On Thursday, April 23, acclaimed author Susan Choi MFA ’95 gave a reading of her recent short story “Flashlight,” for the Spring 2021 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series: Together, a program named after its donors, whose contribution makes it possible for Cornell to invite several writers to campus each semester.
Hosted virtually by eCornell, the event was streamed on Thursday evening. Over forty attendees tuned in to the livestream. Prof. Ishion Hutchinson, Department of Literatures in English, introduced the Zalaznick Reading Series. His colleague, Prof. Stephanie Vaughn, also from the Department of Literatures in English, introduced Ms. Choi herself.
Choi was born in South Bend, Indiana, and studied literature at Yale University before earning her MFA at Cornell in 1995. She worked as a fact-checker at The New Yorker for several years and won the 1999 Asian-American Literary Award for her first novel, The Foreign Student. Her next novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, while A Person of Interest, written soon after in 2008, became a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award.
She was also named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award in 2010, and received the 2013 Lambda Award for Bisexual Fiction for her novel My Education. Her latest novel, Trust Exercise, won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the same year in which she published her first book for children, Camp Tiger.
“Flashlight” follows a young girl named Louisa who has recently lost her father. When her mother sends her to see a child psychologist, the narrative reveals pieces of her life leading up to the visit. Through the visit, we get a glimpse of the ways in which Louisa processes and copes with her trauma — some of it ordinary, others not.
Although the internal narration at first feels cool and detached, Choi skillfully weaves undertones of tension into Louisa’s thoughts and feelings. We are subtly — yet repeatedly — reminded that she is a child who, at ten years old, already bears an intense distrust and contempt towards the adults around her. The story’s ending leaves the reader feeling both hopeful and doubtful about whether healing is possible — and if it is, what form it will take.
After Choi read about the first half of the story, attendees had an opportunity to submit questions for Choi in a chatbox attached to the livestream. I had the opportunity to submit two questions myself. My first was as follows: “Many of your previous novels have been inspired by historical events, particularly in the US and the latter half of the 20th century. Is there anything about this period that interests you especially?”
Choi replied that she does “really love mining history” for her books, and that The Foreign Student originally emerged from her personal concerns. One of these was to better understand her father’s life in Korea before she knew him, including his experiences with the Korean War and with immigration to the United States.
With this goal in mind, she became “enamored” with doing historical research for her work, particularly with the potential in using fiction to explore “unanswered questions” surrounding real events. For her work so far, many of these periods are recent enough for her to feel a connection, but she is currently working on something that involves doing research on the 1930s.
For my second question, which was the last to be answered, I asked: “Would you say that there are any unique challenges or aspects of interest to writing from the perspective of a child, as opposed to an adult?”
She replied that it can be very challenging, because one wants to write a child instead of “an adult in a child’s body and experience.” Choi admitted that Louisa is something of a “cheat” in this regard, because she is a precocious child — an archetype that is “irresistible” for writers because it helps to address problems that arise when a character’s knowledge is limited by their experience as a child.
However, an alternative technique that she recommends to students is to set their “perch” in the future and write a retrospective story, allowing one to write about a child from the perspective of an “all-knowing, experienced adult.”
When asked whether she misses her characters after finishing a novel, Choi replied that usually it will have taken so long to write that she is “not that interested” in ever returning to the characters in writing, but she still enjoys the opportunity to talk about them as if they were people. Choi also cited George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Virginia Woolf as some of her major literary influences.
Another attendee asked about Choi’s time in the creative writing program at Cornell. Choi described much of her experience as not necessarily having established a clear direction in her writing. In fact, when she arrived at the program, her “whole focus was short fiction,” with Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson serving as a major influence.
Having attended this reading, I was inspired by Choi’s skill in writing, as well as her wit and sincere, warm-hearted attitude when speaking on her life and work. Although I had never read any of her novels prior to this, I am now very interested in trying them — in particular Trust Exercise and My Education.
If anyone is a fan of her work, interested in learning more about the craft of writing, or simply in the mood to hear a good story, I encourage them to view the recording, which can be found here.
Amy Wang is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].