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.
The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.
Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure?
Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.
And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget:
Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:
Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”
Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”
Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”
Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:
“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”
With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.
What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.
A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:
Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories
On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.
In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)
Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him.
Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.
How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.
In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no.
(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)