116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When working on her latest novel, award-winning author and Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Lan Samantha Chang was inspired by two unique and equally powerful sources: Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and her own family.
Set in a modern-day Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin, “The Family Chao” is a rich literary murder mystery about family dynamics, ambition, and the various ways we chase the American dream.
It’s also very funny.
“My family is a collection of extraordinarily strong-minded people who don’t really bear very much resemblance to the way that a lot of Asian immigrants are portrayed in fiction at the moment,” Chang said in a recent interview.
“I was inspired by Dostoevsky to reach for a more raucous family. And a funnier family than a lot of what I’ve seen.”
Chang wanted to be a writer since the age of 4, but the path forward wasn’t always clear.
“I grew up in Wisconsin to immigrant parents who really wanted me and my sisters to pursue more secure financially rewarding professions,” she said. “It took me until my mid-20s until I was able to throw off those thoughts and pursue writing in a dedicated way.”
“But pretty much once I did, I felt like I was on the right path for me.”
After graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and securing a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, Chang gained success, first as a short story writer and then as a novelist.
“I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to depict various parts (of my life.) Like the unhappiness of thwarted hopes in some of my early works and then the historical dive into 20th century China in my next book and then my third book was really an art book.”
Her fourth and most recent novel, “The Family Chao,” “is an attempt to depict the effects of long-term assimilation.”
“How do those hopes — those initial great American dreams — how do they reverberate through people’s lives long after the initial moment of arrival in the U. S.?”
Chang explores this theme by writing from the perspective of each of the three sons: Dagou, the oldest, who shoulders the hopes of his newly-arrived immigrant parents; Ming, the middle child, who resents not receiving the same level of attention as Dagou; and James, the youngest, who is raised almost exclusively speaking English and receives the greatest amount of freedom.
“I wanted to show the way that children born at different points in their parents’ lives can have very different experiences of reality and grow up very different.”
By including multiple points of view, Chang was also able to show “all the various different ways in which the different characters responded to their experiences growing up in this town.”
In fact, some of the microaggressions experienced by the characters were based on moments from Chang’s life growing up in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I was one of only a few Asians in our entire town. People didn’t mean to but they were really uncertain how to treat me and my sisters.”
One experience Chang remembered was when she walked into a public restroom after a small violin performance and two women were washing their hands. “I went into a stall — they saw me walk in — and they said to each other: isn’t that Chinese girl sweet or nice or a good player, something like that? It was meant to be a compliment, but the thing that fascinated me at the time was they didn’t behave as if I could understand what they were saying. Often people would assume that I couldn’t understand English.”
“I’ve sort of been lucky as a writer because my family has been here for so long. It enabled me to have so much time to thinking about what that experience has meant to me and to our family.”
Chang’s parents grew up in China during the Sino-Japanese war and emigrated to the United States, settling in Wisconsin, where Chang was born and raised.
But the life her parents knew in China wasn’t accessible to Chang, both because of geography and politics.
“As a child you grow up knowing that their past is essentially sealed off from you …. Because of the bamboo curtain, people weren’t allowed to go to mainland China from roughly 1949 until the late ‘70s.”
“My parents couldn’t go visit their families or the places they had ever been. It’s hard for me to imagine.”
Chang experienced the deaths of both her parents in the last 10 years, and found herself reconsidering the way she thought about their immigration experience and its generational reverberations.
“I realized that on some level I had no more formal living tie to that immigrant experience. I was actually a product of this country. And the things that I had done, for good or bad, were done here in this country. I was not connected to that story in the same way as I had been when they were alive.”
Chang also had a realization about her writing process.
As life became more complicated — with family responsibilities and a demanding job — Chang found it more difficult to find time to write. “The Family Chao” took over 10 years to complete.
“I really buckled down and started working on this book after my mom died. There was a realization that there wasn’t a person between me and mortality anymore. It was happening, it was coming for me, death was coming for me, too. If I really wanted to finish another project — or continue to finish a project — I would have to really buckle down.”
“I realized ultimately nobody cares if you get work done except for you. You’re responsible for the work that you get done. No one else is going to give you things.”
Even still, Chang has deep appreciation for this stage of her life.
“I think midlife has been this huge adventure in so many different ways. When my younger students write about midlife, they often write about characters who are bored, whose lives are repetitive, and I have found it not to be the case.”
“Life keeps throwing things at you and you keep learning things and changing. So that’s been really wonderful.”