‘Trust Exercise’ author Susan Choi on why she hasn’t explored her Jewish background in her writing

Susan Choi attends the “American Woman” premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 12, 2019. (Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — On the day she found out she was being considered for the National Book Awards, Susan Choi was swimming laps at her gym, trying to busy herself.

“Early in my career I just learned to close my ears to awards season,” she said. “I think it’s distracting and really stressful.”

When Choi emerged from the water, she found her phone flooded with emoji-filled congratulatory text messages. Her novel “Trust Exercise” had made the first cut.

In October, she was named a finalist and last month she took home the prestigious award.

The Brooklyn-based author’s coming-of-age novel follows a group of students at a suburban performing arts school in the early 1980s. Two students there navigate the fallout of an intense relationship. The novel tells its story, which deals with issues of consent and sexual assault, from multiple perspectives that at times leaves the reader unsure of what actually transpired.

Choi, whose father is Korean and mother is Jewish, started working on “Trust Exercise” about five or six years ago, but it came further into focus with the explosion of the #MeToo movement. In a first for the author, current events influenced her to the extent that she decided to tweak the ending of the novel before its publication earlier this year.

“I kept saying to my agent, ‘I just don’t think the ending is what I want it to be,’” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone interview Thursday.

As dozens of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein came out in the fall of 2017 and then against other prominent men, Choi said she was especially influenced by conversations on the topic with other women.

Choi, 50, is no stranger to critical acclaim.

Her novel “American Women,” which was based on the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by a left-wing terrorist organization, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was turned into a film that premiered earlier this year. She has won a number of awards, including the Asian American Literary Award, the PEN Emerging Writers Awards and the Lambda Literary Award, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

She grew up up in South Bend, Indiana, the daughter of a Korean immigrant father and an American-born Jewish mother whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe. There she saw no families that looked like hers — in fact, Choi says there were no other Jewish or Asian people in her neighborhood.

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