She’s a Guggenheim Fellow and an ex-fact checker for the New Yorker. She’s the author of four novels, one of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. And she’s a Yale alumna, currently back on campus to teach in the creative writing program. WKND sat down with Susan Choi ’90 to talk about authentic historical fiction, politics in art and her son’s opinions on picture books.
Q: What’s it like to experience Yale now as a professor instead of as a student?
A: It’s really interesting! I keep feeling surprised that I’m a professor because in certain ways, the time that I was a student seems really recent to me, and that’s largely because of being on the campus, I think. [It makes me remember] being here as a student, which is something that I haven’t thought about in a really long time. The memories are so vivid that it’s kind of a strange experience mentally and emotionally. The things that are different are mostly just [related to] the physical environment at Yale; each time I see [certain buildings] I just can’t believe that they’re not the way they used to be. But I’ve started to get used to it — after an entire semester. [laughs] I’m not still shocked by Bass Library or by the Silliman dining hall, like I’m used to it.
Q: Do you feel like the reason that humanities are so devalued in our current culture is a result of some fundamental problem with the way they’re being taught?
A: That’s a great question. I’m not even sure if I’m qualified to answer. I could never point to anything at Yale and say, “We’re devaluing literature, we’re devaluing art”; I don’t think that’s true. I think that if anything, creative writing is being taken more seriously than when I was a student. [There’s] more attention and more resources, and there are far more classes in creative writing available to students — I feel like there’s a greater willingness on the part of the English Department to view creative writing as an important aspect of broader English study. The creation of the Writing Concentration is one example of the way in which creative writing is valued much more highly than it used to be. When I was an undergraduate it was an incredible struggle to get into a creative-writing class just because there were so few of them. And they were definitely viewed as a marginal and not terribly serious activity, and were always going to take a back seat to more “serious” forms of literary endeavor. So in that sense I do think that it’s a great improvement; but I often feel that Yale is responding to changes in the culture. It’s really difficult to make a living these days, and when I was a student at Yale, we never gave as much thought — or at least I didn’t give it much thought and my friends didn’t give as much thought. Maybe it was just our feeling, but I just feel like there was this sort of student culture of “we’re not going to worry about making a living because college is a time to be a bohemian and make art and do cool stuff.” Now I think students are much more pragmatic, because they have to be, so it’s hard to say. [I think] students feel greater pressure now to study something that will position them to be financially successful outside of Yale, and that’s a really different mindset.
Q: Each of your four novels has said something important about highly politicized topics like history, violence, race and sexuality. Do you think writing has a duty to be political or say something political?
A: No, no, I don’t think so. [When I set out to write a novel,] I didn’t start out with a political idea; I was like, I just want to write a book about relationships and feelings and not take on any issues. So I just think that it’s a matter of my instinct leading in, but I certainly don’t think there should be a duty to be political. I think that once you say that — I mean, I’m not going to say that once you say that you get into trouble, but I think that once you have that mindset and you try to write, you’re in danger of writing poorly or writing contentious, pedantic … stuff. You know what I mean? I never set out to explore a political issue. It always kind of is.
Q: It just arises.
A: [Yeah,] it usually ends up being there because it’s organic to some set of relationships or some human circumstance that is fascinating to me because of the people and what is happening to them.
Q: As a writer of color, do you feel like writers who are from minority groups are ghettoized into writing about being a minority? Because sometimes I feel like there’s a pressure on me to write about being Chinese-American, even if that isn’t, you know, what I’m specifically interested in exploring.
A: Yeah, absolutely! I mean, you just answered your own question. The very fact that you feel that way — you didn’t invent that by yourself, you know what I mean? Like there is still this remarkable cultural pressure in writers of color to write about their “special,” marginal, exotic experience. It’s remarkable that that’s so unchanged from both when I was a student, because I had the same feelings as you, and when I was first publishing — all of this is going back a couple decades. Now there’s a slightly decreasing sense that if you’re a writer of color you always have to write in a marked way because you’re a marked person. That’s the problem with it — that you’re always sort of viewed as “different” from the quote on quote “mainstream,” like there’s a sort of neutral, unmarked territory that you don’t reside in, so if you’re going to write, you’re expected to write about your special territory. That’s what I’ve always objected to, and at the same time, I ended up writing about Asian-Americans in all four of my books just because it interests me. But it interests me and so I write about it — I don’t write about it because I feel like I have to, you know what I mean?
It’s funny — a few years ago I would have said, oh, it’s changing, it’s changing so quickly. I now think it’s as much of an issue as ever; I don’t know what might have made me think that things were different. [For example,] Chang-rae Lee published a book called “Aloft” a number of years ago that I just loved, and it happened to have a protagonist who wasn’t Asian-American [but] an Italian-American guy living in the suburbs, although he marries an Asian woman. It’s such a great book, one of my favorites of his, but what was so interesting about it was that people were so surprised that he did that. Like I remember a very, very well-known writer (whom I won’t name, but she’s very, very famous) coming up to me and saying, “Have you heard about Chang-rae Lee’s new book? That’s very bold of him, don’t you think?” And I’m thinking, well, why? Like why is it so radical? I loved the book, but I just thought that speaking of him that way, as doing something really groundbreaking, was weirdly insulting to all of us. As if we’re all sort of supposed to stay in this Asian-American subject-matter corral and if we venture out, like wow, I can’t believe you did that. I feel like when that book came out, I thought things were finally changing, but I don’t know if they have. [I think book marketing] is more and more suspect too because publishers are concerned about selling literary books more than ever, and I think that all of those labels — many of which are ethnic or racial — are still really in play for them. Like naturally wanting to get these books to the readership that’s most likely to be interested, and that is a readership of people of color who see when an author is, you know, a person of color. That just entrenches the fact of ghettoizing that author.
Q: I remember reading an interview with Don Lee where he talks about how he wishes people could just write about characters who are Asian-American but aren’t obsessed with being Asian-American.
A: Exactly. It’s so funny that you said that; this is also the conversation I was having earlier this week with a bunch of other writers, specifically about kids’ books because there’s a drive (which I totally support) for more diversity in kids’ books. My son, who’s one-quarter Asian, is very aware of that, and it’s cool but it’s not a thing that is always on his mind at any given moment. We saw this news story about this young African-American girl who’s spearheading this drive for more diversity in children’s books, which I think is really important, but my son was really affronted. He was like, “I don’t get this”; it emerged after talking to him for a long time that what he was bothered by was the idea that there had to be special books about the special condition of being a black kid or an Asian kid or a Latino kid. He was saying exactly what Don Lee says. [And] because he goes to a really diverse preschool, he said something really funny like, “Why can’t books just like, you know, just be like, you know, how it is?” And I realized what he meant was, “We’re all different colors in my classroom, but we don’t sit around talking about it all day long, it just is that way.” [That’s] the best case scenario — everybody’s a different color, or a different whatever, and it just is, and I thought that was so telling.
Q: As a writer of historical fiction, you’ve inhabited a lot of historical spaces and figures that you don’t have personal experience with. Did you ever worry about overstepping your bounds or reaching into experiences that aren’t necessarily yours to tell?
A: It definitely concerned me and still concerns me. Especially with my first novel, which was set in the ’50s in Korea, I was really worried about getting it wrong — making mistakes, I guess. [I wanted to] depict the period in a way that’s authentic, [and I worried] that people who had actually lived through that period would call me out, but I was really motivated to write that book at the same time. I wouldn’t have attempted it had it not been a thing that interested me; that’s what usually ends up overriding my sense of “oh, this isn’t my material.” With my second book, which is set in the ’70s, that was a period that I was alive for but I wasn’t part of; it’s a cultural milieu that I wasn’t a participant in. But I had a really strong interest and investment [that] gave me a possessive feeling that emboldened me to try to write this material. To this day, almost everyone that I’ve encountered has said, “Oh, you’ve really captured it,” and that was just a huge relief. Now I’m doing the same thing; I’m working on a book that may contain material that’s set in the 1930s … it’s like a compulsion.