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Lessons from the life and work of Iris Chang

Iris Chang’s life was many things to me. Even before I read her books, she was this wonderful figure among Asian-Americans. I remember seeing her face on the cover of Reader’s Digest in the Nineties and knowing and being proud of this rare instance of an Asian face being so prominent, and respected. I remember the excerpt of her book, “The Rape of Nanking,” in Newsweek and how much weight that carried. I also remember the feeling when news broke of her committing suicide in 2004, when she was just 36 years old: Horror. It felt like there was a dark void in what happened.

What was it that drove her to suicide? That question has been probed many times in articles and books written by those close to her. This essay is not going to delve into that, but will be a reflection on the lessons that Chang’s life and work still carry for our time.

Chang’s books and her experiences have been on my mind these past few years for many reasons. First, because of the changes underway in the world and the random eruptions of violence these past few years, I couldn’t help but think of how much good the voice of someone like hers could have done, with her meticulous research, intelligence and emotional accuracy. The second was because of the lesson her life and work imparted to me, which is that recognition of the importance of mental health of writers remains, like in Chang’s days, a neglected part of journalism. And third, Chang seems to have been a woman who found herself out of time, in more ways than one. In recent years, there have been growing discussions in our country about identity, and a new openness and awareness of cultural differences, that were not happening in her generation but which Chang clearly needed. She was so often at the leading edge of what was to come. This lack of community for Chang, resulting in secrecy and isolation, is why I personally believe she went past the point of no return.

A steady drumbeat

What Chang tackled in “The Rape of Nanking” was the kind of unspeakable violence that is difficult to think about for even a moment, much less spend years researching, speaking with victims, reading testimonies and viewing photographs, and writing. Unlike the Holocaust, which had decades of global discussion and communal grief after World War II, Nanking, at the time of the book’s publication in 1997, had remained in ignorance, even blatant dismissal.

In short, the siege of the ancient capital of China by Japanese forces, which started in December 1937, resulted in the murder of an estimated 300,000 people over a six-week period. Going beyond merely killing civilians, Japanese soldiers tortured, raped, disemboweled, used people as bayonet practice, and worse.

Here is how Chang described her reasons for writing about the massacre. From “Nanking,” she talks of her revelations upon seeing photos at a conference in Cupertino, Calif., in 1994.

In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself. … Not just one person but hundreds of thousands could have their lives extinguished, die at the whim of others, and the next day their deaths would be meaningless. But even more telling was that those who had brought about these deaths (the most terror-filled, even if inevitable, tragedy of the human experience) could also degrade the victims and force them to expire in maximum pain and humiliation. I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the world to remember it.

It was the injustice of it that enraged her, the way the perpetrators bound their victims in a meaningless void of powerlessness and loss of identity, even in death. She never wrote it, but what she felt plainly jumps out at me. “How dare they?”

Today, the book stands as an incredible example on how to write about atrocities and oppressions that are not only difficult to write about, but had been swept under the rug and buried for so long that to talk about it makes one feel like screaming.

In the past few years, I’ve seen people start to talk about their experiences and engage in discussions on sexual assault, mental illness, domestic violence and other topics that until recently have been taboo, and what usually happens is the truth tumbles out in a mess. The words are sputtered out, the story is disjointed. Victims go back and forth and mix up the details, because even when incidents happen years ago, victims are often still trying to make sense of what happened. They wind up asking for understanding from and for the perpetrators, and are often disappointed and traumatized once again by negative reactions from the public.

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The gift that Chang gave to the victims in “Nanking” was by being the conduit through which they could tell their stories, and she, in turn, would tell the overall story steadily, but not dispassionately. The book was written with passion but also rationally, never flinching from the inhumane, monstrous details. At the same time, it also highlighted moments when victims fought back and demonstrated their own agency, and did not neglect the perpetrators’ humanity. It provided background on them to understand what led to their crimes, but it did not excuse them. The book was straightforward but full of heart, doing the utmost in calling for reparations to the victims.

Reading “Nanking,” there is the grounding feeling of a single, steady drumbeat:

This happened.
This happened.
This happened.

Sometimes, the best thing to do as a writer, and the hardest thing to do, is to simply say that it happened.

Writers and mental health

Unfortunately, writing about such horrific subjects did eventually take a toll on Chang.

Toward the end of her life, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She would cycle through manic periods when she would take on massive amounts of work, then depressive periods, as well as paranoia.

She eventually had a breakdown during a trip to interview veterans of the Bataan Death March. The tortuous march of Filipino and American prisoners of war by Japanese soldiers during World War II was the subject of her final, unfinished book. Bataan was horrifying, like “Nanking” had been. One woman who worked for Chang cried the entire time she transcribed interviews for the book.

But Chang seemingly took few precautions for her well-being.

And this, I feel, remains a neglected part of journalism to this day: The health and safety of writers’ emotional and mental health, not just physical.

To hear people’s stories is to naturally become sensitive and sympathetic with them, and empathize with them. Writers often absorb the feelings of the people they come in contact with and the environments they find themselves in.

So how do you end up seeing the world when you’ve had to look at genocide, at rape, at mountains of bodies, for years? How does repeatedly looking at evil affect a person?

After the publication of “Nanking,” Chang confessed to friend Paula Kamen that flashes of the violence she encountered in research would often come to her randomly, and would shock her.

But where Chang did not protect herself, she instinctively wanted to protect the subjects of her writing. Earlier in her career, as an intern at the Chicago Tribune, Chang shocked her peers when she turned down an editor’s directive to call back a second time the family of a trauma victim. Here’s how a fellow intern recounted the incident, from Kamen’s book, “Finding Iris Chang”:

When the editor protested, Iris handed him the phone: “Iris just said, ‘Here, ask them yourself.’ ” And she walked away from the desk, which was just unheard of. I mean, God, it was just not heard of. I never would have done that in a hundred years.

There was probably no one else who could have written about Bataan with the sensitivity Chang had. Imagine what she could have done if her instincts about respecting other peoples’ well-being extended to herself.

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Main photo: Iris Chang in 1997, when “The Rape of Nanking” was published. Photographed by Jimmy Estimada. Above photo: Chang with Nanjing survivor Xia Shu-qin (second from left). (Photos courtesy of Ying-Ying Chang.)

The importance of community

Chang found herself increasingly isolated toward the end of her life. Much of that was her own doing, but there was also a very real lack of relating and kinship that prevented her from getting the help she needed.

Throughout her life, Chang had been so on the cutting edge of pushing the boundaries of identity, ethics and emotional acuity that she was often misunderstood by her peers.

One of the chapters in Kamen’s book is titled, “Why in the world did she run for homecoming court?”

Back in 1988, I can imagine Chang running for homecoming to be seen as awkward, weirdly conservative and not suited to her, and just strange for a nerdy girl to do. But today, in 2016, I can imagine most women replying, “So? Why is this even a question?”

Why does anyone run for homecoming? Take the tradition at its basic purpose, and it’s just a way for girls to celebrate their beauty and attract boys. And Chang did. The man who eventually became her husband spotted her as one of the princesses in the homecoming parade.

Numerous times in Kamen’s book, she unknowingly demonstrates the many ways she misunderstood her friend, missed cultural clues, and missed alarm bells that would’ve rang loud and clear to others.

In one instance, Kamen tells of a former sorority sister of Chang’s talking about how she stumbled across her crying. Chang glossed over it, saying it was nothing. But the incident is a familiar one to many Asian-American and Asian women who know the overwhelming pressures we face from family and society to maintain academic excellence, even perfection. This issue has also become familiar to society at large at this point.

In their time, before all the discourse that’s happened online in recent years over cultural differences, there were few resources to tell Kamen – and Chang – of where each other was coming from.

There is also a huge personal revelation that Kamen uncovered in her book. Chang, who had worked so hard to maintain an image of perfection, had used a surrogate to give birth to her son. Her friends thought she had been pregnant. She confided in no one the toll that hormone drugs were taking on her, made worse by the ups and downs from miscarriages she previously had.

From Kamen’s book again, the words of Chang’s protégé, Iris Chang Herrera: “People knew that she needed to take a break. But at the same time, we didn’t really question it as much as we should because we just thought, ‘Oh, she’s a superwoman. She just keeps on going, doesn’t stop.'”

Had Chang gone through her personal crisis in this day and age, if she did not feel comfortable confiding in her friends, she would have found support, anonymous if she wished, in message boards, Tumblr accounts, blogs by women who were going through the same things, comparing notes on different drugs and treatments. She would have found solace, understanding and knowledge in a much greater number of people.

The winter flower

This might be a common thing for people who read about Iris Chang to ask of themselves. The question I keep circling back to is still absolutely this: What could I have to prevent her death?

Probably nothing. I think about what I would have done if I had been one of her friends, or if I were her editor. I have so many ideas for what she could have written during or right after “The Chinese in America” in the early 2000s, before her work on Bataan, that might have alleviated some personal pressure, and allowed her to absorb some positive knowledge about the world.

It would have been something to see Iris Chang interview the young Zhang Ziyi in those bright years right after “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” What would it have been like for her to see the signs of a new Asian-American identity, and a global identity that melds the two places without sacrificing either – the kind of identity her career was a forerunner for?

She had such an inner, unassailable sense of goodness, a belief in it that was so natural. This unique bloom in the dead of winter did not live to see the springtime, but she was the harbinger of so much to come.

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