Lan Samantha Chang’s writing mines language, memory, and history to create fiction of extraordinary range. After releasing Hunger, her award-winning first book of Chinese families in America, Chang spent a decade composing Inheritance, a love story that spans seven decades from China to Taiwan to America. In her most recent book, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, Chang turns her attention to the minds and lives of contemporary poets. A recipient of fellowships from Stanford University, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Chang is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
In January 2016, the MFA program at Vanderbilt University had the pleasure of hosting Lan Samantha Chang for the Visiting Writers Series. She was an incredibly generous guest who was as interested in our stories as we were in hers (this led to me happily losing track of time and bringing us late to various events). In between Chang’s insightful craft talk on novel writing and her beautiful reading of new work, we sat down to talk about her writing.
Interviewer: I wanted to follow up on your craft lecture, in which you talked about the importance of establishing a novel’s authority. I’m thinking about the narrator of Inheritance, who is born in the middle of the novel, yet she confidently narrates a time before she was born. Could you talk more about how you arrived at Hong as the narrator?
Lan Samantha Chang: When I drafted Inheritance, I had a goal of simply writing the parts of the book that felt most crucial and salient and not worrying about the point of view. I spent a year drafting and ended up with several hundred pages. There were pages from the point of the view of Junan [Hong’s mother]; Hu Mudam, the housekeeper; Hong, the woman who would become the narrator; and Hong’s children. I was able to think of ways to incorporate those narrators through a female-stranded narrative, but I could not figure out where to put the passages from Li Ang’s [Hong’s father’s] point of view. I was most interested in Li Ang’s passages. I enjoyed writing them, and I knew they had to be in the book. This was a problem for me particularly because at that point, I didn’t know what the true subject of the book would be. Until you know why the story is being told — in other words, what the book is about — it’s very difficult to find the narrator. To whom does the story matter the most? As it turns out, a lot of the characters in the book are crucially invested in the story, but the only character who feels desperate to know all sides of it (both her mother’s and her father’s) is the character who tells it. That’s the main reason why Hong is the narrator. Also, even before I knew what the book was about — essentially, someone seeking to understand her family’s story — I knew that it should be someone from Hong’s generation, the middle generation, the middle of the story. Yet, I also knew that Hong was incapable of knowing the whole story. The story would not work if she did not have a helper narrator, and that was Hu Mudam.
You get a sense that a lot of specific details were given to the narrator by Hu Mudam.
That’s right. Hu Mudan, who was there and who cared deeply about the family and also about Hong. And who would at the end of the book appear and be able to tell her things that she didn’t know.
But also there’s an element of reinvention and imagination.
Absolutely. That was meant to be the case. I call this kind of narrator first person omniscient, and I notice this kind of narrator appears often in family sagas. For example, The Moor’s Last Sigh and Red Sorghum are family sagas in which a member of the family is narrating events that took place before and after their birth. And, of course, using their imagination to make those stories real. Really, the process of imagining is part of the purpose of the story. This process mirrors my experience in writing a story about 20th century China. My parents came to the United States in the 1950s, and I was born ten years later, entirely ignorant of the country of their birth and yet knowing that it was of crucial importance to our family. I needed to understand that story in Chinese history in order to understand our family. I created a narrator who had the same feeling about her family.
In Hunger most of the stories are set after the move to America, but in Inheritance you explore everything before emigration. Could you talk more about that decision? How did you locate the story?
I rarely know what something is going to be before I finish it. When I was writing Hunger, I did not say to myself, I am writing a collection. I said to myself, I am trying to write individual short stories; each story is different. I wrote about what mattered to me then. At the time, I was in the process of trying to understand the forces that weighed on my own childhood and the life of my family and other families like mine in the United States. After I wrote the book, I began a subject that I had long wanted to write about, which was the story of the time in China that my parents lived through: very turbulent, roughly defined by the Japanese invasion of China, ending at the moment when Mao and the Communists took over China and a wave of people left, many of whom ended up here in the United States. I did not plan when I began Inheritance to skip the part about what happens to this family after they get to the United States. I wrote a huge number of pages attempting to figure out what happened after they emigrated. The novel was really shapeless at that point. I kept writing and re-writing and became bored the minute they came to the US, possibly because I’d already written similar stories, but also, I think, because the real heart of this novel takes place during the war. Finally I asked myself, “Why is Hong telling this story?” I realized that the parts in China mattered so much to her, and the story of what happened after she got to the US mattered less. So I simply skipped over decades of their lives. It was the one big decision I made that broke formally with what I’d been expecting to do.
Your third book, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, switches gears in terms of cultural and historical context, but also spans a long period in these characters’ lives. And there are these devastating time jumps between sections where a couple will be married in one section and divorced the next. Can you talk more about how you approached time in writing this book?
I started writing All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost with the goal of recreating a sense that I had experienced of time passing. I wanted to write a book in which a central character lived his life under the assumption that he would live forever, only to suddenly recognize that his time on earth is short. At that moment he suddenly sees the shape of his early life, long after he’s lived it. That happened to me, and on a smaller scale, when I was writing Inheritance. I dipped my head into that novel in 1993 or 1994 and by the time I had finished the novel I was much older, my concerns had changed, the world had changed, and I felt as if I’d been asleep. I understood that all of those years that I’d been putting on hold to write my novel had been my actual life. I wanted to write a book whose form captured that experience, in which the narrative would be hiding in plain sight. The shape of Roman’s early life would be obscured from him until much later. I needed to portray only a few key moments that were relevant to the story. So a lot happens to Roman that we don’t hear much about. For example, there is the story of Roman as a father. The story of his marriage to Lucy. These are only seen in glimpses. What I wanted was to show in detail a period of time in Roman’s life that mattered enormously to him and set in motion the story of whom he would become, and then show glimpses from his life afterward. I think that’s one of the reasons why the book is written and paced in the way that it is. We see the characters at the beginning, we see them at a point in the middle, and then we see them at the end.
Roman, a poet, spends a lot of time thinking about the poetic imagination, and at one point he contrasts it to the workings of a novelist: “Someone overly interested in the well-worn paths of narrative and time.” I thought that was great coming from a prose writer. What’s your perception of the poetic imagination?
I’m not sure. This is one of the things that has fascinated me about poets. At Stanford University in the Stegner program, I understood that there were poets alongside me, many of whom were my friends, but whose work I knew little about, and whose poetic concerns I knew nothing about. I spent a while trying to understand them. I sat in poetry classes at Stanford. I invited poets to come speak in my class about their work. I talked at length with my friends who were poets. And I sensed that poets and fiction writers are very different. For one thing, I felt that poets had a different relationship to time than fiction writers did. Poets also had a different relationship to money. Poets take a vow of poverty when they decide to pursue their art, and I tried to imagine what impact that would have on the way that they viewed their lives and their work. It’s like an extreme version of the artistic life, a life in which you can enter it being fairly certain that nothing you create is going to make enough money for you to live on. And in that way it felt to me a true vision of artistic life. Poets have to really love poetry.
To love it, desperately.
It’s extreme. Frank Conroy, my predecessor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and my former teacher, used to talk about being the head of the NEA Literature program, and the way in which the poets on the jury would fight over who would be getting these fellowships. They would be at each other’s throats, he said — the passion would be so high in the room, so intense, whereas the fiction writers were much more calm. In the world of poetry, winning an NEA is huge. There’s so much more at stake. There’s an intensity that interests me. Underneath worldly concerns, a stake in the big picture. I was at a reading in graduate school in which a poet read from their own work and followed it with a reading from a great 20th modernist poem. I remember sitting up in my chair when this poet began reading The Great Poem. I remember what happened to me physically: gooseflesh stood up on my arms, I felt something on the back of my neck; I felt, as Emily Dickinson said, as if the top of my head had been taken off. And I understood that what I was hearing was real poetry, and what I had heard before it was not real poetry, despite how distinguished the poet was. Over and over I think of this whenever I’m at a reading. I go to a lot of readings now, and once in a while, I have that physical reaction to the reading that makes me understand that I’ve just heard something great. What is it that makes a work great? I think that question is at the heart of my reason for wanting to write All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. When you’re immersed in the writing world in the way that I am, you sometimes notice that the question of what is great doesn’t come up very often. We try to discuss it at [The Iowa Writers’ Workshop] because it has an important place in art making. But I think that in the world a lot of times the question gets lost as people seek to bolster their weak areas of craft or tweet about their friends and acquaintances. The real question of what is great doesn’t have a place in all of this, and yet I think in all of who make art, that question is at the heart of what we’re doing.
But when Roman is much older, and he’s won the Pulitzer for a book that everyone calls great… I don’t know if he cares about that question of “great” anymore.
It doesn’t matter, because he’s figured out that he was seeking the wrong thing. Why was Roman writing poetry? Because he wanted to be validated, to be good at something. Because he wanted to be thought of as great. Maybe he thought that if he was acclaimed for his work that that would mean his work was worthy of acclaim. I’m now old enough that I’ve seen a few things come and go. What once mattered enormously doesn’t matter anymore. All that truly matters is to pursue your own vision for your work and to try to make time for that in your life, and to keep at your own vision.
What are you working on now?
My biggest problem with fiction has been finding subjects that will hold my attention, and right now I feel lucky that I have a few projects. I’m writing a series of novellas — three novellas, hopefully — about family, and I’m in the middle of the second. And I’m also working on what I think is a longer work about a family of three Chinese sons in the Midwest and their father. And in that project I’ve discovered a drastic change in tone, and it’s been tremendously absorbing and satisfying for me to write in a different voice. One of the biggest challenges to my work has been being director of the program at the University of Iowa, because I often feel that people look for certain elements or styles in my work because of my position. I’ve somehow managed to find myself in the place right now where I don’t really care, where I’m no longer self-conscious about being seen as people want to see the Director of the Iowa’s Workshop. I feel really lucky to have reached this point. It’s a lot more fun.
I was wondering if you were growing tired of being asked about your experience directing Iowa when, you know, you’re a writer, too.
I love the Workshop. I say this all the time, but it’s true: Years ago, it changed my life, it gave me another family, a community. And as Director, I felt for many years that it was my job to protect that ideal community and make sure that it was possible for its members to live in a community where writing was the center of their lives. It took a lot of energy to accommodate all of that responsibility, but for some reason, in the last year or two I’ve been feeling freer in my work. You know, being the director has had a fascinating effect on my work. I was able to write in the third person from a white male point of view, I realized, because I had become an authority figure. That was funny. Turning back now to Asian American stories is also interesting to me, having lived through writing from a point of view apart from Asian American characters. I feel at this moment that the writing side of me is alive and well.