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Alumni Profile: Susan Lieu AB '07 (author, playwright, performer)

by Laura Frustaci

Susan Lieu AB '07 is a Vietnamese-American author, playwright, and performer who tells stories that refuse to be forgotten. A daughter of nail salon workers, she took her award-winning autobiographical solo show 140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER on a ten-city national tour, with sold-out premieres and accolades from the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and American Theatre. Eight months pregnant, she premiered her sequel, OVER 140 LBS, at ACT Theatre. She is a proud alumna of Harvard College, Yale School of Management, Coro, Hedgebrook, and Vashon Artist Residency. She is also the cofounder of Socola Chocolatier, an artisanal chocolate company based in San Francisco. Susan lives with her husband and son in Seattle, where they enjoy mushroom hunting, croissants, and big family gatherings. THE MANICURIST'S DAUGHTER is her first book. Pre-order THE MANICURIST'S DAUGHTER here!

“I’ve always felt called to be a performer,” says Susan Lieu AB ‘07. And perform, she does. Her award-winning one-woman show 140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER led to a sequel performance AND a book deal, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up. While in high school, Susan describes herself as “the community service type,” so she didn’t find much time for artistic endeavors. And upon arriving at Harvard, she found herself feeling a bit intimidated by SAG-card-carrying classmates. “I never thought I could do it,” Susan confesses, “because I always actually felt too late.”

Then, after her very first time onstage at Harvard performing in THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, she found her creative spark unleashed. “It was the first time I ever worked with a director. It was the first time I had ever really been formally on stage and it was thrilling.” Susan was hooked, but she didn’t immediately jump into the career. “The creative arts continued to follow me, but in non-traditional ways.” Post-grad, she traveled to Vietnam for a year to work with the sustainable cacao industry, later returning to San Francisco to build her family chocolate company, Socola Chocolatier, with her sister. When they launched their Sriracha chili truffle, Susan wrote and starred in a three-part telenovela chronicling the love affair of Chocolate Bar (which she played) and Sir Ra Cha Cha. 

After dipping her toe in the creative arts, she wanted more. “In 2011, I had a big worry that the Mayan calendar was true and 2012 would be the end of the world. I didn’t want to die with any regrets. I wanted to address my biggest fear head-on before I died– I wanted to know if I was actually funny,” she recalls. This line of thinking set Susan along her path to becoming a successful stand-up comedian, doing her first set at Brainwash in San Francisco, with an emcee who called all the female performers “Sugar Nasty”. Within a year, she was headlining at The Purple Onion and then subsequently performed at Caroline’s on Broadway. “I loved being on stage,” Susan smiles. “I was in my orbit there.” She focused on creating comedy and content that she wanted to see, inspired by her Asian American identity. 

But after a traumatizing experience with a heckler, she walked away and didn’t touch a microphone again for the next three years. After getting married and receiving pressure from her elders to start having kids, Susan reconsidered her decision to leave comedy. “How could I be a mother if I was actually such a coward in my own life?” She reflects. “I had this reckoning of ‘Should I have kids or not?’ And I set myself a two-year container to explore it, which led to a solo performance class, which led to me workshopping my one woman show.” So, in 2019, Susan premiered 140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER, a solo show where she played 15 characters in 65 minutes.

It was a sold-out run in Seattle that led to a national tour during the second trimester of Susan’s first pregnancy. The five-city tour turned into a ten-city tour and ultimately, a literary agent saw the show and approached Susan about representation. “I am a multi-hyphenate storyteller, and I would love to play in many places,” Susan notes about her work and shifting mediums. “I'm a very spontaneous person. I like newness.” Susan then spent the first year of the pandemic working on her book proposal while nursing a newborn. In 2021, she got a book deal with Celadon/Macmillan, and her debut book is set to be released on March 12, 2024.

THE MANICURIST’S DAUGHTER tells the story of Susan searching to know her late mother who died from a botched plastic surgery. Susan was just 11 and her mother was 38 when she died. For the next two decades, Susan’s family refuses to talk about her mother or her death. On the brink of motherhood herself, Susan discovers information by tracking down the plastic surgeon’s family, reading thousands of pages of depositions, and enlisting the help of spirit channelers. Every time she learns something new, she puts it onstage in a one-woman show.

Crafting a family narrative that was honest, complex, and compelling when her family has never spoken about the past was the most challenging aspect of the project.  Susan had to excavate her family history in over 300 detail-ridden pages, rather than just a tight 65-minute performance. “I had this obligation and burden and pressure,” Susan explains. “Because it's not just my story–it's our family story and I needed to get it right. But I only had ten real memories of my mom. And so, to then create a whole world where you really see the complexity of my  mom and all the other family members when they haven’t ever let me in–that was both a tender and challenging thing to navigate. I had to get creative in probing for information–directly and indirectly.”

There was much more development that went into the minute details of the memoir, versus in the performance, where time was of the essence onstage. The challenge of molding all of this together into a readable story was exacerbated by the loneliness of writing during the pandemic with a one-year-old, Susan found. And without the immediate gratification of an audience reaction, maintaining discipline to write was another obstacle she faced. “The only motivation I really had is that I promised my mother and myself that I would publish this book when I was still 38 years old, the age she was when she passed,” she recalls. 

With that propelling her forward coupled by two trips to the emergency room due to stress, Susan’s memoir THE MANICURIST’S DAUGHTER got finished. It’s a touching and powerful telling of Susan’s mother’s life, death, and the wrought aftermath. And all the challenges in creation were worth the reward of the finished project. “I created something I’m proud of,” Susan proclaims. “It’s a family heirloom and artifact. And it’s a funny page-turner! It’s about intergenerational trauma and healing that’s digestible and approachable.” 

Now, she’s looking ahead towards her upcoming book tour, in 8 cities (including SF, LA and NYC!), a total of 19 events and counting. THE MANICURIST’S DAUGHTER is a “story around body, beauty, and death”, and from that story, Susan hopes her readers take away a crucial lesson: “Any emotions that you have around your pain are valid. We all have demons, and we're all doing our best. While others might not have the capacity to give us what we need to heal, that healing is possible and can be drawn from within.” 

In all her free time, Susan hosts a podcast called Model Minority Moms with two other Harvard Class of 2007 graduate moms, all of whom had children during the pandemic. “We talk about what it's like to be everything for everyone but yourself.” Susan says. “And how that impacts your career, your purpose, and your sanity.” 

When asked what her best piece of advice is for young artists, Susan says her top two things every artist should be doing are documenting their art and collecting data. “Have finished work. Invest in documentation. And get peoples’ email addresses if they’re interested in you.” She explains. “The path to becoming a working artist requires so much hustle. Create a sacred container to dream (and kick all those naysayers to the curb) and start experimenting with tiny actions–you’ll eventually go much farther than everyone else who don’t have the courage to dream.”

See Susan on tour (check out her event w/Harvardwood below)

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