Yale writing teacher’s ‘phosphorescent’ novel wins National Book Award

Susan Choi at the National Book Awards gala on Nov. 20.
Susan Choi at the National Book Awards gala on Nov. 20. (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Susan Choi ’90, who teaches writing at Yale as a lecturer in English, has won a National Book Award for her novel “Trust Exercise.”

Choi’s book was named the winner in the fiction category at a gala in Manhattan on Nov. 20. The event was emceed by LeVar Burton, former host of “Reading Rainbow.”

The National Book Awards were established in 1950 to celebrate the best writing in America and are given each year in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature. Winners receive $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.

Each year, a panel of judges selects 10 finalists in each category, which is then narrowed to five, before the winner is announced at the ceremony. Each finalist wins $1,000, a medal, and a judge’s citation. Publishers submitted more than 1,700 books for consideration.

Trust Exercise book jacket

Trust Exercise,” Choi’s fifth novel, is about a group of teenagers at a highly competitive performing arts school in an American suburb in the 1980s. Two of the students in the group, David and Sarah, fall in love. The boundaries of fiction and reality are pushed in a tale that is itself a trust exercise for readers. In its review, The New York Times said of the book: “Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest. … Choi builds her novel carefully, but it is packed with wild moments of grace and fear and abandon … a phosphorescent examination of sexual consent.”

The other finalists in the fiction category are Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s “Sabrina & Corina: Stories,” Marlon James’ “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Laila Lalami’s “The Other Americans,” and Julia Phillips’ “Disappearing Earth.”

The longer I do this — write books — and also teach writing for a living, the more I am struck by how it’s really its own reward,” said Choi at the awards ceremony, adding, “I really find it an astonishing privilege that this is what I get to do for a living.”

In an email with YaleNews the day after her win, Choi shared that receiving the National Book Award “felt like a waking dream.” She described how, in her dazed excitement, she “blew right past” people who were trying to hug her to approach the stage.

“I'm incredibly honored, and really humbled. So many incredible books are published every year — literally hundreds of novels, by writers I hugely admire — that to have my book emerge from the jury's year-long process, in which five of them work their way through all those hundreds, feels to me like a magic trick,” Choi continued. “It's hard to believe it's real. I'll be happily working on trying to absorb this for a while.”

Choi’s first novel, “The Foreign Student,” won the Asian American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, “American Woman,” was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film. Her third novel, “A Person of Interest,” was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and her fourth novel, “My Education,” received a 2014 Lambda Literary Award. Choi was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award in 2010.

Another Yale faculty member, history professor Greg Grandin, was of the 10 finalists in the nonfiction category for his book “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America,” which explores the frontier throughout the full sweep of American history. He joined the Yale faculty this fall.

The other winners of the National Book Award are Sarah M. Broom’s “The Yellow House” (nonfiction); Arthur Sze’s “Sight Lines” (poetry); László Krasznahorkai’s “Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming,” translated by Ottilie Mulzet (translated literature); and Martin W. Sandler’s “1919: The Year That Changed America” (young people’s literature).

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324