Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind Audio CD – Nov 9 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Bestselling author Iris Chang's 2004 suicide at age 36 so shocked friends and colleagues that some initially claimed that Japanese extremists had murdered her to avenge Chang's acclaimed exposé in The Rape of Nanking of atrocities against Chinese civilians perpetrated by Japanese invaders in 1937–1938. Lacking the artistry of Ann Patchett's recent portrait of her friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, this effort by Kamen (All in My Head) is a tedious, obsessive, exploitative effort, drawing on her Salon.com eulogy to Chang. Kamen, who had known Chang since college, repeats some of the far-fetched, irresponsible conspiracy theories before settling on the sad truth that Chang, suffering from bipolar disorder, shot herself in the head with an antique pistol after much planning. Kamen describes her admiration for and jealousy of her rival, Chang's grating ambitiousness and the first-generation American's attempts at being a real American, epitomized by her campaign to be college homecoming queen. Kamen also probes the stigma of mental illness in the Asian-American community, Chang's sense of guilt over her son's autism, her veneer of perfection and the deterioration of her mental state. Despite its flaws, this could find a sizable audience among those Chinese-Americans who lionized Chang. 60,000 first printing. (Nov. 9)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Finding Iris Chang peels back the layers of a 'perfect' life to trace what led to Chang's carefully plotted suicide... (Paula Kamen) approaches her very interesting subject with clarity, respect and an absence of melodrama." Irish Times" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product Description
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Iris Chang (1968-2004) is somewhat forgotten now, and that's a shame. A journalist, she wrote an international bestseller back in 1997 called "The Rape of Nanking," a historical study that became not only a must-read among intellectuals and armchair historians, but also among college students, their professors, and hundreds of thousands of people of Chinese or Japanese descent.
Although born in the 1960's, Iris Chang became a sort of international ambassador/interpreter of the war crimes committed in Nanking, China, just before World War II, whose magnitude depends one whom you choose to believe. That she was a physically beautiful, mentally brilliant, hard-charging 20-something wunderkind is--from a historical point of view--totally irrelevant to her subject matter. On the other hand, it made her a meteor-like instant celebrity around the globe, sort of like Woodward and Berstein shortly after their Watergate reporting.
Tragically, Chang's unbelievable, too-good-to-be-true story was, ultimately, too good to be true. At the age of 36, she took her own life.
Now, author Paula Kamen has written a book that tells the story of Chang's life. What puts a fascinating twist on this biography is that Kamen and Chang were very good friends going back almost 20 years, and Kamen herself is a successful non-fiction author.
Kamen looks at Chang through two strikingly different lenses: one, from an objective, strictly professional/journalistic point of view, and two, from the point of view of a caring, long-term, mourning friend.
What gives the book its considerable heft is that the reader gets a super-close-up view of who Iris Chang was throughout her life. Kamen tracks down Chang's high school classmates, her sorority sisters, her former colleagues, her husband, and dozens of others. We get an amazing portrait of a first-generation Chinese-American growing up in the cornfield-ringed college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. We follow her early struggles and partake in her jump to international celebrity. But then, we accompany her downward as well. Kamen includes quotes from dozens of e-mails, notes, Christmas cards, interview transcriptions and the like that she exchanged with Chang over the years. Some readers will find that this intimacy makes them uncomfortable. I, however, think that it let me get to know the soul of a beautiful person.
One of the possibly hundreds of details about Chang that Kamen relates goes back to the time when she was an intern at a famous Midwestern newspaper. Her editors told her to keep calling back a grieving family until she could get a quote for the newspaper. Risking her job, Chang refused. I like her guts.
This book is carefully layered. It is about many things: history, genocide, journalism, friendship, ambition, mental illness, suicide, loyalty, success, and failure. Kamen has done two things brilliantly here. She has taken us first-hand on a very sad journey of what it means to have unimaginable success, and she has created a loving and permanent portrait of her friend.
Anyone familiar with the geopolitical ground covered in this book can be forgiven a similar harrumph. While Kamen's account consistently holds the reader's interest, she comes up short on many of the crucial questions that knowledgeable readers want answered.
One of the most obvious questions is how someone as young as Iris Chang could have soared so seemingly effortlessly to fame. True, Chang's defining book The Rape of Nanking was not only well written but Chang had added considerably to what was already known from the 1930s. But, in an era in which hype alone can catapult sheer balderdash to the top of the best seller list, good writing is hardly a sufficient condition for publishing success. What propelled the Nanking book was its unique shock value in breaking a half-century-old omerta in the Japan studies field. Quite simply in pre-Chang days, Nanking was virtually never mentioned by American Japan watchers.
This self-censorship was all such a sharp contrast with the dedication with which American scholars had pored over the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka (and indeed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Why had Nanking been forgotten? The answer -- one whose significance has evidently been lost on Kamen -- is that the highest government officials in Tokyo wanted it forgotten. And in Japan studies, what Tokyo wants it usually gets. The field has long been under Tokyo's thumb thanks to American universities' shamefully subservient dependence on Japanese money (much of which comes directly from Japanese sources and most of the rest from various "globalist-minded" American corporations intent on currying favor with Tokyo).
If the subject of Nanking had long been taboo, another element of Chang's story was the ultimate third rail: Japan's war reparations policy. This was defined in 1951 when, in negotiating the Treaty of San Francisco, Japanese officials played up Japan's then sub-Saharan levels of poverty to slough off most war claims. Even the orphans of Nanking (or Nanjing as it has now become known) never received a penny. Nor did millions of Imperial Japan's other victims, not just in China but in countless other victim nations.
What made the compensation issue particularly explosive was that governments of the victim nations were quietly but deeply complicit in Japan's not-a-penny policy. This included even the Chinese government. Although Beijing was not a party to the 1951 treaty, Mao Zedong renounced all Chinese war claims on Japan when Sino-Japanese relations began to warm up in the early 1970s. Thereafter Beijing did Tokyo's dirty work in blocking attempts by Chinese victims to sue Japan in Western courts. Perhaps even more controversially Washington has played a similar role in, for instance, marginalizing claims by former American prisoners of war against Japan.
Before Chang, the not-a-penny policy had received even less attention in the West than the Nanking massacre.
One of the biggest omissions in Kamen's account is a clear, extended account of how The Rape of Nanking was reviewed. Initially, many East Asia-watching scholars and journalists adopted a haughty establishmentarian policy of trying to ignore the book (this tactic, standard in Japan in dealing with any boat-rocking initiative, is known as mokusatsu -- "killing with silence"). But as sales soared in the spring of 1998, mokusatsu was no longer tenable, so the establishmentarians switched instead to a policy of loudly alleging gross inaccuracies.
But was the book inaccurate? For any conscientious biographer, this question is surely paramount. In effect the question is was Chang a serious historian or not? What is called for is a dispassionate itemization of alleged inaccuracies accompanied by a careful and fair evaluation of all the available evidence. This sort of digging seems beyond Kamen and indeed it does not even occur to her that it is necessary.
It is a pity. Chang was actually a more than averagely scrupulous fact-checker and in virtually all cases she had solid sources for what she wrote. The only issue was whether her sources were more reliable than those the Japanese establishment has wanted us to believe.
Kamen has done her friend a signal injustice in not more spiritedly debunking the inaccuracy charge. Kamen moreover missed some of the most telling critical sub-controversies. After the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, published a lengthy critique by Charles Burress, a noted Japanophile, the paper's editors refused to publish a powerful point-by-point rebuttal by Chang. Kamen also omits all mention of the curious role played by Ian Buruma, a crucial figure because of his reviewing activities for the New York Review of Books. His first mention of the book in the New York Review did not come until nearly 18 months after publication.@Earlier, in an interview with the rightist Japanese-language magazine Sapio in the summer of 1998, he sounded notably condescending, suggesting the book was not "serious history." The magazine used the interview, in which Buruma poured scorn on Chang's alleged overstatement of the number of deaths in Nanking, as the first item in a battery of anti-Chang propaganda. In the words of the Tokyo-based commentator Michael Hoffman she was portrayed as "the central character -- central villain -- in an extended Sapio feature entitled 'The Nanking Massacre Campaign Plot.'" The magazine portrayed the book as having been spawned by a Sino-American conspiracy against Japan.
What really happened to Chang? Kamen does little to illuminate the mystery. Towards the end Chang was evidently suffering serious psychological problems (in one of her suicide notes she described herself as "a wild-eyed wreck"). A clue to the mystery may lie in the fact that for years Chang had been the victim of harassment from Japanese "rightists." Certainly for anyone looking seriously for a motive for Chang's suicide, inquiries might usefully start with a consideration of whether new forms of coercion had been instigated against her in her final months. Finding Iris Chang instead treats us to a confused account in which Kamen tries to equate her _own_ experience of psychological illness with Chang's. The unstated assumption is that the problems arose from similarly autonomous causes. Yet from what little factual information Kamen provides, Chang's problems seem to have been a world away from Kamen's. For a start Chang seems to have had no pre-history of illness: her problems emerged suddenly only in her final months.
As I argue in more detail elsewhere on the web, the conclusion on Iris Chang is that, brave woman that she was, she may have ventured out of her depth. Certainly her biographer did.
She takes the reader on the path she followed in investigating a question and a mystery that touched her deeply because of her complicated, long-standing personal relationship with Iris Chang, the brilliant, internationally successful writer who took her own life at age 35. (Please don't let the Publisher's Weekly review keep you from taking a look at this book yourself--they seem to have expected a conspiracy-theoried murder mystery and been disappointed when a skim through the pages for the "juicy" parts revealed a more human story, sad, funny and still perplexing.)
I am harping on this a bit because they have a monopoly as the top-listed editorial review on all Amazon listings and therefore have an ethical obligation, in my opinion, to be thorough in reading the works they review). Instead, I believe this reviewer never actually bothered to read (versus skim quickly) the book, or else is somehow very confused as to what Kamen is both attempting and accomplishing via her (deliberate) interweaving of genres to tackle non-fiction subjects from a scholarly, and yet very human and humor-infused (as appropriate) perspective.
Thus, I would like to offer the following to the Publisher's Weekly reviewer (courtesy of Willa Cather, from THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE):
"... For all the interest [his books] awoke in the world, he might as well have dropped them into Lake Michigan.... Nobody saw that he was trying to do something quite different--they merely thought he was trying to do the usual thing, and had not succeeded very well."
I, in contrast, who did actually read Kamen's entire book, found it a page turner, and think Kamen not only presented a personal and human story with respect and poignancy, but also brought several important topics to light -- including the under-recognition and under-treatment of mental illness in the U.S. and the real potential for danger (whether realized or not) that journalists and other fighters for the truth and freedom of speech hazard every day of their working lives.
If you aren't familiar with the story of Iris Chang and her landmark book The Rape of Nanking, you will likely be left breathless when you learn what Iris Chang wrote about while still in her twenties and the tragedy of her stunningly fast decent into mental illness and suicide at age 36. As a primer for the story, there are many audio and video clips of Iris Chang on the Internet that will allow you to see and hear her poise with a most difficult story and message for the world.
Someone needed to fill in the gaps of this painful and perplexing mystery, and Kamen has done the job. She retraced Chang's footsteps through library archives, recollections of Chang's friends and family, and Kamen's own memories and correspondence. The shear volume of what Chang left behind for such a short life is remarkable.
Iris Chang's life is both inspirational and disturbing. Her death was a BIG story, and the lessons of her life, her work, and her death, are well worth your attention. Although we'll never completely understand Chang's demise, Kamen comes about as close as we can and lends new insight into what actually happened to end the life of this extraordinary woman. The book also has a few revelations not published elsewhere that make a few things more clear.
The book reads like a true detective story because that's exactly what it is. Each chapter vigorously explores another irksome question in the case. Whether you know the Iris Chang story or not, I recommend you read this book.
In a precursive phone call Iris told her "friend", Paula Kamen (who found her exhausting), to tell everyone what she was like "before this happened." I didn't count, but there were probably more pages about "this" and its aftermath, than what she was like before it. Kamen's book does not fulfill her friend's request.
Kamen had, and probably still has, a wonderful opportunity to provide insight. Unfortunately she gives us more about how she reacted to Iris, than about how Iris might have reacted to her. Why did Iris reach out to her? Did her interest in being a sorority member or homecoming queen inform her later career or was it a reaction? How did she become interested in Nanking? The questions surrounding her work on Nanking are huge and very little text is devoted to them.
Whether or not Iris's son was acutally autistic is resolved near the end of the book, which makes it more of a literary device than an factor. Paula is honest but, for me, too causal about her own flaws in her relationship with Iris.
I doubt that this is the telling that Iris had in mind.
Kamen is not the journalist her friend was. Being a lay person, I'm glad to see someone in this profession take "no" for an answer, as Kamen did with Iris's mother, (and Iris at the Tribune where stakes were higher) but the flip side of this is her relaxed approach to the reponses of those who bow (and bowed) to pressure. While I am not a lawyer or reparations expert, I expect that the Holocaust survivors also met resistance of officials citing treaties and precedents. Kamen gives the nay sayers a pass.
I think the world's hunger to know and understand this heroine has led to the warm reception this book has received by readers. I view it as a starting point for a more substantive treatment that I someone is working on right now.