This is a re-post of conference media manager Catherine Thorpe’s 2011 profile.
Lan Samantha Chang was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, to Chinese immigrant parents. Growing up, she experienced both the Chinese cultural traditions her family upheld and Midwestern sensibilities — a contrast that honed Chang’s powers of observation and yen for writing. In an interview on the Penguin Web site, she says:
… our family was one of three Chinese families in a city of about 50,000. I cannot remember a time when I was not conscious of being different from the majority of the people around me, who were mostly descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants. My classmates in public schools had routines and beliefs and meals and expectations very different from mine. I was always trying to figure out their patterns of behavior and the reasons for those patterns. This led naturally to writing. I felt the need to write down my version of things, perhaps because I sensed the importance of somehow validating my observations.
Chang’s desire not only to understand the world of her classmates, but also to explore more deeply her heritage and family history, led her away from studying medicine to major in East Asian studies at Yale and then to writing about China and America. Chang went on to earn her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and published her debut collection of a novella and stories, Hunger, in 1998. Many of the stories’ protagonists are Chinese-American immigrants, and the book moves beyond surface cultural difference to explore the profound and lasting effects of dislocation. As Kirkus Reviews noted,
Chang concentrates on depicting—with considerable insight and originality—the fault lines of assimilation in American society. Her tales nicely capture the sometimes blunt, often painful, and only rarely hopeful negotiations conducted between parents and children, and between immigrants and natives, above this shifting ground.
In Inheritance, published in 2004, Chang’s heritage again provided inspiration, although viewed through a different lens. The novel’s inter-generational tale focuses on two sisters, Junan and Yinan, whose mother’s suicide influences their personas in vastly different ways that eventually drive them to a rift in the midst of China’s revolutionary period. The story is told from the perspective of one of Junan’s daughters, Hong, who, like Chang, was born and raised in America and quests for the truth of her family’s history. Chang told The Morning News,
[The character Hong] was concerned with turning over and over in her mind those years in the ‘30s and ‘40s when her mother and beloved aunt had been so close and then torn apart and then when her father had been in her life and then gone from her life. And the enormous divisions in her family and the divisions in the country that were taking place at the same time that exacerbated the family divisions. I realized that was what she was interested in. In recovering and rebuilding that story.
New York Times reviewer Richard Eder noted that in the two sisters, “Chang has done much more than create a dragon lady and counterpose her to a quietly heroic sister. Junan’s steely will is a carapace that presses on and imprisons her beating heart. Tortoises don’t wear their shells out of choice.” The review concludes,
To Yinan, [sisterhood] has been a source of hope over the years; to Junan, a festering wound endured with fatalistic stubbornness. Tragedy in the classic sense is rare nowadays; ”Inheritance,” with China’s rich and rigid culture taking on the role of the gods, makes the older sister a tragic figure, unpurged.
Chang has taught at Harvard University, Stanford University, and Warren Wilson College; in 2006, she was named director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold the position. Her experience leading workshops and teaching literature inspired a new creative project, whose central characters meet in a writing program. But Chang told The Millions she was initially reluctant to take up the material that would become her latest novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost:
I felt the subject matter was esoteric and controversial. Although the story isn’t about writing programs, it begins in a program setting. I assumed many readers would not see beyond their own opinions about the setting … . Moreover, the work felt very private, and I had started two other projects that seemed more socially acceptable.
But Chang was compelled to continue, driven by a desire to explore, in the character of the poet Roman, “a powerful feeling I’ve had as an adult: the sense of becoming aware of a truth long after it was too late to do anything about it.”
Roman’s mid-life realizations about his own talents, and the contrasting story of fellow poet Bernard, together weave a story that, NPR reviewer Alan Cheuse said, describes “the pains and perils, falsehoods and truths of trying to be an American artist … against all odds, psychological and social.”
Chang will read Monday evening, July 29, at Beringer Vineyards, and she’ll give a craft talk Thursday, August 1, at 1:30 p.m. For more details, visit the Lectures & Readings page. And here’s more to read about Chang:
- 2012 conference faculty profile: Lan Samantha Chang by Jeannie Kim-McPherson
- University of Iowa announcement of Chang’s directorship of the Writers’ Workshop (2006)
- 2010 interview with Bookslut
- Official profile on the W.W. Norton site
- “Tradition trumps Twitter at Iowa Writers’ Workshop” – article on the 75th anniversary