Susan Choi Takes Her Teenagers Seriously

Apr 9, 2019
Originally published on April 9, 2019 6:40 pm

The new novel Trust Exercise opens with teenagers attending an elite performing arts high school in the 1980s.

There, the theater kids form heartfelt friendships and relationships, and then sabotage them. Their semi-tyrannical drama teacher both inspires and manipulates them — with his "trust exercises."

Midway through, the book leaps forward in time and perspective. One of the students, Karen, is now an adult, re-thinking her past.

Trust Exercise is Susan Choi's fifth novel. She wanted to explore what happens when you look back on decisions that you made as an adolescent — when you felt like a grown-up, but may not have been as in control of your life as you had imagined.


Interview Highlights

On the teenage mind

It's so hard to just decode the world. And when we're teenagers, I think that we're wildly improvising. We're just sort of grabbing standards of judgment, we're grabbing values out of the air, and hoping that they fit. And we are really, really, I think, prone to make mistakes. I hate speaking for all teens, but I have to say: As a teen myself, I made loads and loads of real mistakes about the values that I held, the things that I thought were important versus dumb, the people that I thought were admirable versus silly. I really was basing my judgments on pretty limited experience. But it was so important to make those judgments. Remember? That's what it was all about. That's what growing up is all about. ... And we're supposed to! I mean again, that's what we're supposed to do ... because that's what growing up is.

On discovering the music of David Bowie

As a teen, it was very important for me to understand about music. And I remember being confronted by David Bowie. ... I remember David Bowie being this amazing conundrum, where I was like: Is this the kind of thing lots of people like? Is this a secret that I've discovered? Is this — I think I like it, I think that's OK, I think I'm brave enough to choose this as one of the things that I like. So that was what we were constantly trying to do. But with ... a very small toolbox.

On Karen's high-school experiences, in hindsight

Karen is a student who has an experience that I think could be recognized by some people who have struggled to know how to feel about a relationship they were involved in, in the past when they were young. Karen is really torn between — to put it most simply — blaming the adult in the room at the time, and blaming herself, because she felt so much like another adult in the room at that time. But now that she's really an adult, it's impossible for her not to understand that she was a child. ...

What Karen is really struggling with, that I really struggle with, is that she had an experience of agency, of choosing. ... And what do you do with that? Once you grow up, what do you do with that? And so that was something that I — I didn't want to give the reader a pat answer because I don't think there is one.

On how some women feel about other women coming forth with accusations of misbehavior later in life, in this passage:

Karen's attitude toward them is violently mixed. She might defend them to David, but in her bowels she scorns them, these young women who made a bad judgment and now want to blame someone else.

The thing that's really complicated about this — and I would never want a reader to imagine that that sentiment of Karen's is in some way a sentiment being endorsed by the book — what I wanted to express is that I think that sentiment is really real. I think it's one of the reasons that people who experience abuse or misconduct at whatever level struggle so much with figuring out how to tell the story to themselves before they even try to tell the story to others.

I think a lot has changed for young women today, and I think a lot hasn't. I think a lot is exactly the same as it was when I was a young woman. I think that there's every reason for a young woman to feel very strongly that allying herself with a powerful man, regardless of how she has to do it, might be her path forward — might sometimes be her only path forward. And forming that alliance may be a decision she makes when she is less experienced, and a decision that she is able to recognize for how compromised it was later in life, but we still have to recognize that there's this whole baked-in social and cultural structure that's pointing her toward that decision. Just identifying all the "bad men" and putting them into a time-out isn't really going to address the ways in which sexism is baked into our society.

On if younger generations are more cognizant of structural sexism

Oh yeah, definitely. I don't think that I would have written this book without my students. And I think the experience of teaching younger people — my students [at Yale University] are all 17-20 years old, and I've been teaching for quite a while — their way of seeing and their way of thinking is totally different. And I'm so grateful from it. ...

There are a lot of things that I take for granted that I realize: I shouldn't take them for granted. I shouldn't just go, "Oh, well that's just the way it is." My students will go, "No. Uh-uh. We don't like it. We don't like this. It shouldn't be like this." And it's like having the wool pulled from my eyes, where I've most often end[ed] up going, "Wow, they're right. I don't know why I would've accepted that."

Justine Kenin and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new novel "Trust Exercise" opens with teenagers attending an elite performing arts high school in the 1980s. There the theater kids form heartfelt friendships and relationships, and then they sabotage them all while they're semi-tyrannical drama teacher inspires and manipulates them. Midway through, the book leaps forward in time and in perspective. One of the students, Karen, is now an adult rethinking her whole past.

"Trust Exercise" is Susan Choi's fifth novel. She wanted to explore what happens when you look back on decisions you made as an adolescent. I asked her what she was trying to get at with how the teenage mind works.

SUSAN CHOI: When we're teenagers, we're wildly improvising. We're just sort of grabbing standards of judgment. We're grabbing values out of the air and hoping that they fit. And we are really, really, I think, prone to make mistakes. I know I did. I hate speaking for all teens, but I'd say...

CHANG: Sure.

CHOI: ...Like, as a teen myself, I made loads and loads of, like, real mistakes about the values that I held, the things that I thought were important versus dumb, the people that I thought were admirable versus silly. You know, I really was basing my judgments on pretty limited experience. But it was so important to make those judgments, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOI: Remember; like, that was - that's what it was all about. That's what growing up is all.

CHANG: Oh, yeah, I felt each of those judgments with such conviction. Don't you tell me I am wrong. This is what I believe absolutely.

CHOI: Yeah, and we're supposed to. I mean, again, like, that's what we're supposed to do. That's what...

CHANG: As teenagers.

CHOI: Yeah 'cause that's what growing up is, right? Growing up is, like, forming our own judgments. But it's funny. But as a teen, it was very important to me to understand about music. And I remember being confronted with David Bowie.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHOI: And...

CHANG: Like, just a puzzle you couldn't quite resolve in your head.

CHOI: Yeah, exactly. I remember David Bowie being this amazing conundrum where I was like, is this the kind of thing lots of people like? Is this a secret that I've discovered? I think I like it. I think that's OK. I think I'm...

CHANG: Am I supposed to?

CHOI: I think I'm brave enough to, you know, choose this as one of the things that I like. So that was what we were constantly trying to do but with...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOI: ...Again, with, like, a very small toolbox.

CHANG: Which is why it was so fascinating - this device you used. You switch narrators in the middle of this story. And by doing so, you really confront the fallibility of memory, how truth does change as people age and look back and realize how they reconstructed history, how people can remember very different things about the same events. And it's Karen that I'm talking about. I have to say I couldn't decide who to be angry at in the end because I couldn't decide, well, what was the truth then? Is that what you intended - for me to feel indecisive about...

CHOI: I...

CHANG: ...What actually happened?

CHOI: Karen is a student who has an experience that I think could be recognized by some people who have struggled to know how to feel about a relationship they were involved in...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOI: ...In the past when they were young. Karen is really torn between, to put it most simply, blaming the adult in the room at the time and blaming herself because she felt so much like another adult in the room at that time. But now that she's really an adult, it's impossible for her not to understand that she was a child.

CHANG: Right. This man was someone who was maybe two decades older than her at least.

CHOI: Yeah - and a person who was in a position of trust...

CHANG: Right.

CHOI: ...You know, to allude to the title. And so but what Karen is really struggling with that I really struggled with is that she had an experience of agency of choosing.

CHANG: When she was going through it as...

CHOI: Yeah.

CHANG: ...A young girl.

CHOI: When she was going through it as a young person. And what do you do with that?

CHANG: Right.

CHOI: Once you grew up, what do you do with that? And so that was something that I didn't want to give the reader a pat answer because I don't think there is one.

CHANG: Yeah. It made me think about - here we are in the #MeToo age. We're watching powerful men fall one by one. And you're seeming to suggest that we should still be wary of where the truth lies and where was their agency, and where was there not? There's this point in your book where Karen's thinking about other women coming forward with accusations of misbehavior later in life, and she's thinking, quote, "in her bowels, she scorns them - these young women who made a bad judgment and now want to blame someone else."

CHOI: The thing that's really complicated about this - and I would never want a reader to imagine that that sentiment of Karen's is in some way a sentiment being endorsed by the book. What I what I wanted to express is that I think that sentiment's really real. I think it's one of the reasons that people who experience abuse or misconduct at whatever level struggle so much with figuring out how to tell the story to themselves before they even try to tell the story to others. I think a lot has changed for young women today, and I think a lot hasn't. I think a lot is exactly the same...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOI: ...As it was when I was a young woman. I think that there's every reason for a young woman to feel very strongly that allying herself with a powerful man regardless of how she has to do it might be her path forward; it might sometimes be her only path forward. And forming that alliance may be a decision she makes when she is less experienced and a decision that she is able to recognize for how compromised it was later in life. But we still have to recognize that there's - you know, there's this whole baked-in social and cultural structure...

CHANG: Right.

CHOI: ...That's pointing her toward that decision.

CHANG: Exactly. The piece that you really get into is even when a woman or a girl, in this case, thinks she's acting autonomously as an agent of freewill, making decisions on her own to be in a seemingly inappropriate relationship, she doesn't realize until years later that she wasn't acting completely autonomously.

CHOI: Absolutely. And it's the emotional experience of freewill which is very different from the actual experience of freewill that I think is so confusing. I know it was so easy for me as a young woman to feel...

CHANG: You chose it.

CHOI: ...That I was choosing.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOI: That's an emotional experience. But the larger structure within which I was operating wasn't visible to me.

CHANG: But are you more hopeful with this new generation about being cognizant of those structures?

CHOI: Oh, yeah, definitely. I don't think that I would have written this book without my students. My students are all 17 to 20 years old, and I've been teaching for quite a while. Their way of seeing and their way of thinking is totally different. And I'm so grateful. There are a lot of things that I take for granted that I realize I shouldn't take them for granted. I shouldn't just go, oh, well, that's just the way it is.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHOI: You know, my students will go, no, we don't like it; we don't like this; it shouldn't be like this. And it's like having the wool pulled from my eyes where I've - most often end up going, wow, they're right. You know, I don't know why would have accepted that.

CHANG: Susan Choi's new book is called "Trust Exercise." Thank you very much for joining us today.

CHOI: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

DAVID BOWIE: And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through. Changes... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.