30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #5 Susan Choi

Only a few weeks to go before my novel Her Own Vietnam is published, and still many fabulous women novelists to discuss. Moving in alphabetical order, today it’s Susan Choi.

We think we know this story – but we don’t

Susan Choi explores events, situations or characters that we think we know and upends them, making them both less familiar and more illuminating of life in America. Her characters are sometimes unlikeable but always compelling, and Choi’s psychological insights penetrate even the most complicated characters.

I became a Susan Choi fan after reading American Woman, published in 2003. The novel uses some elements of the well-known Patty Hearst saga – a young heiress is kidnapped by left-wing radicals and comes to join them – and melds them into a story we’ve never read before.

Choi’s focus is not on the Patty Hearst figure, but on the woman no one notices, a revolutionary of Japanese-American descent who agrees to hide the heiress and ultimately grows to love her, all the while knowing that it is she herself – not white, not rich, not recognized as fully American – who is the most at risk. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The power of otherness

A Person of Interest (2008) is based loosely on an amalgam of two real-life stories: the Unabomber saga, and the scientist whose life was destroyed unfairly when he was announced as a person of interest in the anthrax case. In the novel, a mathematician named Lee is nearing retirement at a Midwestern university. He is envious of his young, popular neighbor in the faculty offices – until the man opens a package that contains a bomb. Lee ultimately becomes a person of interest in the case. The novel is part mystery, part procedural, but mostly a detailed, thoughtful exploration of life as a perpetual outsider.

In My Education (2013), a graduate student is powerfully drawn to her glamorous professor. It’s a timeworn literary trope, but with a writer of Choi’s skill and originality, nothing is quite what you expect. To start with, the student ends up falling in love not with her professor, but with his wife.

The dynamics of race, gender, ethnicity, class and culture – the very definition of “otherness” – play central roles in her work. With the sure hand of an expert storyteller, Susan Choi takes on the unpopular, the unsayable, and the deeply intriguing.

Susan Choi

Susan Choi

Women and War

Fatigue shirt

My father served on Okinawa in World War II. That 21-year-old Army lieutenant from Chicago probably could not have imagined that 70 years later the U.S. military would still be a dominant force on Okinawa, setting the rules and occupying twenty percent of the land on that tiny, crowded island.

Above the East China Sea

Of course, you don’t need to wear a uniform to be transformed by war. Just ask the two teenaged girls at the heart of Sarah Bird’s luminous and compelling novel, Above the East China Sea.

Okinawan daughter Tamiko Kokuba has eagerly embraced the Japanese propaganda about the crudeness of her own culture and the superiority of the “true Japanese spirit.” She only learns the truth in 1945, when she and hundreds of other Okinawan girls are pressed into service in the nightmarish cave hospitals of the Japanese army.

In 2014, Luz James has just moved to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, yet another leap in the endless hopscotch of her life as the daughter of a single mom who’s a gung-ho U.S. Air Force sergeant. But this new assignment is different, because Luz’s beloved older sister has just been killed in Afghanistan, and Luz isn’t sure she wants to keep on living.

The two girls, separated by generations and cultures, are connected in ways Luz only begins to discover as she learns how to reckon with her family’s history and the long shadow of empire.

As a reader and a writer

As a reader, I was enthralled by Above the East China Sea, and felt bereft when I finished the book and was forced to leave its fictional world. As a writer, I was deeply impressed.

An immense amount of research must have gone into the writing, yet it never seems didactic. I learned a good deal about the history and culture of Okinawa, and fascinating details about the lives of today’s “base kids,” bouncing around the world from one U.S. military post to another, perpetually unable to claim a hometown. Sarah Bird also does something interesting and unexpected with the narrative point of view toward the end of the novel.

Beyond women and war

It’s no mystery that the concept of women and war intrigues me, since I wrote a novel about a woman who served in Vietnam and the impact that experience had on her and her family. So I was surprised to discover that I had only read 10 of the 50 novels described in this excellent article by Soniah Kamal.

Kamal defines her list, quite rightly, not as women writing about war, but as women writing about “conflict, displacement and resilience.” Her list includes some books I’ve loved: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; American Woman by Susan Choi; Small Island by Andrea Levy; The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat; The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

Given the spaciousness of Kamal’s definition, we can all probably think of other novels that might have been included. For me the best – or, depending on your point of view, worst – thing about Kamal’s article is that I now have 40 more novels to add to my to-be-read list.