However, Briggs-Copeland Lecturer Lan Samantha Chang won’t just be heading for the cornfields when she moves there this coming January.
Rather, Chang—who will read from her first novel, “Inheritance,” at the Harvard Book Store this Tuesday—will assume the coveted position of director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, taking the place of recently deceased former director Frank Conroy.
Chang, also a graduate of the rigorous two-year program, has spent two years teaching creative writing in Harvard’s English department.
But the road to writing—as well as to Iowa—has been circuitous: it took awhile for her to realize that she “wasn’t cut out to do much else besides write,” according to Chang.
As an undergraduate at Yale, Chang majored in East Asian Studies. She first considered dermatology, at the behest of her parents who wanted her to pursue a “serious profession,” but she says she “[could not] even get herself interested in basic-level chemistry.”
After Yale she mulled over law school and then enrolled at the Kennedy School of Government, where she pursued a Masters Degree in Public Administration.
It was during this time that it became apparent to Chang that she needed to write. She began by taking classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and was eventually admitted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Talking about her experience in Iowa, the author says, “I’ve always found workshops to be constructive, not necessarily because of things said but because it is a huge privilege to have people read one’s work and to think about it at all.”
Chang is now coming full-circle with her writing career as she takes on the position of director of the workshop. It has been a busy career on the way, however: Chang’s short stories have appeared in “The Atlantic Monthly” and “Best American Short Stories 1994.”
Her novel, “Inheritance,” is a prosaic multi-generational account of a family under the backdrop of China’s Civil War. Spanning decades of political history, “Inheritance” also presents the far more personal story of two sisters.
These two sisters, Junan and Yinan, grow up together during China’s Cultural Revolution. The elder, Junan, is more practical and less emotional than the younger Yinan. As their story progresses from childhood to adulthood, and as Yinan and her sister’s husband Ling begin an affair, Chang dramatically juxtaposes their own family troubles with China’s political foibles.
The story is told by Junan’s daughter Hong, who assumes an omniscient tone as she pieces together her family history.
As Chang explains, Hong “can enter the thoughts of her mother and father apart from herself.” This unorthodox use of the first person constitutes an “imagining and piecing together of [Hong’s] family history as an adult.”
Chang’s work is structured in a unique, specific style. Immersed in a story that she knows little about, Hong’s situation is akin to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” or “Charming Billy” by Alice McDermott. Chang also says she was influenced by Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady.”
The most fascinating aspect of the novel is the interplay between the two sisters. In the novel Ling tells Junan that she and Yinan are like “two completely different blossoms on the same branch.” Chang says that the relationship between sisters is “something that can’t be found in any other relationship because it is so intimate.”
She continues, “You have two women growing up in the same family; they are born into the same psychological frame in our society. However, whom you marry still determines what type of life you will live.”
Along with this intimate setting, there is the historical component of a turbulent and changing China. According to Chang, she did “a huge amount of research for the novel” to create “the atmosphere of the country where [her] parents were born and raised.”
Coupled with such a thorough historical backdrop, the novel is multi-faceted and runs the gamut from historical narrative to family mosaic.
With “Inheritance” optioned for Hollywood, Chang has stayed busy writing and spending time at Harvard, where her classes are focused on the creative writing process. In English Crr.: “Beginning Fiction,” she emphasizes the stories of writers like Chekhov and Joyce before focusing on student work.
The seminar environment allows Chang to work closely with students, a vantage that the author “enjoys enormously.”
And though Chang will undoubtedly miss many of these students, she eagerly looks forward to beginning her new directorial position and climbing new peaks in her career—albeit in the flat terrain of Iowa.
—Briggs-Copeland Lecturer Lan Samantha Chang will be reading from her novel “Inheritance” at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 22 at the Harvard Book Store.