Friday, November 12, 2004

A Personal Lament: Remembering Iris Chang

When death claims someone young, already accomplished and clearly on a trajectory that promises much more, we feel a sense of irreconcilable regret. When the end of life is self inflicted, we are overcome by unbearable sorrow and ponder questions that have no answers. This is how I feel about the passing of Iris Chang.

I regret I didn’t know her better. Our paths crossed at Committee of 100 conferences and at the book signing I organized for her. I saw in her a person driven and passionate about rectifying social injustices that really bothered her.

I had not met Iris when she wrote her first book, Thread of the Silkworm, the story about Qian Xue Sen. Qian is the brilliant physicist, a founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab, who was hounded and persecuted by the hysteria of McCarthyism in the ‘50’s. I never asked her why she wrote the book, but I suspect she was motivated to tell the story of the injustice done to Qian.

The Rape of Nanking was an international bestseller for Iris. The contents were too intense and disturbing for me, but I was gratified that she so effectively brought this atrocity, a forgotten chapter of World War II, to the world’s attention. Her indignation resonated with the resentment all Asians share towards Japan.

Perhaps her crusade to persuade the Japanese government to finally and officially apologize for the many atrocities the Imperial Army committed against humanity in WWII drove her to her next project, the treatment of prisoners of war in Philippines at the hands of their Japanese captors. The victims of the Bataan death march were American soldiers. By the retelling and enlarging her inquiry beyond Nanking, it is as if Iris is saying to the world, “See, the Chinese may have bored the brunt of Japanese barbarism but the Japanese behaved with universal cruelty.”

I learned so much from her last book, The Chinese in America. Reading her chronicle of more than 150 years of history of Chinese Americans, one can see her reason for the deliberate choice of the book’s title. Our lives in America have its ups and downs but to this day we are still treated as foreigners living in a foreign land. I was delighted and proud when Iris selected an excerpt of my review for the jacket of her soft cover edition.

Those of us who have never suffered from the illness of depression can never appreciate the depth of irrational hopelessness the patient experiences. My father had bouts of depression so that I have some inkling of its potential to destroy. I wish I could have told Iris how grateful we are to have had her as our spokesperson, our literary standard bearer.

Despite her short life, she has left us a more meaningful and more lasting legacy than most of us could ever hope to achieve. Dear Iris, may you rest in peace.

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