle.

Specifically, the story begins with chapters that alternate among the perspectives of Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, who have been displaced to Busan in the newly created South Korea, a state forced into existence by the Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States. Haemi and Kyunghwan grew up together, and Jisoo and Kyunghwan are cousins. The book is situated in a clearly defined historical context of what is often labeled in the U.S. as the Forgotten War, but that history is told from the outlook of those living through the experience; the details aren’t spoon-fed. For instance, if you want to know why the Korean War is labeled the 6-2-5 War in the novel, then you will need to look up that June 25 is the date of the invasion of South Korea by the North in 1951. Still, the author gives us other details about the country that paint a memorable picture, including the metaphoric description of the nation that Jisoo is taught by his father: “When I was little, he’d traced a rabbit in profile onto the borders of Korea. The tapered ears the northeasternmost point, encroaching on China, the paws jutting out into the Yellow Sea. Seoul tucked safely beneath its belly. We the humped back, and Busan its soft tail.” Such imagery alongside elevated expectations of readers is refreshing, as is allowing the voices and lives of those directly affected by the international power games instead of the power players themselves to take center stage. In this way, the narrative tracks the long-term traumatic effects of war on those who live there.

The three main characters are also in a love triangle. The two male cousins, Jisoo the wealthier one and Kyunghwan the one with a childhood connection to Haemi, are on a quest for her affections, but this love story also satisfyingly plays with our expectations of the form. The book tells a love story, but the idea develops to focus on the young woman at the middle of it, who is told that her choice of husband will determine the rest of her life. Will she marry for love or money, and is it that simple? The novel is very much about love but also spins from the singularity of heterosexual romance to being about self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, and an ambivalent representation of motherhood that is too often absent from popular narratives.

Much of this gendered analysis is focused on Haemi’s growing consciousness about the limitations she faces as a woman. From the start, she knows that when she goes out at night, she should dress as a boy to protect herself and not draw attention to her socialization with a man. She perceives that women’s bodies are seen as a threat and as something shameful—something which she doesn’t observe being put upon men in the same way. This idea is extended to women being judged for sleeping with someone out of wedlock. In this way, Haemi’s story is a traditional one of maturation as she recognizes the double standard that harshly judges women for their sexual behavior and not men. Not only does she question the general sense of how sexuality works against women, however; she also begins to question her own desire to be married and at one point actually hopes that the men stay away at war so she doesn’t have to take on the responsibilities of being a wife. This overall critique of the structures of heterosexuality and its confinement of women to marriage and child-rearing draws the reader through the story—Has she made the right choice?—but also allows the reader and Haemi to question if a single choice is all that is possible.

The damage caused by such limited options—gendered and otherwise—is also reflected in the beautiful but painful ambiguity of the novel’s language. For instance, when talking about her nightly escapes from the refugee camp, Haemi says, “I liked how I felt scraped clean with alcohol, painted over with indifference, until I was a wash of emptiness inside.” The feeling she “likes” is the absence of feeling, and the internal scraping of her body is potentially detrimental and perhaps symbolically hints at a desire to remain childless. After all, motherhood takes up an equally equivocal spot in the narrative, fluctuating between love and restriction.

Motherhood is first embodied by Haemi’s mother, who is mostly overlooked in the story, although she is an essential instigator behind Haemi’s choice of husband, telling her suitor that he can gain her heart through caring for Haemi’s brother. Her fate is doubly tied to the restraints of motherhood since Haemi herself is a nontraditional mother figure to her sick younger brother Hyunki. Marriage and motherhood are inextricably bound as her love for him mandates much about her life, while her later relationship with her daughters also shows how love functions as a method of control even as the narrative moves to the next generation. There are some difficult truths rendered about this primary relationship that even include postpartum depression. The question for all of the characters becomes: What are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves for others? How much should we be asked to sacrifice? How much is too much?

This is a grand, sweeping story that proves that an epic can yield strong, individualized characters while still developing a nuanced perspective that refuses to essentialize war, women, or national identity. The trauma of the war lingers for each of these characters even as they realize, like Jisoo does, that “We weren’t rebuilding. We were shaping ourselves into a different form.” Korea, the characters, and the narrative structure itself all show this to be true. The novel impressed me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I’ll be keeping my eye on Crystal Hana Kim to see what she’ll do next.