An Interview with the 2016 Commencement Speaker

Lan Samantha Chang, American writer of fiction and short stories, is scheduled to speak at this year’s convocation. Chang is both the Director of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Professor of English at the University of Iowa. She has received degrees from the University of Iowa, Harvard University and Yale University. This interview was conducted by senior Amaan Khan and Associate Director and Manager of Media Relations Rick Peterson.

Tell me what it was like growing up in Appleton.

I grew up in a very close-knit immigrant family. I think we were in some ways deeply involved in the community because all of us were in public school. And in other ways we were somewhat a part of the community because we were such a close family and we were culturally different. I went to […] Einstein Junior High and Appleton West High School, and all the way I had several teachers who encouraged me as a writer and as a person, and in that way I think I was quite lucky growing up in Appleton.

Are you nervous, excited [about your first commencement speech]?

I’m very excited. Receiving an honorary degree from Lawrence means a great deal to me. In part because when I was growing up, Lawrence was the center of intellectual life in Appleton, and also because it is a greatly respected university, and also because my parents both respected the university and they both were involved with the community. My father was an associate professor of engineering at the Institute of Paper Chemistry, which used to be affiliated with Lawrence. My mother has a bachelor’s degree [in piano pedagogy] from the Conservatory, and she earned that bachelor’s degree after I started school. It was her second bachelor’s, and I have vivid memories of being at the conservatory during her recitals and meeting her professors.

You mention a little bit about how you were considering taking more science courses but then you didn’t really like it. So how was that experimental stage at Yale and how were your feelings with regards to changing courses?

Sure. Well, my parents are immigrants and they very much wanted me to pursue a medical degree and in order to do that, I would have had to take science classes as an undergraduate. And when I applied to Yale, I wrote in my application that I wanted to be a dermatologist mostly because it’s the only kind of doctor I had ever been to […] I started taking science classes and just instantly realized that given a choice, I did not want to pursue that path. It was very stressful because I was also at the time unwilling to,—or too chicken—talk to my parents about the decision, and it was, you know, a year or two before I was able to tell them I didn’t want to be a doctor and I had to come up with a backup plan. So I told them I wanted to be a lawyer. But when I graduated from college, and I got accepted to law school, I had to come face-to-face with the fact that I actually didn’t want to go. I deferred for a year and at that point, when I was out of college that I understood that I really would never want to be in law school. And I think that was terrifying for my parents […] Ultimately I went to the [Kennedy School of Government] at Harvard for two years and got a master’s in public administration there. But when I was there, I realized that I didn’t want to pursue that direction either. It was really just a question of coming to face the fact that I had never wanted to do anything else except write fictions and that it would be pointless to try to keep trying to do other things. So I gave up and I applied to the Iowa’s Writer Workshop and then I came here. Ever since then, my life’s been a lot easier in some ways. I don’t think I’ve ever circled as much as I did after college when I understood that I would have to disappoint my parents and pursue an uncertain life.

What are your thoughts on the liberal arts experience and education at Yale?

I’m an enormous proponent of the liberal arts education. It seems to me that it would be strongest if as many people as possible were given the time to read widely, think broadly and try to understand the human experience before they went out into the world. I just think that the liberal arts education always has benefits to any person, regardless of what they eventually do to make a living.

How did you get into writing then? Were you writing on the side when you were at Yale and Harvard?

I began writing when I was in Appleton, especially because I was able to study with the graduates of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop when I was at Einstein. There was a young poet who graduated from the Workshop, Monroe Lerner, [who] now lives in Milwaukee. He had a grant from the school system to work with kids on their creative writing for a year. Mrs. Sue Tatschke [a junior high teacher] thought that it might be helpful for me to meet with him and work on my writing […] So every week for a year when I was in eighth grade, I got to meet with Monroe Lerner and talk about reading and writing. It was a phenomenal experience for me.

It was probably the most important writing experience I had until after college because he took me seriously and he introduced to me a lot of good books. He got me thinking about writing, and he was an actual writer who I could talk to. I think that pretty much set me going in the slide although I didn’t understand at the time […] after my eighth grade he moved on and I didn’t actually connect with him again for a really long time until when I was in my late twenties and came to the workshop. I was 26. I was wandering to the library here where they had everybody’s theses to be checked out and I found his thesis. He put the idea of going to Iowa in my head when I was in eighth grade in junior high school. I came back around to it, found his thesis and I wrote him a letter. I since actually encountered him again because he came to a reading that I gave in Milwaukee maybe five or six years ago. But when I think about my writing, you know, the development of my writing life, I have vivid memories of being in eighth grade, being in Einstein, in public school, completely curious and fascinated by the written words. And luckily I had a teacher who recognized that and found someone to help me. And then other vivid memories that I have about writing are about of course studying literature in high school. I think after that I went into kind of a dark phase where I thought that what I should be doing was preparing myself for a professional life. And I didn’t come out of that phase until my mid-twenties, and it is very hard. So for me, I think the study of writing has been acquainted with personal freedom and freedom of expression and fulfillment. So I feel very lucky that I was able to practice writing.

The seeds for writing were planted quite early in your life, obviously, eighth grade. What inspires you or influences your writing today?

I should say that I wanted to be a writer since I was four, so it’s not just that but yeah. I’m deeply influenced by what I’m reading and by what I’m experiencing in my life. So I think that becoming a parent has been very influential for me. I had a child, she’s now eight-and-a-half. She was born in Iowa City. I should say that after I went to college, I traveled around a great deal. I lived in New York for two years, then I was in Massachusetts then I was in Iowa then in California, then back in Iowa, then in New Jersey, then in Massachusetts, then Iowa, then Massachusetts, and then I came back to Iowa. What happened was coming to have a child brought me back in memory to the childhood that I experienced here in the Midwest, and I become entangled in a couple of projects that are about the Midwest and also about Asian Americans. I think it’s just the fact that my most vivid memories from childhood are arriving out of basic everyday things like my child’s violin lessons.

I’m also completely fascinated by what I read, so I would say that one of the writers who have made the most impact on me in the last several years or so is […], I’ve been reading tons of it.

Who do you consider among your favorite authors?

You know, this is always such a hard questions for writers to answer. […] Reading has always been a very private thing for me.

It’s maybe premature but have you given thoughts already to the message you would like to deliver to Lawrence graduates?

I’m thinking about it a lot but I don’t want to come out and say what it is yet. I’ve been reading other people’s graduate commencement speeches and I’m aware that people seem to remember what their commencement speaker talks about years later. Despite all of the exciting activities throughout graduation, people do actually listen to the commencement speech. So I’m putting a lot of thoughts into it.

Is there a project in progress right now that you’re working on?

I’m not discussing it. I don’t talk about it, it’s bad luck, trust me.