Susan Choi triumphs over an outstanding shortlist with her ‘luminous’ story Flashlight
The American author Susan Choi has won the 2021 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award with her story Flashlight, beating off stiff competition from fellow American authors Laura Demers and Elizabeth McCracken, Scottish author Rachael Fulton, Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine and British writer Jonathan Gibbs. Susan Choi is the fourth woman in four years to win the award, following in the footsteps of Niamh Campbell (2020), Danielle McLaughlin (2019) and Courtney Zoffness (2018).
‘I’m truly stunned to have won this award. The short story is my first love and first heartbreak – I started writing novels because I could never get a short story right. So to have these judges I admire so much suggest that I got this one right, and to be in the company of these fourteen extraordinary authors on the longlist, and part of the history of this remarkable prize, is an honour I never could have imagined. No disrespect to the integrity of Andrew Holgate, but when he told me I’d won I thought he might be pranking me. Thanks to him, his fellow judges, my fellow longlisted authors, and everyone else involved in the STASSA.’ Winner, Susan Choi
Judge David Mitchell commented:
‘This story maps the moves, feints and thrusts in a double-duel between the young protagonist Louisa and her child psychologist; and between the Louisa who wants to live and thrive, and the Louisa who believes she doesn’t deserve to. The dialogue is probing, unexpected and ever-plausible. FLASHLIGHT depicts the guilt, self-blame and the overwhelmingness of childhood crisis, without once slipping into syrup. The ending is the subtlest of beginnings; and, by virtue of this subtlety, it is luminous.’
Judge Andrew Holgate commented:
‘What you want from a great short story is depth and intensity, and Susan Choi’s FLASHLIGHT delivers those in spades. Apart from all its other virtues what is particularly impressive is the clarity of her understanding of a ten-year-old mind locked inside traumas it can’t quite comprehend. Absolutely superb.’
In Flashlight, a ten-year-old girl sees a psychologist in the aftermath of her father’s drowning, amid concerns about her behaviour and refusal to confront her grief. This is a heart-breaking story about trauma, bereavement and failing relationships, and an exploration of a child’s desperate attempt to achieve agency in her life. Susan 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. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, won the National Book Award for fiction. She teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn. Flashlight can be read here
The other stories in the 2021 shortlist touch on grief and trauma, relationships and love, war and crisis. Elizabeth McCracken’s story The Irish Wedding follows a young American woman as she meets her British boyfriend’s family for the first time at a wedding in Ireland. Funny, sympathetic and warm, this story brilliantly dissects the unique discomfort and casual absurdities that come from being the outsider in a series of first experiences. McCracken was shortlisted for the prize in 2015 and longlisted in 2017. Fellow US writer Laura Demers’ story, Sleeping Beauty, is about a children’s entertainer scraping a living attending birthday parties dressed as various Disney Princesses. The July War by Lebanese author Rabih Alameddine is a coming-of-age story, set amid what the author calls the ‘traumatic and surreal’ experience of the July War in Beirut. Two British writers complete the shortlist. In Jonathan Gibbs’ story, A Prolonged Kiss, art imitates life as the young actress playing Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull uses her staged kiss each evening to seduce her very famous married leading man. Scottish journalist and editor, Rachael Fulton’s story Call is set in Scotland, where two bereaved sisters explore their relationship as they move towards breaking point, as grief, resentment and rivalry all play out.
The winner was announced at 4pm on 8th July 2021
2021 is the third year running that Audible, the leading provider of audio storytelling, have sponsored the Award. Audible have produced an audio anthology of the shortlisted stories, which will be available on 8 July. Visit www.audible.co.uk/sundaytimesshortstory
The Award accepts entries of 6,000 words or under published in English from fiction authors from anywhere in the world who have been published in the UK or Ireland. The Award reflects The Sunday Times’ support for outstanding writing and the rich literary heritage of the newspaper. 2021 has seen 903 eligible entries from over 50 countries, again demonstrating the multinational reach of the Award.
The winner of the award, now in its twelfth year, was chosen by a panel of formidable judges comprising novelist, short-story writer and 2015 winner Yiyun Li; prize-winning author David Mitchell; best-selling novelist and short-story writer Curtis Sittenfeld; and acclaimed short-story writer and Booker prize shortlisted novelist Romesh Gunesekera. Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times, completes the line-up.
Previous winners of the Award include three Pulitzer Prize-winning American authors – Junot Díaz, Anthony Doerr and Adam Johnson – as well as Chinese-American novelist Yiyun Li, CK Stead from New Zealand, Jonathan Tel from the UK, Kevin Barry and Danielle McLaughlin from Ireland, and Bret Anthony Johnston and Courtney Zoffness from America. Shortlisted authors include Colum McCann, Petina Gappah, Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue, Elizabeth Strout, Ali Smith, David Vann, Gerard Woodward, Curtis Sittenfeld, Emma Cline and Miranda July. The 2020 winner was Irish writer Niamh Campbell with her story Love Many.
The prize continues to extend its reach this year, and its championing of the short story form, with the Short Story Library, which launched in July 2020 on the prize website. It features two strands – a regular monthly ‘How to Write’ masterclass by acclaimed writers, about the mechanics of short story writing, and ‘Writers’ Picks’, a video collection of famous writers talking about and championing their favourite short story. Contributors include Mark Haddon, Colm Tóibín, Yiyun Li, Chris Power, Kevin Barry, Kate Mosse, Tracy Chevalier, Ingrid Persaud, Lisa Taddeo, David Nicholls, Elizabeth Strout and Sarah Waters.
Susan 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. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/WG Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lammy Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, received the 2019 National Book Award for fiction. She teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.
About the Award
Originally launched by Lord Evans of EFG Private Bank and Cathy Galvin of The Sunday Times in 2010, The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award is the richest prize for a single short story in the English language. Worth £30,000 to the winner, the international annual award aims to promote and celebrate the excellence of the modern short story and has attracted entries from some of the world’s finest writers.
About The Sunday Times
The Sunday Times, founded in 1822, is Britain’s best-selling quality newspaper. It celebrated its 10,000th edition in May 2016 and has won a clutch of awards for its Insight team investigations unit, its foreign reporting and its magazine features and interviews in particular. At the 2020 Press Awards The Sunday Times's Insight team took the popular-life scoop of the year, the political editor Tim Shipman won political reporter of the year, chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb was named broadsheet feature writer of the year and Chris Haslam was selected as travel journalist of the year.
Among the acclaimed performers who have narrated works of literature for Audible are Zachary Quinto, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins, Emma Thompson and Jesse Eisenberg. Audible Studios has won a Grammy Award, for its production of Janis Ian’s memoir Society’s Child, and has also been recognised with the Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year, for Colin Firth’s performance of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Audible invented and commercialised the first digital audio player in 1997, and has since been at the forefront of the explosively growing audiobook download segment. On average, Audible members listen to Audible content for 2 hours a day. In 2018, Audible customers downloaded nearly 3 billion hours of content.