A historian bears witness

Iris Chang sees her role as trying to right injustices

April 15, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Iris Chang was in another strange room, this time at the Fairmont in Kansas City, just the fourth hotel she'll stop at in a dozen states in five weeks.

In a few minutes it would be 11 p.m., and, thankfully, her workday was completed.

Things are not always so frenzied for her. Still, there's a whirlwind quality to Chang's life.

It's been that way since she unexpectedly exploded into national prominence seven years ago with her chilling account in The Rape of Nanking of atrocities against hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

She has logged more miles and given more talks in that time than most people do in a lifetime. Chang is currently mid-way through a schedule that includes appearances in Dallas, New York City, St. Louis, Boston, Denver and San Francisco, just to mention a third of them.

Tonight, Chang will speak at the University of Baltimore's M. Scot Kaufman Auditorium.

She is in demand as more than an author peddling her latest work, though Chang does that, too. Right now, that would be the just-released paperback version of her third volume, The Chinese in America, a 400-plus page epic spanning 150 years of U.S. history.

But she's also in demand as a historian, an advocate of social justice and as a voice for the Chinese everywhere.

Chang, though acknowledging she's all those things, prefers to think of herself as a "storyteller," a craft honed in the Johns Hopkins University's writing seminars program.

A writer, she says, can help change the world, and that, at least in part, will be her message tonight.

"I think my role is that of a storyteller and somebody who is trying to combat injustice," Chang says. "I really do see myself more as working in the framework of civil rights issues.

"In the role of the storyteller," she adds, "one can bring to light acts of injustice. One important step in preventing these atrocities is informing the people."

Atrocities and the search for justice are favorite themes of Chang.

Her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, published in 1995, examined the life of scientist Tsien Hsue-shen, a key figure in U.S. missile and space programs and co-founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was imprisoned and shipped to China by the United States after being wrongfully accused of being a communist. He later developed the Silkworm for China, a missile used against U.S. forces in Iraq.

Her second book, The Rape of Nanking, dealt with the slaughter, rape and torture of Chinese by Japan's military.

The book was greeted with critical and commercial success, becoming an instant best seller.

The response was a surprise. "I thought that maybe it would do reasonably well and get a positive review, but not a best seller," Chang says.

The success has given her greater access to people, not to mention royalties from sales, keeps publishers interested in her writing for them, and has made her a favorite on the lecture circuit.

"It's been very exciting," she says. "The flip side is that there are many more demands on my time."

And there's all that flying and all those hotel rooms.

"I don't like the travel part. I enjoy being in the city and meeting the people, but I don't like the physical aspect of flying," Chang says. Heightened security since Sept. 11, 2001, she adds, has only made flying less desirable.

She failed to renew her driver's license on time and was subject to full searches in every city until her husband sent her passport.

But Chang, 36, says she's not complaining, because the success she's enjoyed has allowed her to pursue projects with greater ease.

"I seem to be the kind of person who doesn't like to see justice denied or important stories fade into oblivion," she says.

One story Chang is determined to keep alive is the battles in the Pacific during World War II. She has more than 100 hours of oral histories of former soldiers.

Some of that work is likely to be the subject of her next book. But the soldiers' recollections will also be made available to historians and scholars, she says.

When she's not writing or on tour, Chang enjoys exercising, taking long walks, studying dietary and health practices, and watching great movies.

But concern for justice and values are always on her mind.

She wonders, for instance, what will result from the continuing demographic changes in this country. "By 2050, there no longer will be one particular racial majority in this country," she says. "We could evolve in many directions. The emphasis could be on character and contribution and not race. Or we could have a social hierarchy based on race, the country balkanized. That would be very dangerous for a democracy.

"There are many choices to be made, and that's going to determine whether we're going to be an open country or a closed, very secret one."

The choices will be more than academic. There is empirical evidence, Chang says, that the more open a country is, the less militaristic it becomes.

"I have to do more than document these," she says. "I have to help find solutions. There is no culture that is predisposed toward atrocities or murder. But there is one trait: Any time you have an elite, with too much power, the more likely that will lead to human rights violations at home and abroad.

"Some of the greatest victims are people in their own country."

Lecture

Who: Author/historian Iris Chang

Topic: "In Search of Justice: One Woman's Journey"

When: 8 tonight

Where: M. Scot Kaufman Auditorium, University of Baltimore, North Charles Street at Mount Royal Avenue

Admission: Free and open to the public

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