Choi, Susan 1969-
CHOI, Susan 1969-
ADDRESSES: Home—Brooklyn, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd St., 7th Fl., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Writer. New Yorker, New York, NY, editorial staff.
AWARDS, HONORS: Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction, for The Foreign Student; Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction, 2004, for American Woman: A Novel.
The Foreign Student: A Novel, HarperFlamingo (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor, with David Remnick) Wonderful Town: NewYork Stories from "The New Yorker," Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
American Woman: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including Iowa Review and Epoch.
SIDELIGHTS: Susan Choi was a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. Her first, The Foreign Student, winner of the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction, is set in the 1950s in Sewanee, Tennessee, at the University of the South. Chang Ahn, a former translator for the U.S. Information Service in Korea, was tortured and accused of spying. His professor father was imprisoned, and Chang's best friend, a Communist, simply disappeared. Booklist's Michele Leber wrote that Choi "constructs a plot that only gradually reveals the horrors Chang has endured, at the same time raising the possibility of a happy future." When Chang is awarded a scholarship from the Episcopal Church Council, he leaves his home in Seoul to enter a life so foreign to him that he withdraws into his studies. His roommate's father is in the Ku Klux Klan, and rather than try to understand, or comply with, the rules of segregation, Chang concentrates on his calculus.
Katherine Monroe, from a wealthy old New Orleans family, is also something of an outcast. Since she was fourteen years old, she has been the mistress of her father's best friend, a professor nearly thirty years her senior who teaches Shakespeare at the university, and who seduced her when she was a child. Her mother has disowned her as Katherine continues to live marginally in polite society.
The two, so dissimilar, yet so alike, are drawn to each other, and a romance slowly begins. Ploughshares reviewer Don Lee wrote that the novel "is well worth reading for its poetic language, its ambitious story, and the complexity invested in every relation."
A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that it is in Choi's "beautifully detailed evocation of the rich, albeit scarred emotional landscapes of her characters that she is at her best."
Choi and David Remnick edited Wonderful Town: New York Stories from "The New Yorker," a collection by such writers as Woody Allen, John Updike, James Thurber, Ann Beattie, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger, and Dorothy Parker. In some of the stories, New York is the actor, while in others, it is merely the stage. Booklist's Kristine Huntley wrote that "this fabulous collection is an excellent introduction not just to New York but to many of the finest writers of this century."
New York Times Book Review contributor Sven Birkerts remarked that American Woman, "a fictional account of the intersection of the radical activist Wendy Yoshimura with the fugitive Patty Hearst, takes us straight into one of the strangest segments of our ever-surreal American dream life." Choi's fiction is based on the original facts, which are that in 1974, heiress Hearst was abducted from her Berkeley apartment by members of the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). She then took the name Tania, became one of them, and was photographed holding an automatic rifle by a surveillance camera during a bank robbery. The police search for Hearst left six of the group dead, and she was eventually tried and defended by F. Lee Bailey. Although she was sentenced to seven years in prison, she was freed after less than two by then President Jimmy Carter. Birkerts wrote that "many older readers will also remember the feel of those days, the starkness of the societal polarization and the extraordinary collisions—often in the same individual—of the most ardent idealism and abject cynicism. Psychologically centered though it is on one small group, American Woman brings back some of the more broadly dispersed intensity of that period."
The Patty Hearst character of Choi's novel is Pauline, and Yvonne and Juan (real-life Bill and Emily Harris) are the two SLA survivors. Radical organizer Rob Frazer (based on Jack Scott) recruits Japanese-American Jenny Shimada to supervise the three in an upstate New York farmhouse and motivate them to write a book about past events, the proceeds of which, he says, will go to the cause. The real-life character upon whom Jenny is based is Yoshimura, who assisted her lover, Willie Brandt (in the story called William Weeks) in bombing federal buildings. Brandt was jailed in 1972, and she went underground. Herizons writer Ann Hansen noted that Choi "uses these historical events as a backdrop to the development of the emotions and political motivations that drive her fictional characters, rather than keeping her storyline true to the genre of historical fiction."
Choi reveals that Jenny's father, who violently opposes his daughter's radicalism, had been interned during World War II, which is the basis for her anger at the United States government. "Sounding the depths of her conflicted protagonists, Choi takes an uncompromising look at issues of race, class, war, and peace," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Nation reviewer Jennifer Egan wrote that Jenny, "with her Asian face, has instant credibility among the radicals, and Choi's rendering of the knee-jerk racial pieties of that world may be her most trenchant contribution to the literature of the counterculture." As Juan points out to Jenny, Pauline, the heiress, has "got to learn that there's no substitute for a Third World perspective like yours. Brown, yellow, black, red: those are four things that she'll never be. And she isn't just white, she's a filthy-rich white . . . she can't kill what she is. She can only atone." But as Egan noted, "As women chafing against their symbolic freight and growing weary of the overbearing males who are as plentiful inside the radical movement as outside, Jenny and Pauline have much in common. In time they figure this out."
When a bank robbery Juan plans goes awry, Jenny and Pauline flee and head West on a trip that draws them closer together, but ultimately, in the San Francisco Bay area, they are found and brought to justice. Birkerts commented that Choi "does not keep a moral scorecard—questions of right and wrong are, rightly, left to the reader. The most harrowing lesson she offers is the old universal one about passing time, how days, weeks, and months exert a relentless wearing action, breaking down what had seemed so important, so essential, making all of that drama seem at last a sad expense of spirit."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, November-December, 2003, Penelope Mesic, review of American Woman: A Novel, p. 81.
Booklist, August, 1998, Michele Leber, review of TheForeign Student: A Novel, p. 1960; January 1, 2000, Kristine Huntley, review of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from "The New Yorker," p. 861; September 15, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of American Woman, p. 208.
Herizons, spring, 2004, Ann Hansen, review of American Woman, p. 34.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2003, review of AmericanWoman, p. 870.
Library Journal, August, 1998, Shirley N. Quan, review of The Foreign Student, p. 129; June 1, 1999, Michele Leber, review of The Foreign Student, p. 216; July, 2003, Prudence Peiffer, review of American Woman, p. 120.
Nation, October 27, 2003, Jennifer Egan, review of American Woman, p. 39.
New York Times Book Review, October 5, 2003, Sven Birkerts, review of American Woman, p. 9.
Ploughshares, spring, 1999, Don Lee, review of TheForeign Student, p. 193.
Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1998, review of The ForeignStudent, p. 47; June 23, 2003, review of American Woman, p. 43, interview with Choi, p. 44.
Sewanee Review, winter, 1999, Floyd Skloot, review of The Foreign Student.
Bookmouth,http://www.bookmouth.com/ (April 16, 2004), "An Interview with Susan Choi."
MostlyFiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (May 6, 2004), review of American Woman.
Susan Choi Home Page,http://www.susanchoi.com/ (May 6, 2004).*