Lan Samantha Chang's fiction has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Story and The Best American Short Stories 1994 and 1996. Chang is the author of the award-winning books Hunger and Inheritance, and the novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. She is the recipient of the Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships at Stanford University. She also received, from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a Teaching-Writing fellowship and a Michener-Copernicus fellowship. Her many awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she directs the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

This is an abridgement of a 10,000 word interview which will be published across a network of university and national literary magazines in the coming months.

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG

I grew up in a family where Chinese was spoken at home, but I learned to speak in the public schools of Wisconsin, so what I have is a middle American accent, which is exactly where I'm from. And I don't sound exactly like somebody from Wisconsin, but I know that my general manner of speaking is that of an American midwesterner.  

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s strange because you speak to immigrant writers or the children of immigrants and sometimes they'll have two voices. You know, they'll be playing with different registers in their writing. I know you write about immigrants and the children of immigrants. So you have access to another language, even within English.

 

CHANG

I think it’s true. I think for me it depends on subject matter. I've written two books about Asian characters. One about Asian Americans, and the other more of a historical book. Then I wrote a novel that doesn't have any major immigrant characters in it, and the voice in that novel is very different. In fact it’s a voice that I began to have access to only in my adult life.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

That’s interesting because I noticed that you were dealing––within your first collection Hunger and then in Inheritance––it seems that maybe you were coming to terms with some identity issues. Do you feel maybe there were some things which you learned in the process of writing those books, so that you didn’t need to address the subject in your third book?

 

CHANG

Well, what do you mean by identity issues?

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I don't mean it as it sounds. But I know from my own experiences–and I imagine it would be more so growing up in Wisconsin where I know there are not a lot of Asians–that the sense of trying to identify with people around you might create, if I can use your own title, a hunger. You know, what is an American? And how do you relate to those around you?

 

CHANG

I don't really think that that’s exactly what the hunger in my first book was about. I think it was more of familial hunger, parents for children, children for their parents. One of the things I think is very interesting about immigrant families is that the children end up feeling comfortable in an entirely different language than the parents. And that was one of the issues that I wrote about repeatedly in the stories in Hunger. So, for example, a parent who depends on her child to basically be their translator in the U.S. for them. The child who longs to know the parents’ stories but is unable to access the language. So there’s a kind of deprivation that happens when a family moves from one country to another that speaks a different language. I know growing up in Wisconsin I felt that there were many stories that my parents did not tell me about China. One of the reasons that they wouldn’t tell me is that they chose not to think about it, and another was that there was a lack of language. I grew up in a very strange time in history. Well, I grew up in what is now beginning to seem a strange time in history.

During the years of 1949 until around 1980, travel in and out of mainland China wasn't allowed. And those were the years when I was born and sort of coming of age as a person, as a child. You know, learning the what the world was like. That was a time when my parents were unable to go back to the country where they had been born and they were not allowed to have access to their own families of origin. On my mother’s side of the family, several people managed to leave mainland China and come to the United States. On my father’s side of the family, he was the only one in his nuclear family who left mainland China. So he left his family in Beijing to travel to the inner provinces in order to receive a Chinese education because that was at a point when Japan was invading China, and they were invading from the east and so you had to go west in order to find all the scholars of the big universities. In the north and northeast of China they would flee to the inner provinces, and so my father left home when he was eighteen to go to college in the inner provinces and never went back. So I was being raised by two people who were exiles, effectively exiles from their country. And I found that there was a lot that was not discussed. So it was that which I described in another way in my novella Hunger, you know, like there's this hole in the house. There's a giant hole in the house. It’s like a black hole that things go into and they don't come out of. So there is a lot going on that isn't discussed. So growing up in a situation like that, you feel like you're surrounded by a mystery. So not only was I surrounded by mystery at home, but I was also surrounded by a mystery when I left the home and went into the world, which was entirely a midwestern, very homogeneous culture. Appleton, Wisconsin is a town, at the time, of some 40 or 50 thousand people, most of whom were of German-Scandinavian descent, many from other parts of England and Europe. And really my sisters and I were fish out of water. We were the only Chinese girls in Appleton. There were a couple of Asian boys, but we were the only girls and we had to stick together. We had our own sort of very strange culture. There was one way home. We went to school. We understood that school was the other way. To various degrees we managed to fit in or didn't, so that’s really the experience I wrote about. I've always, however, had a very strong sense of identity, probably because I grew up in a pack of sisters, so I never felt entirely alone, and so I think in a way I was lucky.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

That’s interesting because the bond of a strong sisterhood is something that occurs not just in Hunger but in Inheritance, too. That closeness where you can almost communicate without words.

 

CHANG

Yes, there are a lot of shared experiences that sisters have, and there's a lot of communication that goes without words. So, a different language.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

And that's interesting also this experience because generally Asian parents won't be encouraging their children to take up that “high-paying job” of being a novelist, but what you're describing to me is that you and your sisters were responsible for doing a lot of translation. And so this seems similar to the first step of becoming a writer. You’re telling other people's stories, you're having to negotiate, you're making all these narrative choices.

 

CHANG

I think that’s very possible that we were cultural translators. I mean, all of my sisters are good with words, but so are my parents. Both of my parents are good with words. My mother’s development of Chinese was arrested when she was eighteen and came to the United States. My father, who's still alive at ninety-three, is a very literary and very educated man. So, everyone in our house was always talking. It wasn't even culturally translating, there was a lot of translation of personal experience. Just to talk the loudest or get some airtime. We had a very noisy, verbal, energetic family.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It sounds like a great grounding for a writer. I was fascinated by something else that you mentioned. Although there was a lot of communication, the mystery about origins was still there and your parents weren’t in contact with their family? So if you don't know the story, you have to make it up.

 

CHANG

That’s exactly I think why I became a writer. I think I became a writer because there was so much silence in the house on such basic issues that I was required not only to investigate to find out what happened, but then repeat to it myself and other people in order to understand the story. And I think in Inheritance in some way, that was my most powerful effort to understand the China my parents had come from, what had happened to that China, and how it had changed and what was changing. And after I wrote that novel I felt pretty uninterested in pursuing writing about Asians or Asian-Americans for a long time because I'd basically written about it.

My following novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost was a departure. It’s actually my favorite because it was just a huge pleasure to write. So much fun to write. Nothing to do with my background, my family, it’s all about lived experience and observations I made coming up as a writer. Because for me becoming a writer went hand in hand with me becoming a person.

With special thanks to Lethokuhle Msimang for editorial assistance.