Susan Choi Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Susan Choi The Foreign Student

Susan Choi is an American novelist.

An Indiana native raised in Texas, Susan Choi is the author of short fiction that has appeared in publications such as Iowa Review and Epoch magazine. Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student (1998), is a love story set in the 1950s that involves dramatically different cultural backgrounds but through which the protagonists find shared experience. The author drew on her Korean-American background to shape a novel that is a collection of scenes and small narratives, features that have drawn comparisons to the writing of Amy Tan, with its "loosely woven" tales, as one reviewer put it. The Foreign Student takes place mostly in Sewanee, Tennessee and centers around Chang "Chuck" Ahn, a 25-year old Korean-born son of a university professor at the University of the South on a scholarship; and Katherine Monroe, a woman in her late 20s who lives in Sewanee in her family's old summer home. Their intersecting lives form the focal point of the narrative which blends descriptions of small-town life with drama from the Korean war. Katherine and Chuck's paths cross over the years and their memories—in the form of fragments of their pasts—are part of the fabric of the narrative that Choi presents in The Foreign Student. Richard Eder observed that "when they meet, Chang and Katherine have traveled journeys that fractured them in very different ways." Chuck, who served as a translator for the United States during the Korean war, has seen the horrors of war and as an immigrant has to adapt to the American South. Katherine has known a quieter yet not untroubled life. The main source of disharmony for her is a perturbing affair with a university professor who is friend of the family and with whom Katherine has been involved from the age of 14 until the novel's present time. Katherine invites Chuck to New Orleans, where her mother is dying, and there the two come to terms with their pasts. One critic saw in the novel the theme of survival—depicted in the intimate struggles of the protagonists and in the larger historical backdrop. Choi's use of the Korean war setting (1950–53) has been appreciated by several reviewers who have noted a paucity of American writing covering that historical period. Critics are generally not taken by the love story itself, and the novel's plot and character development arc not seen as prominent achievements. Choi's prose style, on the other hand, has been widely praised for its economy, and has been described as "unburnished," "clear-eyed," and "startlingly expressive." The Foreign Student is generally regarded as a convincing first novel. Charlie Dickinson, for example, observed in Choi a "sensitivity to emotional electricity," and Michele Leber wrote that Choi has written "a resonant story" that "blends unlikely elements" in a way that "immerses the reader in the times, places, and lives of her characters as only the best fiction can."