by Eric J Baker
As a voracious reader, I crank through about a book per week. I long ago ran out of shelf space, lately cramming my little rectangular accomplishments in whatever pocket of air I can find. Often, as I shuffle the old ones to make room, I realize I have forgotten their contents. Perhaps I enjoyed those stories in the moment, but it takes a special book to stick with me for more than a few months. Rarer still is one I can’t forget.
In early 1998, an author I’d never heard of was on television discussing her then freshly published chronicle of a shocking event that occurred in China in 1937 yet had remained unfamiliar to most westerners, including me. Rather than being a dusty old college professor, though, the person on my TV screen was a young, fiery, attractive, and visibly pissed off Chinese-American woman. Her name was Iris Chang, and her book, The Rape of Nanking, told the story of a genocide so brutal that it rivaled acts perpetrated by the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge.
Captivated by her and her tale, I bought the book, and what appeared on its pages remains with me to this day. In an impassioned voice, and with elegant prose, Chang wrote of a six-week-long pogrom during which imperial Japanese soldiers systematically raped, tortured, and murdered as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking (now called Nanjing), using methods too vile to discuss here. You can read the book if you want to know.
Despite complaints that her approach was unscholarly and that she exaggerated the scale of the atrocity, Chang’s book went on to become a bestseller, and she soon began a second career as an in-demand lecturer and advocate for victims’ restitution. She came to be known as an eloquent, dynamic speaker and a rare combination of celebrity historian, reaching a pinnacle of success most non-fiction writers dare not dream of.
On November 9, 2004, seven years after the publication of The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang pulled her car to the side of the road, took out a gun, and shot herself to death.
As to why she did this, speculation has ranged from: “She couldn’t live with the horrors of human suffering she wrote about,” to “She felt guilty for lying about something that never happened just to make the Emperor look bad” (from the deniers, who sadly seem to trail every holocaust), to “She was murdered by a secret cabal of Japanese right-wingers and Yakuza gangsters.” Yeah, they must have written the suicide note in her handwriting, too.
Perhaps in the hopes of helping the world understand what really happened and, I believe, to exorcize her own demons, Chang’s mother, Ying Ying Chang, has written a memoir of her daughter’s life entitled The Woman Who Could Not Forget. Published in May, the book takes the reader from just before Iris’ birth in 1968, through her shy, awkward teen years, into her decision to become a writer, her rise to fame, and her descent into mental illness and death.
Ying Ying Chang, a retired microbiologist, lacks her daughter’s grace and polish as a writer, but this material calls for just such a personal, unrefined approach. She lays bare her emotions from the first page, with anguish and regret bound in every word hence. She also gives us access to Iris’ letters and e-mails and reveals her daughter’s deepest ambitions and frustrations as they evolved throughout her short life.
The elder Chang wants us to see Iris the way she does: As a beautiful, brilliant, and selfless warrior driven to give a voice to the world’s voiceless victims. She may not realize, though, in printing the personal letters and e-mails, that another Iris Chang emerges. The relentlessly ambitious Iris Chang for whom her family, friends, and husband came second to her goal of becoming a successful author. Or the ever-outraged Iris Chang who was indignant at not being hired to work at certain newspaper or, much later, obsessed that other books were being turned into movies when hers was not (a low-budget docudrama was finally made in 2009).
In e-mails written soon after her book became a bestseller, Iris brags about how everyone praised her lecture or wanted her autograph or how she was the star in the room. Ying Ying Chang cites these writings as examples of how her daughter was once happy, but Iris’ unedited words read as slightly narcissistic. The younger Chang’s husband of a decade and a half is almost a nonentity in the memoir, and Iris doesn’t appear to have spent much time with him, given her endless world travels for research, interviews, and lectures.
I do not imply that Iris comes off poorly in the memoir. Rather, she’s even more fascinating for her burning self-determination and her frustration at not being able to single-handedly change the world. She was a warrior indeed, as her mother says, just not a selfless one.
The book turns dark, as it was doomed to, when Ying Ying Chang begins detailing her daughter’s growing moodiness, which gave way to paranoid delusions, psychotic episodes, and, finally, abject hopelessness. Like any parent who loses a child to suicide, Ying Ying is wracked with constant anguish and that inevitable question: What could I have done to stop this? As a reader, I wanted to crawl into the page and beg Iris not to do it. “Please don’t,” I would say. “The world is far more interesting with you in it.”
It’s a beautiful and important memoir, but I’d still like to see an impartial biography that includes voices left out of this telling, such as those of Iris’ husband and friends. A book that is not afraid to be critical of Chang, when warranted, and one that explores her mental state from a clinical perspective, since Ying Ying and other family members did not see her deteriorating health that seemed obvious to me as a reader. I was stunned when the author says she had never heard of bipolar disorder until it was suggested by a psychiatrist mere weeks before Iris’ suicide.
Iris Chang left a small but critical body of work in three books, one of which changed the western world’s perception of World War II in East Asia. She continues to inspire other Chinese to fight for truth in the historical record (her statue stands at the Nanking Massacre Memorial in China) and has helped brighten the visibility and prominence of Asians in America.
I said above that I will never forget The Rape of Nanking. I won’t forget this memoir either. Like any writer trying to make it big, I put a lot of work into my craft. Or so I thought. After reading The Woman Who Could Not Forget, I now know what hard work really is. The relentless drive and hours Iris Chang devoted to earning her success shames any effort I have put forth. Sure, I’ll do 20 drafts of something, but my writing seldom takes me out of my apartment. Iris Chang would have flown from New York to Taipei just to clarify a quote.
Consider me inspired.