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The Radical Vision of Lan Samantha Chang

December 9, 2023 by Ada Zhang

When I first read Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, and had just arrived in New York City. Hunger debuted in 1998. I was reading it in 2015. Thinking back on that period, there was an atmosphere of suspension. I felt strongly the sense that my life had not begun yet but was about to, and observed myself the way one might observe a particle in the air, guessing where it will land. I wanted to be a writer. 

My six years in New York were punctuated by two in Iowa City, where I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and where Lan Samantha Chang, known affectionately as Sam, was my teacher. This summer, in the months after the publication of The Sorrows of Others, my debut, Sam and I attended the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. She was faculty and I was her TA. We’d become close following my years at Iowa. I wanted to ask what she thought had changed about literature between when Hunger came out and now, as Norton was getting ready to release the twenty-fifth anniversary edition.

We met in her hotel room on one of our last days together. The AC was blaring. She sat in a chair while I took notes on the floor, recording the interview on my phone. She fixates on the space between us.

“I don’t know precisely how to explain how isolated Asian American writers were leading up to the turn of the century. The children of the wave of immigration that began in 1965 were just coming of age at that point. There were very few Asian American writers. You could name them. You could count them on your fingers. And although there had been a tradition of Asian American literature, the writers themselves were very isolated. And so I felt, publishing my book, that I was trying to write stories I hadn't read.”

One could say that Chang has subjected her own canon to this weighty endeavor. Not one of her books is like the others; they supersede one another in content and form, a writer going for something new each time. Together, her four books, Hunger, Inheritance, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and The Family Chao, are like those photos you sometimes see of certain families (not mine) in which it’s clear the children were encouraged to be themselves.

“When I read the collection now,” Chang says of Hunger, which came out when she was thirty-three, three years after she’d completed the Wallace Stegner Fellowship and five years after she’d graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I’m really struck by how much pain the characters were in, how lonely they were. Their greatest fear was that no one would remember their lives. Because there was no real record that I knew of, coming up as a young writer.”

THE COST OF MAKING ART

For Asian American writers today, that record is still in progress. In the last five to seven years, the publishing industry has made concerted if imperfect efforts to diversify acquisitions, and the persistence of our mentors (Chang being one of them) as well as support from organizations like Kundiman and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop have created a stronghold of Asian presence within American literature. Asian American debuts in this year alone include Gina Chung (Sea Change), Sindya Bhanoo (Seeking Fortune Elsewhere), Jinwoo Chong (Flux), and Shastri Akella (The Sea Elephants), among others. The work is speculative, realist, historical, experimental, you name it. We make up a cohort of sorts, the Asian American writers of each season.

“It starts to make less sense to compare us only to each other,” I say, remarking on how we’re slowly creating a body of work that readers can take their pick from rather than each being treated as tokens.

Chang nods.

The strapline in the original descriptive copy of Hunger says: “Not since Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan has a fiction writer explored with such powerful intensity the experience of being Asian American.” Although Chang’s writing does not, in my opinion, resemble Kingston’s or Tan’s, I understand the positioning. I also understand why “the experience of being Asian American” would be a selling point in a preternaturally white book world.

I tell Chang what I think her true obsessions are, the DNA that links all her books, tracing them back to the writer.

“The cost of making art,” I say. “And betrayal.”

“Betrayal?”

She makes what many of her students have called a “Sam expression” and asks me to explain.

In nearly all of Chang’s stories, there comes a moment when a character makes a decision so life-altering that it damages a relationship irrevocably. In Hunger, it’s when the gifted daughter stops playing the violin, casting aside her father’s dreams. In Inheritance, the script flips upon the younger sister falling in love with her older sister’s husband. In All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, a pupil benefits from his teacher’s adoration, only to turn her away once he has made it. Bumbling on, I eventually make my point.

“I think probably that these characters make large, outsized, and sort of painful decisions that injure people they’re close to, because they…”

She trails off and starts again.

“I assume this is something that I have felt it necessary to do to begin my life. I think my life was defined by a decision to disobey my parents in a pretty ruthless and irrevocable way in my mid-twenties, but really before that, when I decided to not listen to what they told me to do. My father saw it as a stupid decision”—her decision being to pursue writing—”and my mother saw it as a decision that disappointed her and harmed her profile as a parent. My mother at one point said, If you’re going to write don’t come home, and if you’re going to come home don’t write. I felt that I had betrayed them, but really it was self-defining, and self-preserving. It felt like a life or death issue.”

RUNNING INTERFERENCE

The third of four daughters to Chinese immigrants, Chang grew up poor and took on a substantial amount of debt to pursue a higher education. As the first woman and the first person of color to lead the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is uniquely and personally sympathetic to the needs of marginalized writers. In her seventeen years as director, Chang has increased the Workshop’s endowment from $2.6 million to $12.5 million, quadrupling the pool of significant donors, and has worked within the University of Iowa to provide workshoppers with employment opportunities that also benefit the larger student body. All Workshop MFA students are now fully funded to attend. This was not the case twenty-five years ago, or even more recently than that, under the reign of Chang’s teacher and predecessor, the late Frank Conroy.

Conroy’s version of the Workshop is the one everyone knows. It persists in the public mind, mythologized for being cutthroat and competitive, a place where writers went to be demoralized, the work humiliated, and where only the special few were chosen for fame. Chang isn’t interested in humiliation, or in fame. For all that the Workshop is revved up to be, and all the glamor the myth promises for those strong enough to persist, while I was a student there wasn't a single chair in the reading room that wasn’t broken. It became a running joke my year that we needed to fundraise for new furniture (a joke that might still be running). Only one aspect of the Iowa myth I found to be true: the Workshop is serious. You walked into Dey House, the program residence, and you might not find a sittable chair, but your writing would be taken seriously.

This rigor was set by Conroy, Chang told me before in a different conversation. His commitment to and deep love for literature was his highest virtue, and it’s this legacy that I see Chang carrying forward, in her own way.

When I ask if she had a vision for the program when she started as director, she says, “I wanted a warmer, more conversational, more inclusive classroom. And I wanted the program to be that way, too. I wanted the tone of the program to arise from that kind of classroom.”

It’s the kind of classroom she didn’t have when she was a student at the Workshop in 1989. In her cohort, she and one other writer were the only nonwhite students. In my cohort, about half were people of color, and I was one of five Asian Americans.

“Is that your vision for literature as well?” I ask.

“I wish that literature could be all of those things, and I wish the conversation could happen in a place that had more freedom from corporations. Readers’ personal expectations and aesthetics, their desires, and their experiences are being guided and channeled by corporate marketing strategies. This is one of the reasons I'm glad that your book is, in my mind, a little bit free from that.”

At the mention of my book, I tense up. I’ve gotten used to this habit, or perhaps tactic, of hers, deflecting attention and praise. My theory is that this is what has allowed her to do the radical work that she does and get away with it.

“I don’t think most people today are able to publish books that exist in a space that’s relatively free from [corporations], and I assume that your editors spend a huge amount of time running interference between that world and the world in which people encounter your book. Just in the same way that we at the Workshop are trying to run interference between the world and the writers in the Workshop, and to create a conversation about literature that’s strong enough to counter the corporate conversation."

THE INTERSECTION OF WRITING AND LIFE

Once, in my second year of graduate school, when I was Chang’s research assistant, we made a trip to the Johnson City Courthouse (most of the second half of The Family Chao takes place in a court proceeding). Next to the courthouse was the jail, and as we drove past, she casually brought up having been there a number of times, when, years ago, a student found himself in some trouble. He’d had an unusually hard life and struggled with alcohol abuse. Chang visited him at the jail every week to drop off workshop stories so he could continue being part of the program.

“He was a great writer,” Chang said.

We parked and got out of the car and watched a bizarre criminal case between two very old Iowa farmers—neighbors, former friends, something about trespassing—but the whole rest of the day I marveled at this. I marvel at it still.

It is tempting to say this kind of devotion to her students has come at a cost to Chang’s own writing. Twelve years went by between the publication of All Is Forgotten Nothing Is Lost and The Family Chao, during which Chang was busy being the workshop director and also raising her daughter. While I was pitching this profile around, an editor suggested that I make this the angle, Chang as a martyr to her students.

“I hate that trope of the female artist!” Chang nearly shouted into the phone when I told her. “What have I even sacrificed!”

I turned that editor down.

When you take into account facts, The Family Chao is Chang’s fourth book and the most commercially successful. It won the Anisfield-Wolf Award and was chosen for Obama’s list, and was even a clue on Jeopardy. It’s her boldest work, and the biggest departure from all the books she’s published previously. A departure from Hunger, certainly, the book that many would say made her a household name. It wouldn’t surprise Chang to know that some readers who love Hunger couldn’t stomach The Family Chao. I think this would delight her, actually. She’s spoken about how she willfully wrote against the quiet immigrant story to achieve a tenor of domestic living that more closely resembled what her own household was like growing up: noisy and peopled and turbulent. The patriarch of the Chao family is a passionate brute, and his three sons each have their own passions. The characters shout! They declare and argue! Apparently, one of the “rules” that Conroy deployed was that a writer should use only two exclamation points in their lifetime. In The Family Chao, Chang uses over 400!

“The thing that’s made it possible for me to get writing done has been going to residencies,” Chang says. “I would never be able to write without artist residencies, and the fact that [my husband] Rob was taking care of our daughter while I did them. Once I get going on something I can work on it at home and during the semester when I'm teaching or directing, but these periods when I really have to focus require me to go away and be alone.”

The lone writer is another myth, one that raises the question: Who gets to be alone all the time to write? Often, it’s men. Occasionally women who don’t have children (Woolf). Society is quick to use the term “genius” for artists who devote their entire lives to art, forsaking family and other obligations for that which is considered a higher calling.

“One could say they’re called geniuses because there’s a lack of—”

“There’s a lack of relations!” I butt in.

“There’s a lack of relations. That’s really funny.”

“What else could we call them?”

We laugh. This really cracks us up.

“I think we need to expand what our idea of a genius is. Toni Morrison is a genius, and she had children. Marilynne Robinson is a genius, she had children.”

“Toni Morrison even had a nine-to-five job for a long time.”

“She had a nine-to-five job while she was raising her children. I just think people prefer not to remember these things sometimes. I think the term could be enlarged to encompass people who do creative work who also exist in the world and are somewhat available to other humans. Privileged people are lucky to have the experience of parenthood, and economic necessity puts a real strain on art-making. But, I think it’s possible for a vividly creative person, an exceptionally creative person, to also make themselves available to a certain extent to other human beings, and for those relationships to feed their work in very significant ways.”

“I get the sense from you that you believe your roles outside of being a writer, like being the director and a mother and having a family, actually enrich your art.”

“Of course they do—”

Chang’s phone rings. It’s a call from her daughter, who is in high school and attending a music summer camp in the Adirondacks. Chang takes the call, and we finish our interview later. On the subject of genius versus martyr, Chang sends me this email in the days following:

“As far as the idea of people sacrificing themselves for other writers, here are some more somewhat off-the-cuff but sincere thoughts:

“I feel fortunate I've spent the middle of my life contributing to the literary community, making a living in a way that is very meaningful to me. My parents came to this country with almost nothing and they didn't make a fortune; they made enough money to keep the four of their children fed and housed. I'm a product of Wisconsin public schools and I have held jobs all my life. Until recently, I lived from paycheck to paycheck. I suppose the question would be why I don't take a ‘regular’ teaching job. Honestly, I often wish I had one. The bureaucracy and misunderstandings involved in holding a position like mine can be grueling and our lives in the office—mine and [the program administrator] Sasha’s—are a constant battle against what James Alan McPherson called ‘the bureaucratization of the numina.’ But I also feel I now understand a tremendous amount about artistic development, and about the intersection of writing and life, and the factors leading to artistic fate, that I would never have seen in any other position. I also feel lucky to work in such an artistically stimulating environment. My students have been enormously inspiring. Many of them are very sincere, generous people, and it has been a privilege to see what is being written at this very moment, what works are taking shape, before they appear publicly. Sometimes, reading their work brings the magic and exhilaration of being at a live performance. My students' work has kept my own work alive through midlife, constantly changing. There is nothing like chasing the feeling that work is being encountered for the first time.”

THE DRESS YOU WEAR

At Kenyon, a theme that emerged in our classroom was style, a topic that doesn’t get talked about very much in creative writing settings, perhaps because it is so elusive. What is style? We can tell when it’s there, when someone has it (Roth, Munro) but how does it get determined? And how does a writer who is just starting out go about finding theirs?

Mary Gaitskill, in her Substack, borrows her definition of style from an eccentric bookseller she knew:

“He considered style to be the ‘inevitable by-product’ of the writer feeling their way through the shape of their creation, through word choices and small decisions as well as big ones... he meant it in the way the appearance of a plant or flower is the by-product of its most essential inner workings.”

Here’s what Mark Doty has to say about it in The Art of Description:

“What is said, by style, is something about a view of the world, and about the work of poetry itself, and about the speaking character of the poet, who’s introducing us to a personal mode of knowing, a private language as various as human character is.”

As various as flowers are, Gaitskill and her bookseller might add. I love this idea that by paying very close attention to the world, you could develop your own style. To take my own stab at metaphor: Style is never the dress you wear; it is you, wearing the dress.

Style must come from below. It reveals the self by embracing the self. It is strong enough to withstand trends, because it can withstand time.

In the twenty-five years since its release, Hunger has circulated adamantly from reader to reader to reader. It found me that way, through fervent personal recommendation, and is one of the books that gave me permission to explore my own material. If it weren't for Chang’s institutional leadership, it’s unclear whether I would have been accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or had the means to attend. I like to think that I would have kept on writing regardless, but writing is difficult even with support... so who knows.

What I do know, since she has become an important person in my life, is that every part of Chang, no matter the relation—writer, teacher, director, mother, friend, partner, mentor—arises from her inner self: her style, her personal mode of knowing, her character. In her worldview, a person from any background should get to pursue art without suffering unbearably. And everyone should be encouraged to speak to that self below and hear it speaking back.

Two weeks after the Kenyon conference ended, Chang was teaching again at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. There, one of her students called her the LeBron James of creative writing. She asked me what that meant. I told her he’s one of the greatest of all time, a genius, a veteran who remains at the top of his game, and whose final act we still have left to see.



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