[LITERARY] Lan Samantha Chang - Renown Writer & Director of Writers' Workshop
- For Writers' Program, a New Pedagogy
By DINITIA SMITH
SOMERVILLE, Mass., April 13 - The first thing to know about Lan
Samantha Chang, who has been named the new director of the Iowa
Writers' Workshop, is that she has strong ideas about teaching.
For one thing, workshops should not be therapy sessions. "I don't
think they should advocate one aesthetic over another," Ms. Chang
said firmly during an interview last week in a restaurant near her
apartment here. "I don't believe in singling out particular people
or destroying them in public, though I make my opinions known."
Ms. Chang, 40, is a well-praised novelist and short-story writer
herself. She will become director next January, with an annual
salary of $115,500. She succeeds Frank Conroy, who died this month,
and who during his 18 years as director made Iowa one of the
nation's most prestigious training grounds for writers. Ms. Chang,
now a Briggs-Copeland lecturer in creative writing at Harvard, was
among four finalists for the job. She will be the first woman and
the first Asian-American to hold the position, school officials say.
Ms. Chang will teach a graduate fiction workshop, choose students
for the fiction program (poetry students are chosen by the poetry
faculty) and will consult on hiring, among other duties. The two-
year program, which leads to a master's in fine arts, has no
specific academic course requirements. The fiction workshop, which
became a full-fledged program in 1936, receives 750 applications for
25 places, and there are 450 poetry applications for 25 places.
Tuition for out-of-state students is about $17,000 a year and for in-
state students about $6,500 a year.
One of her goals, Ms. Chang said, is to raise money from individuals
and foundations to provide full tuition scholarship to all workshop
students. Now some of them get aid through scholarships and teaching
The novelist Marilynne Robinson, who was on the seven-member search
committee said, "We felt we couldn't go wrong choosing any of the
candidates." The others were Jim Shepard, Ben Marcus and Richard
But she noted of Ms. Chang that "her career is on the upswing, which
makes her a valuable presence as an active writer," and
added: "She's very devoted to the program," where she studied in the
early 1990's, and where she has been a visiting faculty member.
James Alan McPherson, acting director of the workshop and another
member of the search committee, said he expected no major changes in
the program. "They have comparable sensibilities," he said of Mr.
Conroy and Ms. Chang. Like Mr. Conroy, he said, Ms. Chang is
comfortable with people from varying backgrounds. In Mr. Conroy's
time, the workshop produced writers with as varied an aesthetic as
T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Allan Gurganus, all in the same class
at Iowa in the 1970's, all taught by John Cheever, a writer with his
own singular style.
Mr. McPherson added: "She will be closer to the experience of young
writers than I was or Frank was."
He said the workshop expects from Ms. Chang, as it did from Mr.
Conroy, "a sense of community, a commitment to develop students, and
the encouragement of financial help."
Ms. Chang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who left China in
1949 and moved to Appleton, Wis. Her father, Nai-Lin Chang, is a
retired professor of engineering affiliated with Lawrence University
there; her mother, Helen Chung-Hung Hsiang, teaches piano. Ms.
Chang, one of four sisters, graduated from Yale, where she was
managing editor of The Yale Daily News. She was also an intern in a
program at The New York Times aimed at minorities.
After Yale, she went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
to study public administration. "I thought I would get a job where I
would have to wear pantyhose to work," she said.
Then she began taking writing courses at the Cambridge Center for
Adult Education and was accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She
studied with Ms. Robinson, Mr. McPherson and Mr. Conroy. Just as she
was leaving, she learned that one of her short stories had been
accepted by The Atlantic Monthly. It became part of her first
collection, "Hunger," published in 1998.
Ms. Chang said she was disappointed to learn that The Atlantic
Monthly had recently announced it would cease publishing fiction
regularly in its pages. "Our country is currently in sore need of
fiction," she said. "Our country is hung up on what's quantifiable,
on spreadsheets and cost-benefit analysis, the things I learned at
the Kennedy School. Even the most honest economist says there are
things that can't be explained by numbers."
She has not turned her back, however, on what she learned about
public administration at the Kennedy School. "I took two classes on
leadership and authority," she said. "I found them fascinating."
"I think I will use them," she added with a smile. In 2004 Ms. Chang
married Robert Caputo, a landscape painter and art teacher, and
published her first novel, "Inheritance," about two sisters, Junan
and Yinan, in China during the turmoil of the 1930's and 40's who
fall in love with the same man.
The novel is narrated by Hong, Junan's daughter, who lives in New
York in the 1990's. "My subject is time," Ms. Chang said. "The
immigrant experience throws a powerful light on the way time affects
us and our families," she added. "Moving to another country creates
a gap between the generations, emphasizes the bridges and
dislocations across and between the generations."
Today, she said, "the publishing industry is focusing on writers as
entertainment personalities," and for that reason, Iowa is
especially valuable because it is "one of the few havens where a
developing writer is given the opportunity to focus on work alone."
Correction: April 19, 2005, Tuesday:
An article in The Arts yesterday about the new director of the Iowa
Writers' Workshop, Lan Samantha Chang, misidentified the workshop's
director in the 1970's, when T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Allan
Gurganus were all in the same class. He was John Leggett; Frank
Conroy arrived in 1987.
Lan Samantha Chang
Lan Samantha Chang discusses Inheritance, a story of family strife
in China at a time of war and revolution.
Inheritance is a novel with a backdrop of historical events. Chang
sat down for an interview prior to a public event at Book Passage on
August 23, 2004.
The author writes in the voice of Hong, a woman living in America in
the 1990's who is trying to sort out her family history. Hong
especially recalls the strains between her mother Junan and her
The two sisters were once inseparable, but now there is bitterness
and estrangement. What happened in the 1930's and 40's to set the
conflict in motion? What role did other family members play? Were
the upheavals of the Japanese invasion and the Maoist revolution
partly to blame? I discussed these and other topics with Lan
Grant Howard: In terms of a broad theme, to a certain extent [the
book] is about a family that gets fragmented because of war--and
about the pressures and separations that come about because of that.
That's at least a partial theme; would you say that's right?
Lan Samantha Chang: I would definitely say that that is exactly one
of the themes. It was fragmented also in a country that became
fragmented in a time of war. First it was divided into the occupied
portion versus the unoccupied portion. Meanwhile, it was slowly
dividing into the Communist part and the Nationalist part. The
actual fragmentation became concrete when the Nationalist government
fled for Taiwan and the Communist government took over.
GH: And within the family, there are different allegiances.
Lan Samantha Chang: That's right. Political allegiances that in some
ways mirror what is taking place in the country.
GH: And there were a lot of families that went through this?
Lan Samantha Chang: I think there were. Even in my own family, my
father's younger brother was a Communist, and my father was pretty
apolitical--but he did leave the country when the Nationalists left,
leaving his family in China. His brother stayed there and became
active in the party. My father did not understand the extent of his
involvement or the way it happened until years later, when China
opened up and people were allowed to visit again and people were
allowed to leave China.
My father went back to find his family, and his brother was dead by
then. But he was looking through a government publication and saw
the name of a guy he knew as a kid--and who was really close friends
with his brother--who is now this high party official. And my father
realized that his brother had probably been interested in communism
along with this guy, when they were teenagers and friends together.
So he started to put together a picture of what was going on.
He didn't tell me this until I was pretty old. Just a few years ago,
I found this out when I was going mall walking with my father in
Wisconsin where I grew up. And he told me that his brother had been
a Communist, and what he had noticed about his brother's friend, his
old buddy. And I thought, "You never told me this!"
GH: And did that partially inspire the scenes in your book?
Lan Samantha Chang: I think it did. I mean, of course, my father is
fairly reserved about his years in China. But it did inspire in my
mind this imaginary brother pair. I would say that is the closest
thing in the book that comes to being taken from my family history.
The rest is an imagined history. I used a lot of information that I
found when I was researching, and I imagined a history of a family.
GH: In the first place where they live, in the first part of the
book, Hongzhou--I saw in the acknowledgement at the end of the book
that you did a lot of research on that city, right?
Lan Samantha Chang: I felt like I had to know something about it,
because my characters are from there. It is the site of a famous
literary legend--a fairy tale called "The White Snake"--about a
woman who is a fairy, which is sort of like a spirit. She is a snake
who transforms into a mortal woman and falls in love with a mortal
man. She is very possessive, overly possessive, and is later
punished. Which I thought was interesting given the character Junan,
who in my mind is in some ways the main character.
It is an interesting city for a number of reasons. One of my
father's cousins ended up living there. And so when I went to China
I was able to speak to him about the city. He did some research and
sent it to my father, who then sent it to me. Unfortunately, he
passed away in the last year.
GH: So the cousin remembered what it was like many years ago?
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes.
GH: Even though there is the upheaval of war, there are other causes
of the fragmentation in the family. Without giving away the book,
one of the things that is pivotal is when Junan sends her sister
Yinan to Chongqing.
Lan Samantha Chang: The wartime capital of China.
GH: What I am getting at is, why does Junan do that? Because on the
surface, in her letter to her husband she says, "She can help you
maintain your household," or something to that effect. But is there
some other motivation? Does it have to do with wanting to be
Lan Samantha Chang: You are absolutely right. It seemed obvious to
me that she was being extremely controlling. Many people have read
the book and thought that perhaps she was innocently sending her
I think that in order to understand her actions, a reader would have
to feel deeply the problems that other women in the book have--for
example her mother, who was not able to hold onto her husband, she
felt, because she did not have a boy. And the desperation that
caused in her life. And so Junan the daughter is thinking, "I want
to hold onto my husband. I will do anything to make sure that I hold
She is a very, very controlled person. And underneath the control is
an extraordinary amount of passion and possessiveness. And she is
deeply possessive of her husband. And he is sent to the wartime
capital a thousand miles away from her. And she can't follow him
because she is pregnant and wants to have the child, hoping that is
going to be a son. Because that is the one way she knows she can
cement her tie to him.
And she sends her sister to "keep house" for him, because she wants
to make sure that he does not stray from her. And even if he does
stray to the sister, she knows the sister is somebody she has under
her thumb--I mean, that they have this pact, she and her sister. And
her sister obeys her in everything. And she knows her sister will be
with her forever.
On one level, she is so possessive that she thinks, "OK, I am going
to control even the extent that he is able to stray from me." So she
thinks, "It will be under my control, it will be under my control."
But in the end, of course, what happens is out of her control. And
perhaps it is her attempt to control what happens that makes the
worst part of her fate come back at her. It is coming from her own
decision, her own actions.
GH: There is an interesting contrast between the two sisters. Junan
the main character is more concerned with power and later with
wealth and those kinds of things. And at the beginning at least,
Yanin seems more timid...
Lan Samantha Chang: And shy.
GH: ...and less sure of herself. But Yanin, while being more timid
at the beginning, is able to express passion toward someone else
more than Junan is.
Lan Samantha Chang: She is. And she is also able to recognize that
in herself and try to articulate it to her sister. She tries to
explain to her sister what has happened to her, that she has become
a person, that she has changed. And her sister refuses to hear it.
Her sister won't acknowledge this part of her, because she cannot
acknowledge it in herself.
GH: Let me make sure I understand. Junan cannot acknowledge it in
Lan Samantha Chang: She cannot acknowledge that she feels passion or
love. She doesn't admit that she is in love. If she had just
admitted and maybe told him, perhaps things would have been
different. But she was too controlled. She did not want to reveal--
she did not want to lose her control. And being so under control,
she certainly did not want to acknowledge that her younger sister
was capable of such love and passion. She certainly did not want to
acknowledge her sister's feelings; they were feelings she was
repressing within herself.
So there is a conversation in which the younger sister tries to
explain what happened to her, hoping for forgiveness. And eventually
she does succeed in indirectly explain to her what happened. But
Junan refuses to give forgiveness. She refuses to acknowledge what
her younger sister is trying to tell her.
GH: And Junan has this concept--it's like a justification for her
controlling personality: "xiaoxin."
Lan Samantha Chang: Xiaoxin means careful. So if somebody said to
you, "xiaoxin"--it's what an adult would say to a child who is
walking on top of a fence. Watch out, be careful, don't fall,
xiaoxin. What the actual characters mean is, "xiao" means small
and "xin" means heart. So although I don't think most Chinese people
think about this at all, they are saying, "small heart, small
heart." In other words, don't put yourself out there, be careful.
GH: And so that's the concept that she lives by?
Lan Samantha Chang: On a certain level, yes. On emotional matters,
GH: And the book is in the voice of her daughter.
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, the book is narrated by Hong.
GH: And Hong--later in the book, when they are in Shanghai, she
Lan Samantha Chang: Certainly.
GH: ...against that part of her mother's personality. I want to read
a quote. She is having a teenage romance with a boy that she knew
before. She says, "Even as his body came together with mine, even as
I tried to hurt my mother with each act I did, I heard an echo of
her voice telling me that what Hu Ran and I shared was nothing." So
the question is, does she eventually overcome that? Maybe not with
that particular lover, but eventually?
Lan Samantha Chang: I think she eventually does. I think that Hong
manages to enlarge her imagination and her compassion to encompass
the story of her family, to rebuild the story and retell the story.
And in doing so she in many ways forgives those who came before her
for the things that they have done.
And she manages to also understand herself and her actions. I think
it is the development of that compassionate intelligence that allows
her to be able to tell the story. And it's the development of that
intelligence that is really what the book is about. Because
essentially it is her story. It starts a little before she was born.
She is born fairly early on in the story, and then the book sort of
follows her life and ends with her surviving the story of her
GH: There is another quote that is relevant here. This is Hong much
later in the book, when she is in America: "No one who looked at me
would have known my story or my family's story. But in truth I had
been pulled apart by this inheritance, by the separations and
betrayals of my country, my family, and myself." So she carries it
with her, even though she builds a new life for herself.
Lan Samantha Chang: That's right. I feel in some ways that she
becomes large enough, sympathetic enough, to contain all of this--to
understand and contain all of these stories, and to see her part in
things and her mother's part in things. And to understand that that
is her ineritance, that is what made her who she is.
GH: You mentioned this intense desire by the women in the book, when
they are in China, to have sons.
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes.
GH: They feel this enormous pressure over something that they really
can't control. So, that existed in 1930's China. What is the
cultural underpinning of that, and does it still exist? Because I
have seen things in the media about that--that there is pressure to
Lan Samantha Chang: Well, like many agriculturally based societies,
China developed a culture that valued human labor--the worth of
strength. So that, I think, is a large part of the desire to have
sons. You have sons and they will be able to work in the fields.
More than that--because women do work in the fields, obviously--it
was a patriarchal culture in which a woman married into her
husband's family. So, say, I would marry and I would leave my
father's family. And I would go to my husband's family. So I would
no longer be a Chang, if I had been born at that time. I would be
considered whatever my husband's name was.
And as a result, having a daughter was like having a child that you
put an enormous investment of food into, if nothing else, who would
then leave the family and no longer be a working asset to the
family. And so in a way, it was just sort of a heartbreak to have a
daughter. It was no good. And sons, on the other hand, stayed with
the family and they brought a daughter-in-law into the family who
could then work.
And so having a son was very important, and I think it was very
important to most women to try to have a son. In fact, I believe
they thought that a completely happy woman was a woman whose husband
and son and parents were alive. It was kind of this idea that you
have value and worth by giving birth to a son.
These days in rural areas, it still is important to have a son. And
that is changing, I think.
GH: In Junan's case, though, she feels particularly satisfied with
her marriage because her husband does not have parents.
Lan Samantha Chang: Right. She is thrilled that she has married an
orphan, because she knows she will not have to be the slaving
daughter-in-law. As a matter of fact, she can stay with her family
while he goes travelling. And when he comes back he can visit her in
her father's home.
She feels like she has gotten away with something by marrying a guy
who doesn't have parents. She also feels that his lower status will
enable her to maintain her self-control and not really fall in love
with him, because she is from a higher position than he is. Of
course, that is using logic to contain emotions, and it doesn't
GH: Right. There is even a quote in the book, in either Hong's voice
or in Hu Mudan's voice, that she was in love but she could not admit
Lan Samantha Chang: Right. Everybody knew.
GH: And the sister of the narrator, in other words Junan's other
daughter [Hwa], seems to have a similar inhibition.
Lan Samantha Chang: Right. Hwa follows her mother in all things. Hwa
is loyal to the mother, since when she was being raised she didn't
know her father much. It was during wartime and he was travelling.
She sort of believes her mother's side of the story, and that is her
burden to bear--that strong belief in her mother. It is difficult to
be with her mother, because Junan is such a strong-willed and
difficult person. She sticks by her mother through the entire novel,
whereas Hong goes against her mother's wishes in trying to piece
together the story of the betrayal in the family--and the
inheritance of the family.
GH: Early in the book, Junan's mother Chanyi commits suicide. Was
that part of the reason that Junan became a cool, afraid-to-be-
passionate type of person?
Lan Samantha Chang: I think so. It seems to me that Chanyi was in a
very difficult situation, and that part of the reason she came to
such a tragic end was that the cultural pressures on her made it
impossible for her to continue to live and yet hold onto what she
valued the most. And Junan, in her heart of hearts, knew that she
was similar to her mother--that she had very strong desires to hold
onto what mattered to her.
Junan did not want to compromise and bend even though there were so
many social pressures to be less of a person than she was. And I
think she knew that there was this dark space inside of her that she
did not want to go to--that she would not go to--that her mother did
go to. And I think that part of Junan's desire to control her
feelings was related to the knowledge that she wanted to stay away
from the desolation that her mother had experienced.
GH: This comes up several times in the book, where one or another
character--particularly the narrator Hong--refers to passion as
being something dark or a darkness...I felt like I was missing
something because I am not very knowledgable about the culture,
perhaps. Why is it dark to be passionate, to be madly in love with
Lan Samantha Chang: From a cultural standpoint, if the culture
requires a certain kind of behavior, i.e. that you be a loyal wife
in an arranged marriage and give birth to a son, and that you serve
your mother-in-law and sort of be less of a person, then having
strong passions and desires and a strong will is a bad idea. In any
case, in this particular family it is a bad idea. It has caused
Chanyi to give up on her life--which happens early in the book as
you mentioned--and her offspring are aware of that and it is dark to
them. The passion that she felt for her husband and that
possessiveness was dark. It wasn't a good thing, it was something to
stay away from. And yet of course, it is very difficult to stay away
from passion, especially if you come from a very passionate family.
GH: So there is an obvious conflict.
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes.
GH: There is a part in the book when Hong is longing to see her
father again, when they are separated--she is in Taiwan and he is
stuck on the mainland. She says at one point that "it shamed me" how
much she wanted to see her father, when she was a teenager. So is
that another side of that conflict, a feeling of shame, a longing to
connect with the father?
Lan Samantha Chang: Sure. Part of the reason she feels shame is that
her mother feels shame over their relationship. Because the mother
feels betrayed by the father.
GH: And is not able to forgive.
Lan Samantha Chang: Right. Junan feels betrayed; she cannot get over
it. She is angry at him, and the daughter is excited to see him. And
the daughter feels guilty about this, because she should be loyal to
the mother. It is like any family in which the parents are
separated; the child is living with one parent and wants to see the
other, even though she knows that the parent she is living with is
hurt or estranged. It's a tricky situation to be in.
GH: And Hong uses a word to describe her father: He has something
Lan Samantha Chang: Qi, yes. It is usually spelled "ch'i".
GH: So she has a sort of idealized vision of him.
Lan Samantha Chang: He is strength, masculinity, he is going to come
and save her.
GH: He will protect her
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, he is handsome and charismatic. He will
make things OK.
GH: So he becomes kind of an archetype of men who were to a certain
extent broken by the war. Right?
Lan Samantha Chang: Not just broken by the war, but broken by the
forces of history that are beyond their control. Broken by the
brutal and complex history of 20th century China. I think many
people's lives were broken--not simply by the war with Japan, but
afterward when the Comunists took over China. Many people's idealism
was dashed by the history of what happened under Communist rule.
For example, we have seen many memoirs of people who went out to the
countryside filled with idealism and came back broken in many ways.
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, disillusioned.
GH: Do they still have arranged marriages in China?
Lan Samantha Chang: No, not in the cities. I suppose there are still
a few. But I think that practice is ending.
GH: Because in the book, when Junan gets married and Yinan does not
have a relationship at all, Junan almost becomes like a parent.
Replacing the mother?
Lan Samantha Chang: She has been like the mother ever since the
mother died. I mean, she has replaced her mother for her younger
sister ever since the mother died.
GH: And she assumes that her sister is going to have an arranged
marriage. She just rules out love.
Lan Samantha Chang: She does. She thinks Yinan will have bad taste.
She doesn't trust Yinan. She thinks she will end up falling in love
with somebody totally impractical, because Yinan is such a space
cadet and such a romantic. And she wants to make sure that Yinan is
going to be safe.
GH: What made you select the Bay Area, where part of the family ends
Lan Samantha Chang: Well, I lived in the Bay Area for almost six
years. And I started writing the book when I was living in the Bay
Area. The whole first draft was written in the Bay Area, and a lot
of the research was conducted while I was living in the Bay Area. I
was in Palo Alto and Menlo Park when I was involved in the Stanford
creative writing program, and I think the experience just imprinted
itself on me. It was a very important time in my life.
GH: I am sure you travelled to China at least a little.
Lan Samantha Chang: I did. I did travel to China a couple of times.
And went sort of naive in high hopes that I would be able to find
the place that my parents had told me about in their recollections
of China. But by the time I got there, of course, the country had
changed enormously from when my parents had been there.
It had been under many years of Communist rule, under a different
government. People's minds had been sort of convinced, religions had
been repressed, town walls had been raised, documents had been
destroyed. It was another country.
It is still a very forward-looking country--an enthusiastic,
modernizing country. The country that my parents remember so much
was in many ways gone. And so it was when I saw this that I realized
that in some ways I had been liberated by this modernization--and
that I would be able to use my imagination fully.
It is true that I did an enormous amount of research for the book.
But I did not sit around and worry that I had to get everything
exactly the way it was. Because that time had passed; nobody could
say for certain how things had been anymore. I could talk to people
about it and get their experiences, but I did not have to stick to
any one person's experience. I think if I had been able to find that
other China, I might have written a memoir. But as it was, I was
able to write a piece of fiction--which is good, because that had
been my intention.
GH: So you were able to find people who had lived during the war and
remembered it, and remembered the revolution afterwards?
Lan Samantha Chang: I did.
GH: That must have been a powerful thing, to listen to what people
Lan Samantha Chang: Yes, it was. The most powerful experience about
going back to China was meeting my father's family. I got to meet
two of his sisters, and I got to meet some cousins that I had never
met. So that was very important.
GH: In the book there is a scene like that. I got the feeling that
in the book the people connect even though they are from different
Lan Samantha Chang: Absolutely, I felt something in common with my
father's family, even though I had never met them before and we grew
up in such different parts of the world.
GH: Well, we talked about "qi" before, but here is a quote from the
book [describing Hong's father]: "Pure qi poised to leave the
ground." What does that mean?
Lan Samantha Chang: When I think of qi, it is the element of air. So
somehow he is light, really light-footed. He is bouyant. There is
something about him that can almost take flight.