Write the great pandemic novel

By Lilibeth Garcia

When Sam Choi (’91) started his studies at UCI as a major in biological sciences, he had no idea that he would soon turn to English after taking the Humanities Core courses – or that, 30 years later, a once-in-a-century pandemic would transform the world, and that would inspire him to write his first novel: The quarantine fanboy (2021).

Choi’s journey to becoming a published author was not linear but not entirely unpredictable either. Although he is now vice president of digital design at CVS Health, Choi studied creative writing throughout high school, at UCI with English teachers Julia Lupton and Michelle Latiolais, and while earning a Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania.

The prolonged and seemingly uneventful period of isolation during the first pandemic gave him an open canvas to imagine a story about what it means to be alone. When the highways emptied in March 2020, Choi’s commute was replaced by a morning writing session that resulted in a book-length project.

The novel follows David Yi – a recently divorced, remote working father who cannot visit his daughter due to COVID restrictions – during the first half of 2020. To cope, he fills his free time by obsessing over a unilateral relationship with a Korean Influencer.

As if a midlife crisis alone wasn’t enough, Yi must come to terms with being “midlife” and deal with the realities of aging parents, growing children, and deteriorating relationships – all with the limitations of the state-imposed lockdown. It means taking into account what he took for granted in pre-pandemic life: communication, intimacy, family, vacation, community and tradition.

“Once you hit a certain age, you start thinking about what’s really important in the world,” Choi says. “And sometimes it’s very, very, very simple things, as opposed to all the millions of stupid things that we think are important.”

The story also talks about being Korean in America and American in Korea. Amid K-drama frenzies, learning Korean recipes, and her Korean friends asking her to return her “Korean card,” Yi questions her own identity and embarks on a heartfelt search for belonging. Despite the heavy themes, there is a levity that runs through the narrative.

In early 2020, restaurants were closing their dining rooms en masse, and those who couldn’t find success with takeout were closing their doors permanently. From solitary frozen burritos to an indulgent Korean barbecue dinner with distant relatives at the end of lockdown, Choi has often written about the meals that accentuate everyday life and give us meaning.

“It’s a very primal and intimate experience of sharing food with people,” he says. “Even in prehistoric times, we used to go back to the cave and share food, and today it’s one of the main ways of socializing. During the pandemic, that’s what we lost. We have lost the ability to go out and eat with people because restaurants have closed.”

Once a anteater, always an anteater

His book was late in coming. At UCI, Choi found himself at home in Humanities Core – a year-long seminar series that freshmen are required to take. The themes of his year were “love, self and family”. In the spring, he took a course in Shakespeare with Lupton who would decide his fate.

Choi’s Humanities Core Book Collection

“Lower-level biology was mostly about memorizing, learning the principles of things already discovered, and applying them, which is obviously an important foundation for learning more, but I felt like I wasn’t discovering anything on my own- even,” he said. remember. “While in English, while we were reading Shakespeare, books that were written hundreds of years ago, the teachers wanted to hear what I thought. They didn’t want me to memorize someone’s take. another. They wanted my catch, and that’s what I loved. I loved being able to bring my own perspective and write my thoughts and make my own arguments – even if they were totally wrong.

Choi minored in French and Philosophy because they enhanced his appreciation of great literature. As a humanities student, he completed an imaginative thesis on a fictional alternate text that tells the story of Spartacus, for which Latiolais was his advisor.

After earning a doctorate, Choi first worked as an assistant professor of English at The Ohio State University, where he met Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, currently director of the UCI Humanities Center and professor of Asian studies. Americans. They were both fresh graduates and the only two Asian American faculty members hired that year, even though Ohio State had the largest student population in the United States at the time. They have become great friends.

Although he left academia for the corporate world to develop his interest in digital technologies, Choi’s penchant for creative writing lingered. After writing the first draft of his novel, he contacted Wu, who reviewed it and offered honest feedback, particularly on its historical angle and how to ground it in the events that unfolded at the start. of the pandemic. He also worked with Chancellor Emeritus Professor of English Margot Norris, who was one of his favorite teachers at UCI. Like Wu, she read each chapter and gave him advice on how to improve.

Latiolais and Lupton, who are still professors at UCI, will chair a conference on the book for Choi on April 27, and the event is co-sponsored by the UCI Center for Humanities and the Center for Korean Critical Studies.

Although his time at the UCI goes back a long way, his training in the human sciences has left an imprint that continues to impact his life until today (and perhaps in the future, since his son, a freshman in high school, aspires to attend UCI like his father).

Choi still remembers all of his classes thanks to a library he keeps, which contains the wide variety of books he read during his undergraduate studies. The texts are sorted in the order in which they were taught. “I can look at my library and replicate all of my courses,” he says. An entire shelf is devoted to the Humanities Core books that fueled him on his path to becoming a lifelong writer and, now, an author.

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