NER author Yoon Choi talks with our editorial panel member Rose Whitmore about Choi’s story “The Art of Losing” (NER 38.2), the balance in relationships, and “how many solutions in a story are solutions of craft.”
“The Art of Losing” was selected by guest editor Roxane Gay for Best American Short Stories 2018.
Rose Whitmore: This beautiful story examines the dueling and combined consciousnesses of an aging couple: Mo-Sae and Young-Ja. Alternating points of view present such a wild ride in short stories. Can you talk about how this story took shape for you?
Yoon Choi: I began this story after many years—over a decade—away from writing. Maybe I had to be a little dishonest with myself to get going. I called this thing I was writing an idea, an exercise, a sketch—anything but a story. What I remember about that early version is the plot: a grandfather gets lost and drowns in a municipal pond. At some point, as the story got longer—not necessarily better, just longer—I began to encounter real challenges in narrating from Mo-Sae’s perspective. Simply put, the man had Alzheimer’s. There were too many things he couldn’t remember. In that sense, the decision to introduce another point of view, the wife’s, was simply a practical one. In her modest and self-effacing way, Young-Ja was useful in supplementing Mo-Sae’s narration. Still, many pages later, in one of those weird writing moments, I found that Mo-Sae would return the favor, telling the rest of their story when Young-Ja herself could not.
RW: One wonderful line of Mo-Sae’s stayed with me long after I put the story down: “He gets the impression that he is already looking back on a life; a life divested of time, ego, and even regard; a life weary of its own argument.” This line captures the essence of the story. How did you come to these characters at this moment in their lives, and how did you approach them as a manifestation of their own “arguments”?
YC: I like that line too—can I say that? Probably because, unlike most others, it was not such a struggle to write.
To answer your question, I suspect that in most quiet lives, there is a self that whispers arguments for itself—that says, Self, you have value and meaning. (Perhaps this is true of all lives, quiet or otherwise.) With Mo-Sae and Young-Ja, I wondered how these elderly characters would respond as their sense of self was challenged by the realities of old age. Physical decline, memory loss, the inability to be persons of useful service. How, or even whether, they would take up their old “arguments” in light of these limitations.
RW: The relationship between your characters carries all the harbingers of a long-weathered marriage. Mo-Sae’s anger and defiance wilt into tenderness and confusion, almost grounding him. When you were writing his point-of-view, did you see anger or willfulness as a tool or a trait for his character? How did that fit in with Young-Ja’s more practical, dutiful work ethic?
YC: I see many aspects of Mo-Sae and Young-Ja’s personalities—his impatience, her subservience—as culturally conventional rather than specific to the character. I think that for people of a certain generation, of a certain background, such conventions can feel like . . . home.
Definitely, there are the moments in this story in which the characters act in an unconventional way. I’m thinking of Young-Ja’s friendship with Mr. Sorenson (although the dynamic still has her at a disadvantage) or Mo-Sae’s flashes of sympathy toward Young-Ja at the end of the story. But I think these moments are unusual and even taxing on the characters.
RW: In the marriages you write, here and in your other stories, there’s almost always a secret self that coexists alongside a shared identity. This story, for example, is a balance of things withheld—either on purpose (on Young-Ja’s part) or as consequence or manifestation of disease (in the case of Mo-Sae). How difficult was it to strike that balance for these two characters?
YC: I think you’ve just written a good definition of marriage, fictional or otherwise! A balance between secret selves. I love that. And I definitely think that that exists: most marriages find a balance between communication and held silences, shared sympathies and self-tending. This may even hold true for characters like Mo-Sae and Young-Ja, who probably don’t give much thought to the concept of marriage or the idea of secret selves. They just are married. They just are who they are.
I wasn’t attempting anything so self-aware as “striking a balance for the characters.” I was more . . . grasping in the dark, feeling my way through attitudes that each character would probably have left unarticulated.
RW: There are a few really striking details that stay with me: the first is the way that Mo-Sae “memorizes” English. It’s such a powerful, bizarre, and almost terror-filled act. What was the origin of this moment in your writing?
YC: When I first read this question, I absolutely couldn’t remember this moment in the story. At a random moment later in the day, it came to me: I once had a Sunday School teacher with a face scarred by smallpox. I remember two things about her. Once, she gave us a demonstration of sin using a pitcher of water and food coloring. Another time, she told us that she had learned English by eating a page of the dictionary each time she had memorized the words. Decades later, I had Mo-Sae do the same.
RW: There is a beautiful moment between Mo-Sae and his grandson when they go out to buy ice cream and the boy dumps a can of coins into a swimming pool. Together, they share a boyhood fascination watching the coins sink. How did you approach capturing the emotional devastation of Alzheimer’s there?
YC: I had so much trouble writing this scene and the logistics surrounding it! For some reason, the sheer mechanics of getting grandpa and grandson out of the apartment, down to the ground floor, through the gate, and to the swimming pool were beyond my writing ability. I wasn’t sure how much of “they did this” and “then they did that” the reader could take. These mechanical details were so frustrating that, once I got the verbs in place, the other elements of the scene—description, emotion—seemed to simply emerge.
RW: There is an element of questioning in this piece, almost as if the story is interrogating itself. A beautiful example of that is when Mo-Sae chooses to have his solo in the choir. We can’t say what he was thinking, all we know is what the crowd saw. Were you conscious of this juxtaposition when you were writing it?
YC: I realize as I try to answer your perceptive questions, Rose, how little I know when I write, and how many solutions in a story are solutions of craft. I can only guess that I left Mo-Sae’s point of view during the moment of his solo probably because I thought it would be more cruel and effective to do so. Because in his mind, he really is singing a solo. From his perspective, he is in his glory. Perhaps I thought this would be a good and truthful moment to step back and have the reader perceive him in his lonely delusions.
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Yoon Choi is a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and a 2017 recipient of a Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University. Her work has most recently been published in Michigan Quarterly Review and Chicago Quarterly Review. She lives with her four children and her husband in Anaheim, California.
Rose Whitmore serves on the editorial panel for nonfiction at NER and is a current Stegner Fellow. Her writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, and others. She is the recipient of a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, a residency from Hedgebrook, and the 2013 Peden Prize from the Missouri Review.