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Remembering Iris Chang


The death of best selling Chinese American author Iris Chang has made international headlines over the past week. Ms. Chang died November 9th near Los Gatos, California, reportedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The thirty six year old writer was best known for "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War Two." The book described the brutal treatment of Chinese civilians by the Japanese military in 1937.

Iris Chang published three books in her unexpectedly short lifetime. The first, "Thread of the Silkworm," was about a Chinese-born scientist who helped pioneer the space program in the United States. After he being denounced as a communist during the 1950s, he was deported to China, and a few years later, helped launch that country's Silkworm missile program. That book was followed by "The Rape of Nanking," Ms. Chang's account of World War Two atrocities in what was then China's capital city. Finally came "The Chinese in America," which included an account of how immigrant families like her own battled racism in the United States. Steven Clemons is an Asian affairs expert with the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He describes Iris Chang as a "brave" and "brilliant" young historian.

"I think she made a staggering contribution to the broad debate that has made us think not only about Asia but about race relations in the United States" said Mr. Clemons. "She talked about the importance of each of us reconciling what we think today with what happened yesterday, and not just letting things get pushed under the rug, in the hope that people would be smarter about these questions in the future."

Iris Chang grew up in the midwestern town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese. Her grandparents had fled Nanking as Japanese troops arrived during the late 1930s, and she was raised on stories of the atrocities they'd barely escaped. A memorial tribute to the author on American television included her account of what she'd learned.

"My mother and father said that the rape of Nanking had been so intense that thousands upon thousands of people were killed, and the bodies that had been thrown into the Yangzte River during the carnage literally made the water turn red. And I remember as a child wanting to learn more about this."

Other young Chinese Americans told Iris Chang they'd heard similar accounts, but could find little published information in American libraries about what happened in Nanking. Ms. Chang would draw on a range of innate talents to bring that missing story to life. Susan Rabiner served as her literary agent and her editor at Basic Books.

"She was a superb interviewer in that she relaxed people, and they could talk to her. She was an indefatigable researcher. One of the reasons "The Rape of Nanking" was as powerful as it was is (that) she heard about a non-Asian who had stayed in Nanking during the attack. He was a German national and he was a member of the Nazi party. But he had been very courageous in defending the Chinese who remained in the city. And she decided to track down his heirs to see if there was a possibility he might have kept a contemporaneous diary, and in fact he had. And that diary, the John Rabe diary, is now a major document in regard to the events at the rape of Nanking."

Iris Chang was also known for closely identifying with the sufferings of the people she wrote about. Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation had become personally acquainted with her over the years.

"She would throw herself at issues in such an unbelievably selfless way, and as her husband said in the 'San Francisco Chronicle,' she would work herself to unbelievable limits. She was tenacious and driven and psychologically and passionately involved with these subjects, not to a point of being reckless or careless with issues, but because she believed so much in trying to get at what was real and truthful."

Literary agent Susan Rabiner recalls sometimes talking with Iris Chang for hours by telephone after she'd conducted an especially moving interview. She says Ms. Chang had been hospitalized for clinical depression, which may have been aggravated by the painful subjects she explored in her writing. At the time of her death, the author was working on a book about U.S. soldiers held as prisoners of war by the Japanese in the Bataan peninsula during World War Two.

"So here again she was hearing very difficult stories. She had had long conversations with attorneys who were representing Americans of Arab descent who felt they were being discriminated against in the post-911 period. She even talked to me extensively about writing a book about their experiences. She saw violations of human rights from age 25 to 35. That was the focus of her life, and there's no question it takes a toll on someone."

While Iris Chang's work provoked controversy, especially in Japan, Susan Rabiner says the author had an appeal that cut across national lines.

"There were many Americans of Japanese descent who came to her interviews and said we want to know the truth. There were Americans of Korean descent, who said we want to know the truth because it's part of our story as well, because someday someone from our community is going to write about what happened to us during the war. She was someone whose books pursued man's inhumanity to man, and asked the question of how in civilized times these things could continue to happen."

Susan Rabiner was the literary agent for writer Iris Chang, who died on November 9th at the age of 36. Ms. Chang's books included the international best-seller "The Rape of Nanking."

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