Chang honors daughter’s life through ‘The Woman Who Could Not Forget’

Ying-Ying Chang — the mother of Iris Chang, a University alumna who wrote “The Rape of Nanking” and committed suicide in 2004 — was in town last weekend to talk about her book “The Woman Who Could Not Forget.” The book is a memoir about her and Iris’ life. Chang had a chance to talk to The Daily Illini on Monday.

*The Daily Illini:* You come from a family of writers. Your father was a prolific writer in China and obviously so was your daughter, but until this book, you hadn’t really been one. How did your family background affect your writing process?

*Ying-Ying Chang:* Publishing (and) writing, is a family business, a family tradition. Because my father was a writer for the newspaper all the time, (he wrote) editorials for the biggest newspaper in Taipei, Taiwan. … So when Iris died, of course I was thinking to preserve her life, her legacy is the most important to put into a book and a more permanent record. And also set the record straight because I wanted to clarify a lot of things at the end of her life.

*DI:* Did you have any difficulties writing in English instead of your native language, Chinese?

*Chang:* Of course. Actually, at the beginning, I was debating whether I should use English or use Chinese. If I used Chinese, I would have to translate a lot of her (Iris’) letters into Chinese, which is a big job. And besides, her English is very, very beautiful. If you translate it into Chinese, I’m not sure I can do it as good as the original letters.

*DI:* In addition to being from a family of writers, Iris was also from a family of scientists. How do you think that background influenced her writing and her life?

*Chang:* Her father, my husband, is a physics professor. … So she’s very good at math and physics, so this is the kind of training, the logic training, that was very helpful for her. I think that’s a credit to my husband. Because I have a science background, biochemistry and microbiology, so I always encourage children to observe the natural change. … Iris was very meticulous in organization, in thinking, logic.

*DI:* During her childhood especially, you were both really aware of trying to mix Chinese and American cultural traditions. How do you think being a Chinese-American influenced Iris’ life?

*Chang:* She grew up and was raised in a bilingual, bicultural background, and definitely this was a tremendous impact on her life. … (My husband and I) set a rule: We are going to speak Chinese at home. … We saw this as good for (Iris and her brother, Michael) to learn their roots, learn their culture. Before 5 years old, she could speak very good Chinese but could not read and write, so we decided we should teach her to read and write. Iris was a very curious kid. She asked endless questions during the dinner table, she was very proactive at home. … She asked a lot of questions about why we came to the U.S., why we had to stay, why not go back to China, why I have to learn Chinese. … She was quite aware of her roots, her Chinese-American culture, and actually because of that, she had no identity problems. She was very proud to be a Chinese-American.

*DI:* The book is a memoir, but it’s also kind of a biography. How did you weigh those two sides in your writing?

*Chang:* I never trained as a writer. I never went to any writing class. I’m a scientist, so I just went chronologically. I never thought about how much is a memoir, how much is biography. I just wrote what I remembered, so it is a memoir. It’s better because you have the freedom to do what you want. … I don’t even know what a biographical format should be or a memoir should be. The publisher didn’t ask me to change anything, so I just wrote what I thought. It was very free. … I don’t know if it’s a memoir or if it’s just her story, her story between her and the family.