Lan Samantha Chang: an author and woman for change

Lan Samantha Chang had dreamed of becoming a writer, but she never thought she would become the first Asian American and female director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In her 16 years as director, Chang has spent her time writing for change.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

She was recently named one of eight women writers changing the world by Oprah Daily,  but that’s only one of Lan Samantha Chang’s many accomplishments.

Chang began her writing journey when she entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1991, and she received her MFA in 1993. She visited the workshop as a visiting professor a few times after graduating, and it was during one of those visits that someone suggested she apply for the director position.

“I had seen the workshop from many angles as a student and as a faculty member, so I had experience with the program,” Chang said. “It’s a really special program to me.”

Sixteen years ago, Chang made history when she was selected to be the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not only as the first woman, but also the first Asian American to hold the position. When she was a student in the 90s, the fiction program was largely made up of white men.

“I feel that the university has been very supportive of writing and writers all along, and that I was given permission to think about taking the program in a direction that would include writers from many backgrounds to make it possible for their stories to be told,” Chang said.

Chang said she dreamed of being a writer since she was only 4 years old — before she could even read. Though her parents encouraged her to go into medicine or science, something more practical in their eyes, she stuck with her passion for writing, which she pursued throughout her 20s.

Related: Carl H. Klaus legacy at the UI, Nonfiction Writing Program

Chang’s new book, The Family Chao, was released in February, but had been put on the backburner since she became the workshop’s director, she said. She added that she was able to get back into the writing process over the last six years.

Set in the Midwest in the Chao family’s Americanized Chinese restaurant, the story’s first half, titled “They See Themselves,” leads up to the death of the family’s tyrannical father. The second half, titled “The World Sees Them,” follows the trial of one of the three sons for the murder of their father.

Chang said there are two different messages she wants people to think about after reading both halves of the book.

“I want people to have the experience of being with this family as they go through a few crazy, hectic, somewhat dysfunctional days around Christmas time in the first half of the book,” Chang said. “Then, in the second half, I’d like them to see the way that those days are processed and viewed by the culture that surrounds them.”

When writing the novel, Chang said she enjoyed drawing from memories of her childhood, her favorites being some of the foods she ate.

Her parents immigrated from China to her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, in the 1960s, a time where there weren’t that many options to find Asian food. They would drive to Chicago just to buy staple items like soy sauce, tofu, and certain vegetables.

“My parents encountered unfamiliar and sort of unusual vegetables to them at the supermarket, and they would stir fry them,” Chang said. “They stir fried iceberg lettuce.”

The Family Chao was released this month and has already been chosen as Barnes and Noble’s book club pick for February. In January, Chang was included in a list of eight trailblazing authors in an article published in Oprah Daily.

Chang said she admires Oprah, and it was an honor and exciting to be a part of that article. As an author constantly striving toward change, she has many ideas and goals to achieve.

“I think it’s very important for us to read stories from people in all parts of this country and from all backgrounds,” Chang said. “I think it’s important for the literary culture of this country to reflect the stories of all the people who live here.”