From the Law to the Page

S. Isabel Choi J.D. ’02 planned on becoming a judge. Now she’s an author with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Most writers agree that validation is their ever-dangling carrot. Affirmation that their ideas are worthwhile is worth, well, a whole lot. For S. Isabel Choi J.D. ’02, receiving a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts has been the biggest acknowledgment to date that her decision to become a writer was the right one. It also reminded Choi of how life can move from lows to highs in an instant with news of this fellowship coming shortly after the death of a friend.

“Those two events happening so close to each other was a sobering reminder to me to really focus on what matters to me,” Choi says. “Which includes continuing to build my writing career and being there for my husband and son.”

Originally trained as a litigator, Choi hoped to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather—who served as the chief justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court—in becoming a judge in California. But though she found work at a wonderful firm in the Bay Area, the work itself felt less than wonderful.

Only after writing dispatches for a local bar association newsletter and enrolling in an MFA creative writing program did Choi find her groove. Writing has since become akin to meditation, providing Choi with a centeredness that had eluded her when she practiced law. 

“The shift from vicariously observing other people’s stories to sculpting those stories myself, that new stance, I didn’t expect it but it just felt like home to my soul,” Choi says. “And writing is something that I can’t leave behind like I did with the law.”

As someone who has grown up between different cultures—Choi is a Gen-X immigrant from Seoul who grew up in the ’80s in a majority Korean community in northern New Jersey—writing is also a means of learning more about familial ties lost to the annals of history.

S. Isabel Choi J.D. ’02
S. Isabel Choi J.D. ’02 is a 2024 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow based in the Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Slice, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, Sweet Lit, and The Rumpus. Photo provided by Choi.

The life story of her grandfather who escaped North Korea as a prisoner of war by fleeing across a river only to jump to his death into another river decades later in South Korea served as the impetus for her memoir, Let the River Run.

Examining the gap between the bookends of his life and the decade-long process of writing a generational memoir has led Choi to explore the values she inherited and the artistry of writing. With each draft, she considers how her life and perspectives have changed and how that’s reflected in her work. Represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Choi recently finished her memoir and is now looking for a publisher.

“I’d like readers to consider that family narratives are not necessarily the truth, but changing perspectives depending on who’s telling the story, and who’s listening to the story,” Choi says. “Also, to embrace the idea of family and culture as scaffoldings that you can create and build upon.”

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