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.
“All fiction writers write out of their deepest, most intimate personal experiences, even if some of them try to deny it or disguise it,” Susan Choi tells me over coffee at the Ashland Place food court in Brooklyn, a loud yet somehow uncrowded space that she playfully refers to as “the mall.” Her writing space is just around the corner, but it hasn’t had heat for a while, thus the mall is providing a booming pop music soundtrack to our conversation. “I’ve never read a really good fiction writer who wasn’t writing from something they had felt personally, even if the story seems different from anything they have lived,” she says.
Choi’s fifth novel, Trust Exercise, examines the ways that writers choose to represent and distort their own stories. “Trust Exercise was my side project while I worked on my ‘real’ book, which I have yet to finish,” she confesses. “I’m a big believer in consistent engagement with a project, but a lot of interesting things happen when you step back. I kept disengaging and then something would bring me back, but my perspective would be altered in some unexpected way.”
The result is a wildly inventive novel that is told in three distinct parts, the second and third blowing up and reframing what came before. The first part is set in a suburban high school theater program in the 1980s, where two students, Sarah and David, fall in love under the watchful eye of their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, the kind of blowhard who insists that the proper way to spell the word theater in Middle America is theatre. When a group of British exchange students visit the school to stage a precocious production of Candide, the world becomes a little bit bigger for Sarah and David and their classmates. That’s all readers should know at the start.
“There are limited ways to talk about the plot,” Choi says. “I’m still figuring out what they are.”
To avoid wandering into spoiler territory, I ask about Choi’s own theater background. Much like the characters in her book, she attended a drama program—in a high school in Houston, where she grew up. “It was exotic for me, because I was supposed to be the smart kid,” she says. “My parents wanted me to attend a rigorous academic high school, and I rebelled and auditioned in a single mad flair of individuality and self-confidence. Then, horribly, I got in. I was so ill-suited for theater. Every time I had to go on stage I was mortified. So I became a techie, which is the happy refuge of every kid who loves theater but can’t stand being on stage.”
But Choi insists that her own experience was nothing like the one she depicts in the novel, using a modern-day TV metaphor to make her point. “I think of this book in terms of Stranger Things: this school is like the upside-down version of the school I attended, where, for the most part, I was really happy.”
I ask Choi whether she’s ever frustrated by the fact that many readers assume that a protagonist written by a female author is nothing but a stand-in for the author herself. “It’s something I became inured to with my last book [2013’s My Education], because it also takes place in a world I know, which is the world of unhappy graduate study,” she says. “But yeah, it’s an interesting conundrum for women writers. We get it much much more.”
My Education may be set in grad school, but it shares with Trust Exercise a tight grip on the unrelenting angst of obsessional first love. The students in Trust Exercise are told that they’ll never feel emotions quite as strongly as they do right then and there in high school, but the heroine of Choi’s previous novel does not seem any wiser or less passionate.
“I wrote both books thinking a lot about youth,” Choi says. “In My Education, I was interested in the youth of early adulthood and how different it feels from later adulthood. Looking back on your first chapter of adulthood, you seem like a teenager.”
The teenagers in Trust Exercise are similarly foolhardy in love and are taught by their theater teacher to revere Shakespeare above all. “Think of Romeo and Juliet, the most romantic tale ever,” Choi says. “And how old were they? That was on my mind—that these relationships that are culturally romanticized have their influence on young people. When you’re young, you’re capable of repurposing experience into a much more self-mythologized narrative than you are when you’re older.”
Mr. Kingsley also has a fierce influence on the way his students see the world. “A friend asked if I’d ever be able to write a novel that didn’t take place in some kind of school environment, and I hadn’t even noticed I’d been doing so until that point,” Choi says. “Clearly I’m preoccupied with the student-teacher relationship, with charismatic teaching, with what that sort of power does.”
I ask Choi whether she’s ever had a teacher as pretentious as Trust Exercise’s fictional drama teacher. “I had wonderful writing teachers who, if anything, were too hands off, too confident of my abilities to tell me what to do.” She leans closer to me. “But I know people who’ve studied with writing teachers who are incredibly tyrannical and dictatorial. I have in my possession a sheet of dictates that a very well-known writer and writing teacher used to issue to their students. The dictates are bizarre and petty and detailed. They were not at all ironically dictated—they were handed down by this writing teacher as the way to write serious literature.”
In contrast, Choi does not have a capital P process. “I almost never think thematically when I’m writing anything,” she says. “I’m usually writing about the rudiments of a circumstance, and following it. I usually don’t know how my books are going to end, or even what will happen in the middle.” She says she began Trust Exercise with the aim of writing something sleek and short. “I’d been reading a lot of Muriel Spark, and all her novels are less than 200 pages—slim—and she has brusque, aggressive openings to her books, where she grabs you by the neck and throws you in, and you just have to figure it out. I really wanted to do that.”
Though the final version of Trust Exercise runs more than novella length, Choi grabs readers right away, immersing them in the fixations of artistic students—the kind who claim to be too serious for musicals but are riveted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. “Trust Exercise is set in the 1980s, which is when I was a teen,” Choi says as the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” begins playing over the mall’s loudspeakers, as though she’d summoned it. “I remember the ubiquity of the Cats sweatshirt,” she says. “If you wore a Cats sweatshirt, it meant that you’d gone to New York and gotten it yourself. It was an incredible totem to have.”
Choi says she wanted to evoke a lack of worldliness in the Trust Exercise students. “My own teen has so much more knowledge of the world than I did at that age,” she says. “Maybe it’s being a New Yorker, maybe it’s growing up in the 21st century and with the internet—we love to blame the internet for everything.”
Trust Exercise is meant to be more provincial. “I wanted to depict teenagers who had never even met anyone who was from outside their city, let alone outside of their country,” Choi says, noting that much like her characters, she was incredibly naive as a teenager. “My sense of sexuality at the time was that we were both more precocious in terms of behavior than now, and much more innocent in terms of context and a larger understanding of everything having to do with sexual life and identity. We did everything and knew nothing. We thought we knew, but we knew so much less than we even realized.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
I’ve been breastfeeding my second child for more than seven months. She eats solids now — preferring pizza crust to all else — but those foods are consumed primarily for flavor and fun, and the development of fine motor skills, not nutrition. Until she’s got teeth, my child is kept alive with breast milk, and so she and I spend a lot of time together on the glider in the living room, a glass of water within my reach, a burp cloth on my shoulder, her perfect chubby body resting on The Boppy, which, to the uninitiated, is a nursing pillow that looks like a neck-rest for a giant.
(That word, Boppy! It’s so silly as to be demeaning. At least it’s not as bad as its competitor, My Breast Friend. Like I’m just over here, stringing beads onto a necklace or something, gabbing to no one. But nursing is kind of like that: mindless action punctuated by occasional admiration at your own handiwork.)
For the first months of my daughter’s life, when I was nursing a lot more often and for longer sessions, I depended on TV and books to keep me sane. (Now I worry the TV will rot her brain, and she often grabs what I’m reading; she straight-up ripped a page of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub!) I’m saddened by this turn of events because a couple of times the culture I was consuming reflected my own experience and it felt magical, like an old friend lighting up your cell phone a moment or two after they were in your thoughts. For instance, I was nursing while reading this description of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield: “a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour…with a baby at her breast.” I remember thinking: Well, that’s me all right. I feel about as threadbare as an old pajama shirt. Copperfield goes on to say:
This baby was one of the twins; and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.
“Taking refreshment” — my daughter, who is honestly quite elegant for her age, loved that line! The next few times we see Mrs. Micawber, she is indeed a human buffet. It’s funny, I’ll give Dickens that. It’s also from the point of view of a young bachelor, far from a mother’s perspective as just about anyone.
It was with great delight, then, to watch season two of the very bawdy and funny television series Catastrophe. In the third episode, Sharon and Rob go to Paris to try to reconnect after having their second child. In the hotel room Sharon reports that her “tits ballooned with milk” after seeing a French baby in the lobby downstairs. I love that she calls her breasts “tits” here — they remain sexualized, and Sharon hasn’t traded her racy vocab for stodgy parenthood. When she realizes she’s forgotten her breast pump at home, I felt as anxious as she did. For the breastfeeding mother, engorgement is uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and the specter of Mastitis, an infection caused by blocked ducts, can make even the calmest mom panic. (At this year’s AWP my boobs grew so rock hard with unexpressed milk that, in the interest of education, I let a few female writers feel me up.) In this episode of Catastrophe, Robs tries, and fails, to explain to the Parisian pharmacists that his wife needs a breast pump; they think he wants to purchase breast milk itself. Hilarity ensues. Sharon tries to help her husband, but she took German in school, not French, and she’s freaking out about Mastitis. She asks them in a panic, “Do you know what’s gonna come out next time I breastfeed? Not milk.” Here she combines German and English, with a French accent: “Blood und puss!” I laughed and laughed, and I also felt grateful that writers are making such honest and tonally sharp art about an occasionally harrowing, not to mention isolating, female experience.
This got me thinking about other meaningful depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. The mother — pun intended — of all nursing scenes is, of course, in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. In the final scene, Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, echoing the Ancient Roman story about a woman who nurses her imprisoned father, sentenced to death-by-starvation. If the memory of my junior year AP English class serves me well, this last scene further proves the Joads’ selflessness: the man Rose of Sharon feeds isn’t a friend or family member, but a mere stranger. The scene provides a moment of tenderness and connection after so much despair. These two characters are helping each other; the man needs sustenance, and Rose of Sharon, who has lost her baby, needs to connect to and nurture another human being. Or her body does.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the maternal needs of female slaves are denied, again and again, as their children are treated as commodities. Sethe’s own mother had to work in the fields and was unable to mother Sethe, and Sethe remembers being fed by the wet nurse only after the white babies had been sated, remarking, “There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left.” She thus places much importance on nursing her own children. One of the central precipitating traumas of the book is Sethe’s assault by white teenage boys who drink her milk. (Read this and this for more on Morrison’s novel and this part in particular.) Under slavery, Sethe’s body, no part of it, not even her milk, belongs to her. Or to her child. To deny a mother this right — it’s painful to even imagine. That Sethe chooses to kill her children can be understood as an act of maternal kindness, a kindness that’s been deranged by the horrors of slavery.
My Education by Susan Choi, like The Grapes of Wrath and Beloved, also includes a scene of a breastfeeding adult. This time, it’s a sex scene between a young graduate student named Regina, and Martha, who is married to Regina’s professor. Martha also teaches at the university, but she’s on maternity leave. The reader is led to believe that Regina will begin an affair with Martha’s husband, but when the two women meet the attraction is immediate, their romance inevitable. In the scene in question, Martha’s breasts are heavy with milk and when Regina puts her mouth to one of her nipples and sucks, Martha experiences a spasm of relief. It’s sexy, for sure. But not only. It’s also a nod to the age difference between the two lovers (more than a decade), with the younger Regina playing the infant, dependent on this life-giving figure to sustain her. Martha, who is ambivalent about the affair from the get-go, experiences the shock of the Let Down. As any nursing mother knows, pent-up milk doesn’t flow without consequence. At first, it stings a little — as the baby drinks and drinks, carefree now that her needs are met.
One of the fiercest books about motherhood to come out in recent years is After Birth by Elisa Albert, and it’s got plenty of depictions of nursing — babies nursing, that is. Ari gave birth a year ago and she’s still traumatized by her unplanned C-section. Her identity has been turned upside down by motherhood.
“I get it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby and disappear.”
When Mina, former rock star and poet, moves to town nine-months pregnant, Ari feels hopeful. A friend! Mina had a home birth, but she’s having trouble nursing. She tells Ari, “I had no ideas my nipples could hurt this much! And I used to enjoy light S&M! When he latches I can feel it in my eyeballs!” Even though both my children nursed well from the get-go, there was definitely a learning curve, and Mina’s complaints are funny because they’re so familiar. This was the first time I’d seen the experience recognized in fiction and it felt like a victory. In the scene, Ari tries to give her new mother-friend pointers, and after cooking her a bowl of pasta, Ari nurses Mina’s baby for her. It’s not played for shock. Ari says: “He’s not choosy; he’s goddamn hungry.” The scene is perfectly cast as mundane (Mina, like any tired mother, inhales pasta as Ari feeds her baby) and beautiful. Like nursing itself.
He pulls off for a second, the abundance of surprise, and right away he’s searching for me again, mouth ajar, panting. Open wide. Gulp, gulp. Relaxes into me, eyes closed. The whole room goes all melty. Problem solved. All peaceful and blossomy, like after a good first kiss. Unfold. Bask. I remember this. I can do this. Nothing for her to do but watch.
This is a moment of purpose and peace for Albert’s narrator. For a parent of a baby, there is perhaps no sentence more powerful than “problem solved.”
It seems as though I keep coming upon depictions of breastfeeding in fiction. Anna Solomon’s beautiful and expansive (forthcoming) Prohibition-era novel Leaving Lucy Pear opens with an unwed mother, Bea, abandoning her baby beneath a pear tree. Before Bea does so, though, she unbuttons her dress and feeds her child for the last time. “She gasped as the mouth clamped onto her nipple,” Solomon writes, “but the pain was a distraction, too, welcome in its own way.” Bea dislodges the child from her body before the baby is finished eating, and I found that difficult to read, considering the circumstances. Later, the baby, Lucy, is nursed by her adoptive mother. As Emma feeds the child, it feels to her as though Lucy is opening “a new bloody tunnel through her heart.” The connection between these two mothers, Bea and Emma, is profound and particular. And, yet, from their separate vantage points, they cannot even fathom it.
And here’s another example: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. By the time it’s published next January, my tenure as a nursing mother might already be over. Sekaran’s novel is about a woman named Solimar who’s come to America from Mexico illegally. She gets caught and is sent to a detention center. She has no idea where she is, or how long she will have to stay there. Her young son has been taken from her. She waits in a cell by herself, and as her breasts get more and more engorged, she grows more upset and scared. And hungry. She does not know when she will eat, or how her child will eat. As in the other scenes I’ve described, the physical experience of nursing isn’t denied. Everything emotional about it is also corporeal. But here it isn’t comic, or sensual, or suspenseful. It’s despairing. Her son’s absence is felt in the body. Without any other choice, Soli bends over and nurses herself. Unlike in The Grapes of Wrath, she is alone. For an undocumented mother, there is no help.
When I read that scene, my own daughter was, in Dickens’s words, “taking refreshment.” I had to put the book down, and hold her closer.
Writers who are also mothers are depicting what it’s like to care for a child, and that body of literature gets richer with every season. There are so many elements to parenting that I want to see more of on the page, but nursing, at this specific juncture in my life, seems particularly dramatic. Or maybe, at 3 a.m., alone with my child in the dark living room, I want to believe that’s true.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.