Family, writing and phases of immigrant life: an interview with Lan Samantha Chang

Asian American author Lan Samantha Chang shares about her writing career and inspiration for her new book The Family Chao.

Asian American author Chang’s novel The Family Chao

Lan Samantha Chang knows her way with stories. 

The director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop since 2006, she has helped curate and cultivate leading voices in literature while also working on her own works. Her first book came out in 1998 and she recently released her fourth book, The Family Chao. Her work as both director and author have been well noted as she’s been given several awards like the Guggenheim as well as been recently recognized on Oprah Daily.

Chang at Enqlert
Photo Credit: Jin Auh

Cold Tea Collective spoke with Chang about her novel The Family Chao, what it means to protect a community, and phases of immigrant life.

See also: Abroad but not apart: A personal journey of reconnecting with family

Chang, Director of Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In 2006, Chang became the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (IWW). The graduates of the workshop have shaped and continue to shape the landscape of literature. 

“When I started this job, I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings to patrol the borders of the Shire, to make sure the dark forces don’t come in,” Chang said. She believes that her role as director is to protect the ideal writing community.

Chang herself was a graduate of the program. When she was a student in the 90’s she was one of two people of colour in her class that was mostly men. There was unequal financial aid based on perceived talent, which was up to debate on how to measure. 

When Chang became the director, she was both the first female director and the first Asian American director of the workshop. And she brought with her a different approach to her work. 

Little by little, she shifted and opened up the program so that now it’s close to 50% BIPOC with equal financial aid to all students. But at the core, the program’s priority remains the same: writing. 

“I’m not interested in artistic competition in the same way my predecessors were,” she said. “My goal is to create a diverse community of writers. I was able to change the program over time so it became a kind of program that reflects where our society is at this time.”

See also: I am a writer, you are a writer, and we are not alone

The blossoming of Asian American literature

Chang’s first book Hunger came out in 1998, when the Asian American literary scene was very different from today. The most well read author was Maxine Hong Kingston and though there were Asian American authors, most weren’t well known. 

Today Asian American literature is increasingly visible and celebrated. Books from Asian America are gaining traction, winning awards, and being adapted for film. And as the director of the IWW, Chang gets to witness and guide Asian American students who will become household names of the generation.

“During the course of my life, I’ve seen this incredible blossoming around me,” Chang said.

Chang’s origin story is different from today’s Asian American writer. Her parents immigrated in the mid 1950’s to a small predominantly white town in Wisconsin. As Chang has grown, so have the themes in her writing. 

Chang family
Chang and her family in Appleton, Wisconsin. Chang is the toddler between her mother and the oldest child on the left.
Photo Credit: Submitted

By the time she arrived at The Family Chao, she was interested in a story that went beyond immigration. Just like how her family had been in America for decades, she wondered what happens when you’ve been in the country for a long time. When the family members who immigrated pass, what is left of the immigrant identity?

“The Chaos have been here for so long that not only has the country dashed their hopes but they themselves have dashed their hopes,” Chang said. “They make their ghosts here and so they now belong to this country.” 

See also: Defining identity beyond passport and ethnicity

A Midwestern Asian American spin on Dostoevsky

With The Family Chao, Chang wanted to write an homage to The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. She wanted to replicate how the book entertained her. But instead of being set in Russia, she set her story in the American Midwest within a small Chinese community. 

For the homage, she wanted a location where a small Asian community was overlooked by others. The Midwest was a natural decision at first that slowly made more sense as she worked on the novel. Aspects like long winters, Midwestern landscapes, and alleyways became important to the book. And the cover itself features snow as key events of the story happen in the thick of a classic Midwestern winter storm. 

Chang book cover
Photo Credit: Submitted

Just like in The Brothers Karamazov, The Family Chao features three very different brothers.  Chang said the characters came naturally to her; as a daughter of a family of four girls, she’s familiar with how different siblings can be. 

Dagou is the classic eldest child of the family. He grows up with responsibility to be the eldest and fails drastically, Chang said with a laugh. James, the youngest, goes off track from being the golden son studying pre-med in college. And Ming, the middle Chao son, is bitter. Overshadowed by a buffoonish older brother, Ming sets out from his small Midwestern hometown only to realize that he’s an Asian man in a very white society. Very quickly, this turns into self hatred. 

“It was fun writing Ming,” Chang said. “It was weirdly entertaining. Despite the fact that he’s tragic, I found him to be funny; he’s so extreme.” 

The first half of the novel is kept within the small Asian community in a town in the American Midwest. They’re a mostly invisible group until tragedy suddenly thrusts them into the spotlight. But with the aggressive increased visibility comes loss of control. The Chao family’s issues are inspected from a racist lens and the narrative of the family quickly spins out of their hands. 

Chang sees anti Asian racism as something that’s always existed. She pointed out that it’s been present ever since the first Asian person was brought over to America in the 1830’s as part of a marketing exhibit. Chang even remembers the day that Vincent Chin was killed in the 1980’s; she was in high school and Michigan, where Chin was murdered, was a neighboring state to her home state Wisconsin. 

“That part of our society is simply present and expresses itself at times when it’s under stress,” Chang said simply. 

But instead of shying away, Chang writes into the small town’s racist reaction to the Chao family’s incident. At times, the descriptions are unsettling because of how accurate it seems; if something like this happened, it’s very possible that people would react the exact same way. 

This doesn’t mean that Chang’s The Family Chao is primarily dark. Instead, the book unpeels like a complex puzzle with a fair amount of humour, drama, and heart. And upon hearing what Chang said about the process of writing the book, it makes sense. 

“Writing The Family Chao was entertaining myself on an intellectual, emotional, and character level, to entertain my brain and imagination,” Chang said. “It gave myself a lot of pleasure.”

Feature Credit: Submitted

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