Writers & Company

Susan Choi's Trust Exercise is an intense coming-of-age story — with a surprising twist

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the American author spoke about the novel's timely depiction of power dynamics, memory and consent.
Susan Choi is an American author who won the 2019 National Book Award for fiction for novel Trust Exercise. (Heather Weston)
Listen to the full episode59:22

Susan Choi's fifth novel, Trust Exercise, won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction and was named a best book of the year by more than a dozen publications.

Set in a highly competitive performing arts school in the 1980s, Trust Exercise is a timely exploration of sexual politics, fiction and truth. The National Book Award jury praised its "intellectual rigour," calling the story "mesmerizing, and in the end, unsettling." 

Born in South Bend, Ind., Choi is the only child of a Korean father and an American mother from a Russian Jewish immigrant family. Her acclaimed novels — including The Foreign Student, American Woman and A Person of Interest — often centre on Asian-American characters, drawing inspiration from real-life events.

In 2010, Choi was named the inaugural winner of the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award.

She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York. 

Trust me

"Trust exercises are things that acting students might be familiar with — and even anybody who's been on a team building retreat or a corporate retreat.

"If you've ever been told to stand on something and fall backwards into the interlaced arms of a bunch of people that you don't know that well, that's a trust exercise. It's an activity designed to break down the individual and build up the communal. 

"It's something that occurs in a bunch of different contexts. In the book, the activity occurs within an acting program at an American performing arts high school during the 1980s.

[The trust exercise] is an activity designed to break down the individual and build up the communal. - Susan Choi

"The acting teacher is talking the students through this exercise. He's telling them not just what to do, but what to think — and what sort of an attitude to have. He wants them to perceive things as if they have no preconceptions."

False intimacy 

"Despite the apparent intensity and intimacy of the trust exercise, the students don't actually know that much about each other. At the same time, they know too much. False intimacy is confusing because you learn a lot about somebody, but you don't really know them. You haven't earned that knowledge of them. It's a precarious relationship. 

"The students are all in that kind of relationship to each other. They've been coached into coughing up a lot of intimate information about themselves.

Despite the intensity and apparent intimacy of the trust exercise, the students don't actually know that much about each other.- Susan Choi

"So they're under the impression that they know each other — and that they're known by each other — but it's not really true."

Shades of grey

"I did attend a performing arts high school for three years in the 1980s. I made friends that I still treasure to this day. It was a lot of fun. At the same time, it was this remarkable experience of being offered a window into this strange and demanding world of drama training. It was easy to see how it could go wrong. 

"We were young and impressionable. Our adolescence does shape us for life, whether we know it or not. There's something so uniquely complicated, fungible and ambiguous about the selves that we are when we are young.

There's something so uniquely complicated, fungible and ambiguous about the selves that we are when we are young.- Susan Choi

"We're ceasing to be kids, we're becoming adults but we're neither one of those things. We're something in-between. Our culture calls it adolescence or 'the teenage years.' But whatever we call it, the fact that we're constantly naming it is an indication that it is the stage of life we're not sure how to understand. We're not sure how to treat those people who are that age. It's a grey area."

Age of accountability

"Many of my books are set in academic or educational settings. I've spent a lot of time in those settings, being the daughter of a professor. My father was a student on a student visa and became a teacher. I was raised in an environment that venerated this idea that education was not just a path, but a shelter. I've lived in that shelter my whole life.

"I'm preoccupied with that world and that set of relationships — particularly student-teacher relationships — within this world. It's complicated. It's got its good and bad sides and I've explored it a lot."

I was raised in an environment that venerated this idea that education was not just a path, but a shelter.- Susan Choi

"What was most compelling to me about these real-life cases of students who had become entangled in abusive relationships with adults who were in positions of trust — be they teachers, priests, coaches or doctors — is there is this recurring theme of the student feeling responsible for what happened to them. They were under the impression that they were making a free choice at the age of 14 or 16.

"They were utterly enthralled by a much older teacher who had power over them — who flattered, manipulated and drew them into an inappropriate intimacy. A young person might have felt they walked into it with their eyes open and so it must be their fault. It's complicated that someone would feel that way when they were at this vulnerable age."

Susan Choi's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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