Interview With Iowa Writers’ Workshop Director: Lan Samantha Chang

Michael C. Baradi, Librarian, Mid-Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Lan Samantha Chang and her latest novel, The Family Chao
Author Lan Samantha Chang and her latest novel, The Family Chao. Photo of author: IfeOluwa Nihinlola

I met Lan Samantha Chang in 2019 when I took a short vacation to Iowa City, IA, home to the University of Iowa, known for its football team, the Hawkeyes, its speech-language pathology program, and its highly celebrated graduate program in creative writing, the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Chang is the program's first female director and the first of Asian-American descent. When I read one of her novels, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, more than ten years ago, I immediately felt at home with its prose and longed to hear her talk in person in a classroom setting.

Lan Samantha Chang is the author of four books of fiction, most recently The Family Chao. A twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of her collection Hunger: A Novella and Stories will be reissued in August 2023 by W.W. Norton. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Atlantic and The Best American Short Stories. She has won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Berlin Prize, and the PEN/Open Book Award. She lives in Iowa City, where she teaches and directs the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She has a new story coming out in the September issue of Harper's this year.

In an interview with the BBC's Radio 4 Bookclub in 2012, Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst said that he avoids letting anyone read any section of a work-in-progress until an entire draft is completed. He wants to discourage "premature criticism" about the work at hand, but more so, he feels "there's something quite primitive about giving away the story—and if [he] told someone what happens [in] the book, it sort of robs [him] of the necessity of saying it on the page." Do you feel that way about your drafts? Were you possessive about the draft of your latest novel The Family Chao, the way Hollinghurst feels secretive about his drafts? Your last novel came out in 2010. No doubt, the draft of a new novel is like a delicate creature fresh from the womb of an author's imagination, which becomes even more delicate if an author has worked on it for years; it needs to be cradled and assessed by trusted eyes, before it enters the hallways of a publishing house, ready to be grilled by the color of highlighters, red pencils, and editorial suggestions. Does your agent have the exclusive privilege to read your first drafts, or does that privilege default to someone else, perhaps a colleague at Iowa or another writer?

I do feel very private about my works-in-progress. For me, the desire to write builds creative pressure within an internal space; therefore, speaking about a project or showing it to someone inevitably lets the air out of it. For me, ideas build in secret--so much so that, in order to get going, I sometimes have to promise myself no one will ever see the finished project. For example, I was able to immerse myself in my novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost only by promising myself it was unpublishable and that no one would ever read it. In the case of The Family Chao, I persuaded myself the project was impossible before I was able to get significant work done on it. Only by sealing off the process am I able to let the work get as uncertain or messy as it needs to be. Because of this need for privacy, I don't show a novel or story to anyone until it's gotten as far as it can take it on my own. At that point, I've typically completed several drafts and have reached a point where I need the help of another person. At this point, I generally show the manuscript to a friend: sometimes another writer, sometimes not.

In All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, I underlined several passages and noted my reactions because, quite simply, they were gorgeous lines in a beautiful story. The drama in this novel involves a creative writing program, which, now and then, feels like I'm eavesdropping on conversations you have with your colleagues in Iowa. I especially love the passages about craft and writing, like this one: "[P]oetry cannot be taught. All of this instruction of technique is merely superstition, magical thinking—wishful people tinkering over a decision made for them long ago." The idea behind the passage is that writing itself—not just poetry—cannot be taught. In a New York Times op-ed back in 2017, Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen aired some views about writing programs, in general, that there is something hostile about writing workshops. But it's one of Iowa's alums, Flannery O'Connor, who was critical about writing workshops, where she said, more than fifty years ago in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, that it's like the blind leading the blind; and more so, she said: "The teacher can help you understand the nature of your medium, and he can guide you in your reading. I don't believe in classes where students criticize each other's manuscripts. Such criticism is generally composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite." How do you respond to this kind of anti-workshop sentiment?

Thanks for your warm words about All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. I am very attached to that novel, and I enjoyed writing it; it was meant as a kind of love story for a decade or so in my life when I was an apprentice writer, moving from place to place, program to program, festival to conference, learning about the art and trade of writing from a number of poets and fiction writers who have become celebrated and other, often equally brilliant, people about whom little is now remembered. I began writing the novel in 2006, right after I'd started my job at the Workshop, and finished it relatively quickly. So it's not actually an Iowa novel, although the first scenes bring to mind the atmosphere of many writing programs in the mid to late 1980s—a very different atmosphere than that at the Iowa of today. I feel, underneath your question, a deeper question about why writing programs exist. What is taught there? Is it possible to teach a solitary art? I can't speak on behalf of all programs and writers. But I can say that what worked for me as a writer was to go to Iowa and join a community of people whose lives writing was central, located in a quiet and congenial town of readers: Iowa City. There, I found a few people with whom I still share work. I suppose I moved back to Iowa to teach and direct the Workshop because the program and place had given so much to me, had meant so much to me that I found its stewardship a meaningful way to spend my midlife.

Indeed, the feeling of stewardship you felt as a student in Iowa in the nineties is probably telling of how Iowa had evolved. Back in the late seventies, when poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros was a student, she found the program's climate harsh and wanted to leave the moment she arrived, though what saved her, in many ways, was another woman of color, fellow poet Joy Harjo. Both women bonded. In A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, David O. Dowling devotes a detailed account of Cisneros' and Harjo's experience in Iowa. In fact, there was an incident where their instructor, Donald Justice, excluded their names from the weekly reading rotation. Cisneros and Harjo protested, but when their work was eventually included in the reading rotation, "both [women] met crushing silence when their work was circulated" (203), according to Dowling. Imagining that silence today gives me chills. One wonders if Cisneros' and Harjo's admission back then were Iowa's first diversity experiments. Unlike these days, wherein diversity is the air any writing program must breathe, which, no doubt, has its own brand of competitiveness tempered by a sense of community?

I am so fortunate to know Sandra Cisneros, a writer of brilliance and integrity, and to have spent time with her during her visits to Iowa City and the Workshop in recent years. She has told me about coming to the program when she was very young and encountering a culture that was largely unsupportive of her poetic vision, a setting so uncomprehending and even hostile to her artistic intentions that later she was practically driven, through her own grit and integrity, to write her iconic House on Mango Street. This is certainly not an ideal poetic education. To a lesser degree of intensity, I know her experience. I remember arriving at the Workshop in the early 90s as the only Asian American writer in my class when only the strongest sense of desperation kept me at my desk. I was desperate to write, and I struggled to tell the stories published in Hunger, stories about characters whose stories largely hadn't been told, stories I felt had never been written before. I remember, in my first year, bringing those fledgling stories into classes that were largely white and largely male. And yet, for me, because I'd grown up in a family that largely disapproved of my ambitions, I found the Workshop to be in many ways more welcoming to my writing than previous settings. It was liberating to be in a program whose goal was to make writing the center of my life. I was lucky to have a job teaching freshman composition that would allow me to support my writing. I made some of my best friends, writers who still read my work. I was fortunate to be mentored by Margot Livesey and James Alan McPherson. In this way, the Workshop was like a second family to me, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before I would want to return to help this family to expand into a community in which writers such as Sandra, as well as her groundbreaking peers and classmates Joy Harjo and Rita Dove, would be welcomed back as beloved revolutionaries.

I suspect your family's disapproval of your ambition was rooted in the fear that you were pursuing something precarious career-wise. They were thinking of job security, perhaps? Having an East Asian Studies degree from Yale and an MPA from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government feels like a set-up for a stable career in international relations as a diplomat or a career at the United Nations. No doubt your family's disapproval dissipated over time, eventually, especially when you started directing the most celebrated MFA program in creative writing. Does your family read your work?

Like so many immigrants, my parents wanted their children to pursue secure and well-paying careers. They wanted our family to be safely established in America; for this, they had sacrificed enormously. Ideally, my three sisters and I would all have become doctors. This logic makes sense to me now as a parent. I can see it more clearly now that both my mother and father are gone, but it makes sense only in theory. In mysterious reality, my parents gave birth to me, an impractical middle child who discovered a desire to write books when she was four years old. I entered Yale as a premed, but I could not bring myself to work on chemistry. I switched to pre-law and was actually admitted to law school, but couldn't bring myself to attend. I was enrolled at the Kennedy School when I realized I was simply unable to think about the future if it did not include writing. I took adult education writing classes and applied to the Workshop. It was a life-saving decision, but it upset my parents. My father continued to think I should have become a doctor. My mother was very unhappy with me for years. To be frank, I don't think they enjoyed having a daughter who was a writer. My mom, when asked what she thought of my story in the Atlantic, described it as "very long." I didn't feel that they ever accepted my writing until I took the job directing the program at Iowa, and the hire was written about in the overseas Chinese newspaper. In her later years, as she let me know in our final conversation before she died, my mom was very proud of me.

You've written about the children of immigrants in the U.S. in both your short story collection Hunger and your first novel Inheritance, though not the way you've excavated through their consciousness in your most recent work, The Family Chao, where you assigned them in three categories, through the Chao brothers in the novel. First, there's the type portrayed by Dagou, the eldest, whose ambition is framed by loyalty, driven to please his father. Then, there's the youngest, James, devoid of ambition, who desires to live a quiet life. But the middle child, Ming, is something else; full of self-hatred, he dreams of things far greater than his parents have achieved, including material things. And Ming thrives. I love Ming. In one of Ming's conversations with James, he said: "There are only certain times in life when emergence is possible. The life strategy of children of immigrants, starting with nothing, is to use that time to build social, educational, and financial capital to ride out the rest of their lives." I'm curious about the use of the term 'emergence' here. Are you courting the idea of the American dream? To instigate rupture from the past and rise above one's humble origins?

I don't think of the brothers as being assigned into categories. As one of four sisters myself, I see the brothers' characteristics as being more about the ways that siblings, although they've been brought up under similar circumstances, can respond very differently to those circumstances. The three Chao sons grew up in an immigrant restaurant family in the Midwest. Dagou, a creative, becomes a talented musician and chef. He is brought up as his parents' great hope for America, and he has a bit of a thirst for glory. As the novel opens, he has failed in his efforts to launch as a musician. These expectations dashed, he left New York and came back home, where he worked for his father with the goal to become a partner and transform the restaurant. James, I think, is the most secure of the brothers. As the youngest son, he grew up protected by Dagou and Ming. James's desire for "an ordinary life" doesn't preclude the pursuit of a profession, but he doesn't need to stand out. At the novel's beginning, he's a college student planning to apply to medical school. Ming, the middle child, is a special case. Filled with talent and ambition, he feels competitive with Dagou, the favorite. Ming has also suffered from the racism of his childhood environment more than his brothers and has developed, in response to this, a significant case of self-loathing. He leaves home and becomes a consummate achiever. When Ming talks about "emergence," I think he imagines his escape from home: describing an emergence as if it is a triumphant launch from his roots in the Midwest, away from his parents, who embarrass him; his restaurant background, which is too humble for him; and into an elite, moneyed, and essentially "white" world. In this way, Ming's American dream definitely involves rupture from his past and rising above his humble origins. The costs of this achievement are explored in the novel.

In your observation as a teacher, what words or phrases do beginning writers overuse most?

Honestly, my students are thoughtful and talented people of diverse interests and aesthetics. I don't feel they overuse the same words. But I do have a kind of bird's-eye view from reading applications, and I've noticed there are writing trends that tend to change from year to year. At one point, a noticeable number of writing samples included the word "nipple." Another year, there were half a dozen stories about people having intercourse with yetis. Generally, people justify their characters' early marital unhappiness by inflicting miscarriages or infant deaths upon their fictional couples. I've lately noticed that some people don't indent paragraphs (I think this is because they're using a letter-writing format to write their stories), and I've also noticed that a significant number of applicants and graduate students have forgotten the difference between "its" and "it's."

Over the years, do you have a bucket list of titles you read over and over again to get you going on what you plan to write? Or is it the other way around: your reading is determined by what you plan to write? What are you reading right now?

In large part, my writing is determined by what I'm reading. The Family Chao was written in conversation with The Brothers Karamazov. I would never have written All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost if I hadn't read Valerie Martin's collection The Unfinished Novel. Recently, I've been very interested in the world of musicians. I've read or reread Sonny's Blues (James Baldwin), Song of the Lark (Willa Cather), and the memoir Every Good Boy Does Fine (Jeremy Denk). I've also recently read several wonderful short story collections, including Witness (Jamel Brinkley), The Sorrows of Others (Ada Zhang), and Innards (Magogodi oaMphela Makhene).

Reading List

Book cover for The family Chao : a novel
The Family Chao
Chang, Lan Samantha

Book cover of Hunger : a novella and stories
Hunger: A Novella and Stories
Chang, Lan Samantha

Book cover of All is forgotten, nothing is lost
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost
Chang, Lan Samantha

Book cover of Inheritance
Chang, Lan Samantha

Book cover of The best American short stories, 1994
The Best American Short Stories, 1994

Book cover of The best American short stories, 1996 : selected from U.S. and Canadian magazines
The Best American Short Stories, 1996

Book cover of The brothers Karamazov : a novel in four parts with epilogue
The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts With Epilogue
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor

Mystery and Manners; Occasional Prose
O'Connor, Flannery

Book cover of A delicate aggression : savagery and survival in the Iowa Writers' Workshop
A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers' Workshop
Dowling, David Oakey

Book cover of The house on Mango Street
The House on Mango Street
Cisneros, Sandra

Book cover for Vintage Baldwin
Vintage Baldwin
Baldwin, James

Book cover of The unfinished novel : and other stories
The Unfinished Novel: And Other Stories
Martin, Valerie

Book cover of The song of the lark
The Song of the Lark
Cather, Willa

Book cover of Every good boy does fine : a love story, in music lessons
Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons
Denk, Jeremy

Book cover of Witness : stories
Witness: Stories
Brinkley, Jamel

Book cover of The sorrows of others
The Sorrows of Others
Zhang, Ada

Book cover of Innards : stories
Innards: Stories
Makhene, Magogodi oaMphela