Its The Work That Matters: Lan Samantha Chang


2005.05.25
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Paperback jacket image courtesy of Phoenix, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group

WASHINGTON—Chinese American author Lan Samantha Chang, the first woman to head the prestigious Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, says her age, gender, and ethnicity may all have played a role in securing her new job.

But as she told RFA's Mandarin service in a recent interview, Chang prefers to leave personal attributes behind when it comes to a writer's work.

"I think that being a woman and being an Asian American was a positive thing in this case," Chang said.

"I think that the faculty at the University of Iowa and the members of the committee who were choosing the new director were very forward-thinking. Literature is changing."

I think that the best literature is produced when writers are given the opportunity to consider the work and the work alone.

Art and craft crucial to writer's task

"When we discuss work in class, we don't talk about the author, we're talking about the work, and the author needs to understand that the discussion does not exist for the purpose of making him or her feel better," she said.

Chang, whose own works include a novella titled Hunger and a recent novel, Inheritance , was asked about recent attempts by publishers to make U.S. authors more "tourable," improving their personal image in the national media in an attempt to boost sales.

"I think that the best literature is produced when writers are given the opportunity to consider the work and the work alone, and the art of it and the craft of it, rather than worrying about whether they're cool enough or interesting enough to merit attention as an entertainment personality," she told RFA.

I believe that in order for a writer to improve he or she must learn to see the work as separate from his or herself as a person.

Chang was offered the job last month following the death of her predecessor and former teacher, Frank Conroy. She said she hoped to emulate his ability to pick rising stars in American literature, something for which the workshop has become known.

"One of the other plans that I have is that I would like to raise money so that more students can have scholarships to come to Iowa," she added.

"Ideally what I'd like to do is have some generous institutions to donate some money so we can have funds which can ensure that all the best students are able to keep coming, can afford to keep coming to the school."

A 'solid life' at last

Chang, a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in the Midwestern town of Appleton, Wisconsin, said she would feel at home in neighboring Iowa. She said the job had also brought some relief to her first-generation parents, who had at times been greatly concerned by their daughter's chosen career.

"They felt I was not pursuing a profession in a very stable field, and they were worried that I wouldn't have a very solid life," Chang said.

"They had wanted me to be a doctor for a long time. After that they had wanted me to be a lawyer. Then there was a period when I was at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and they were hoping that I would get a government job."

She said Iowa University had long-established links with writers inside China through its international program. "I welcome the opportunity to build bridges between the workshop and the world at large," Chang told RFA.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Han Qing. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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