Q&A with Lan Samantha Chang
You were born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. What was it like growing up there?
Sometimes I wonder if I would still have become a writer if I had been raised in a larger, more diverse community such as San Francisco. My childhood in Appleton prepared me for writing– for observing and recording– because I grew up feeling like an outsider.
Appleton is a lot more diverse today than it was in the sixties and seventies, when my three sisters and I were in school there. At that time, our family was one of three Chinese families in the city of about 50,000. I cannot remember a time when I was not conscious of being different from the majority of people around me, who were mostly descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants. My classmates in the public schools had routines and beliefs and meals 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 own observations.
Being in a midwestern town also isolated my family from most other Asian immigrants, many of whom lived on the coasts. As a result, I did not know anything about China or being Chinese that my parents hadn’t told me. This was complicated because my parents didn’t talk much about the country where they had grown up. As a child I felt as if I were tiptoeing around a great hole of silence from the past. All four of us knew that our parents had been through difficult experiences in China, during and after the Sino-Japanese war, and we weren’t supposed to talk about it. It was almost as if the past might have destroyed us or hurt us in some way.
I knew my parents had been through a great trauma– their fears for us and their few stories they told indicated this– but they spoke about the past so seldom that to this day I feel that I am missing some very basic facts about their lives. This silence came, I think, from a desire to protect us. They wanted to forget what had already happened and focus on the future. I hungered for the past, because it was the only clue to understanding the parents whom I loved deeply. This also led me toward writing because I wanted to reconstruct the past, not as it happened– I knew I would never know that– but as I imagined it might have happened.
When did you first begin writing?
I have wanted to be a writer since before I could read. As a child, I copied picture books out onto sheets of paper, with the illustrations and all of the letters, before I could even put the letters together to form words. In school, I was one of those children who got in trouble for reading during math, spelling, and science time. While I fantasized about being a writer, my parents dreamed that all of their daughters would be doctors. We were strongly encouraged to study math and science.
I loved books and wanted to have my own collection. My parents, on the other hand, grew up in a wartime atmosphere where any extraneous possessions were weeded out. So my mother didn’t think it was necessary for us children to buy novels. Sometimes I think it was this attitude on the part of my parents that gave rise to my desire to create books; if owning as many books as I wanted was not possible, then perhaps I could literally make my own.
I wrote a great deal in second grade because a teacher encouraged it, and I became interested in writing again as an adolescent. After that there was a long period of silence beginning in high school and continuing through college and after when I thought that my primary goal should be to attend medical school and that writing fiction was a waste of time. I couldn’t write anything, either, in those days– the stories were twisted and stunted as if my imagination had dried up.
At Yale, after discovering my lack of interest in pre-medicine and then pre-law classes, I found myself majoring in East Asian studies. Although I disagreed with my parents I could not get them out of my mind. I took four years of Chinese classes and studied modern Chinese history, where I began to put together a factual skeleton of their lives. After college and a few years working as an editorial assistant in New York City, I entered Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government determined to get a “real job” in a profession where I would be required to wear hose.
But after a few months of studying economic courses, I woke up one morning and knew that I would have to begin a search for a kind of life I could really live. I asked myself what mattered most to me, and the answer was simple. I wanted and needed to write in order to try and understand the world I’d been brought up in. At that point I began to study fiction writing at a community adult education center. Shortly before my graduation from Harvard, I announced to my parents that I planned to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and learn to write stories.
My parents were stressed out, to put it mildly. Our communication was strained for a few years. But over time, they’ve become proud of me. Now they brag about me to their friends, so I know I’m out of the doghouse.
Were any authors particularly influential on your writing? Whose work are you currently reading?
This answer changes all the time depending on what I’m reading. I have always loved stories and sagas that have largeness and dramatic depth: in college I loved THE ILIAD and the Greek tragedies. Since I am writing a novel now, I have been feeding this interest in long fiction. I’ve just finished reading SACRED HUNGER by Barry Unsworth, a novel about the slave trade. I’m also discovering Robertson Davies, and I love SEVEN JAPANESE TALES and THE MAKIOKA SISTERS by Junichiro Tanizaki. My new project is to read (in English and Chinese) the works of Chang Ailing (Eileen Chang), a bilingual Chinese woman writer of the mid twentieth century.
Someone once said that “all fiction is but autobiography wrapped in pretty artifice.” When you write, do you draw very much from your own life?
HUNGER is a work of the imagination. But it calls on my experience as an American child of Chinese parents, growing up in a family that fled the communist revolution to make a new life on the other side of the world, in a new culture. I wanted to write a story about the hungers existing in many such families: the longing for the past, which is lost to them, and the hope for a better future. I tried to write about the need for love between immigrant parents and their children, and the reason this need is so difficult to manage. I’m interested in exploring the solaces and tragedies that are interwoven with family love.
So although this book isn’t autobiographical, some of its subject matter comes from my experience. A lot of personally gathered information went into HUNGER. Like all of the stories in this book, it is woven through with elements from my own life. The novella is an attempt to answer questions that I have been thinking about for a long time and that I have begun to discuss with my parents.
As a child, I was a serious student of music. My mother coached me for hours every day on the violin. In those days, the school system adopted the Suzuki method. For those of you unfamiliar with the Suzuki method, there are ten books of music which go from the simplest melodies to full Mozart concertos. I still do not fully understand what kind of hope and rage and fear and happiness went into our combined desire for me to be the first child in town to finish all the ten books. I reached our goal. I gave a full recital at age 11. When I went to college I put down my violin and I have seldom played it since.
I’ve seen similar family dramas over violin, piano, chess, tap dancing, and beauty contests. Over and over I’ve heard about parents fostering their children; many of the children have gone on to achieve great things, while some have suffered in their relationships with their parents and have never really recovered. Where does that need to achieve come from? My parents would only tell bits and pieces of their side, so I invented a family and filled in the rest. When I tried to write the story down, it became a tale of the parents and not the children– it became a story about two lives, lives filled with passion and hunger and ambition, that passed almost without notice.
In both “Hunger” and “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” you write about two daughters who each respond to their father in very different ways; one chooses to flee while the other chooses to stay. In what ways do these disparate reactions interest you?
I seem to be interested in the tension between movement and stasis. This tension has powerfully affected my family, going back at least two generations to my mother’s father, who moved his wife and children 26 times before my mother turned 18, in order to keep them safe from the encroaching war. On my father’s side, he left China but his siblings and parents remained behind; he was out of touch with them for more than twenty years. After marrying and spending a few years in New York, my parents moved to Wisconsin and now they’ve been living in the same house for more than thirty years. I think that my mother just sort of decided she didn’t want to move any more.
I was born in Appleton and lived there until I was 18. If you grow up in the midwest, you either stay or leave. When I was a kid, my parents told me and my sisters that Wisconsin was only the beginning for us, at some point we should all go out into the wider world to find our fortunes, so to speak. Thus the idea of leaving, and its alternative, took on another layer of resonance in my generation.
I read a piece that Philip Roth wrote about his first book, GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, which describes, among other things, the conflicted loyalties that the protagonist feels towards assimilation. In the essay, which introduced a commemorative issue of the book, Roth said that at the time when he wrote GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, when he was a young man, he was preoccupied by the idea of leaving. I think that this preoccupation is an inevitable accompaniment to assimilation.
In your stories, there is a strong undercurrent of regret, a longing for what Andrea Barret described as “all we might be, and aren’t; all we most want, and can’t have.” Are these themes especially meaningful for Asian Americans or immigrants?
I first wondered about regret when I was an adolescent and the local newspaper interviewed my mother and father for a feature article they were doing about immigrants in Appleton, or something like that. I don’t remember the exact topic, but what stuck out for me was my mother’s response to a question about whether she thought she had done the right thing in deciding to come to the U.S. Her reply began, “I used to think I had made a mistake, but…” I didn’t know she had said this until I read it in the newspaper. The idea that she could ever have thought that it was a mistake to come to the U.S. shocked me. I could not even imagine a life outside of this country. Here was my own mother telling a perfect stranger something that showed how little I knew and understood about her life. Her reply only deepened my confusion about what my parents had gone through, and intensified the aura of mystery surrounding them.
Now I’m older; I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about this topic, and I don’t think it’s possible to take a big risk in your life (such as moving to a new country with a new language) or commit to any place (to the point of bringing up your children in a foreign culture) without feeling some longing for the past, however bad it might have been. I wish I could truly understand the enormous and painful sacrifices my parents made on my behalf. The sacrifices are unfathomable. It’s a shame that I can’t fathom them, because not to know what they were like is a block against my being able to know my parents. Perhaps that is why I chose the title HUNGER for my book: the novella and all of the stories describe the oceans of time and experience that can separate American young people and their immigrant elders, often leaving them longing to understand each other.