English lecturer Susan Choi ’90 attended the 70th annual National Book Awards Ceremony in New York City on Wednesday night and left with the 2019 National Book Award for fiction for her novel “Trust Exercise.”
Each year, the National Book Awards honor one writer each in five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature. Finalists were chosen by panels of writers, critics, booksellers and other influential members of the literary field. This year’s judges for the fiction category were Dorothy Allison, Ruth Dickey, Javier Ramirez, Danzy Senna and Jeff VanderMeer. Winners receive $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.
The National Book Awards shortlists were announced on Oct. 5. The shortlist also included “Sabrina & Corina: Stories” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James, “The Other Americans” by Laila Lalami and “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips.
Published in April this year, “Trust Exercise” is Choi’s fifth novel. The story is set in the 1980s and concerns the relationship between two students at a competitive performing arts high school.
According to Choi, the teenage experience is a fascinating subject for a writer to explore due to its developmental importance and the many unanswered questions it poses. Choi said that part of the challenge of writing “Trust Exercise” was creating a “controlled representation of confusion” — preserving a sense of adolescent emotional confusion in the text without disorienting the reader.
Choi explained that “Trust Exercise” employs a “disruptive” narrative structure that is distinct from her past works. The structure she chose considers the nature of narration and explores how storytelling isn’t always trustworthy.
The novel also explores topics of sexual consent and student-teacher relationship dynamics.
According to the New York Times, judges praised “Trust Exercise” for blending “the intellectual rigor of postmodern technique with a story that is timely, mesmerizing, and in the end, unsettling.”
Choi joined the Yale faculty in 2015 and has taught both introductory and advanced creative writing classes. Ruoji Guo ’21, a student Choi’s current section of “Introduction to Writing Fiction,” said that it is “objectively one of the best classes [he’s] ever had” at Yale.
Mia Arias Tsang ’21, another student in the class, said that Choi is especially skilled at facilitating an inclusive classroom environment and recognizing the strengths of students with varying levels of experience in fiction writing.
“If she didn’t get this award, she would still be a fantastic professor,” Guo said.
Margaret Spillane, a lecturer in the English Department and former coordinator of the writing concentration, said that Choi “is the kind of writing teacher who can simultaneously hold a student to the highest standards of the writing profession — the crafting of language that is consistently focused, vivid and luminous — while supporting that same student’s scary venture into a narrative ‘terra incognita.’”
Richard Deming, director of the English department’s creative writing program, described Choi as “one of the most gifted novelists working today.” Deming said that both students and faculty are fortunate to have Choi as part of the English department community.
Deming added that “Trust Exercise” creates a space for readers to find themselves, similar to the creative writing program’s commitment to “providing a space for people to think, speak, and listen.”
“Her newest book is a poignant and compelling novel that explores the ways that people so often craft their own stories of inclusion and exclusion, investigation and revelation,” Deming said.
The National Book Awards were established in 1950.
Carrie Zhou | firstname.lastname@example.org