Writing Iris, writing ourselves

On November 9, 2004, Iris Chang committed suicide.

Less than a month after her death, writer Paula Kamen wrote a Salon piece about Chang. I remember thinking that the piece was more about Kamen than Chang. The article also left me feeling like Kamen was exploiting Chang’s death for her own purposes.

Well, now she’s written a book.

Capitalizing on what she claims was a close friendship with Chang, the early word on the book was that Chang’s relatives and friends disagreed with Kamen. In the comment section of this article, you can read what Ignatius Ding and Chang’s parents have to say. Ding notes that Kamen did not interview any of Chang’s colleagues in the Chinese American community. Chang’s parents note that Kamen did not interview them. Kamen claims at the end of the interview they agreed that she portrayed Iris accurately, but Chang’s parents deny this.

From the interview, it seems that Kamen recreated Chang in her book as Kamen saw her (or wanted to see her), which probably led to the criticism by Ding and Chang’s parents and others.

When I first began writing, I often noticed revealing fictional stories were about their authors. And then later, I read several non-fiction books that led me to the same conclusion about non-fiction writers.

I think that it might be difficult for a writer who was not aware of issues in the Asian community to keep from orientalizing an Asian subject. And I wonder if this is the case for Kamen, since she seems to have created her role as the person who explains and defines Chang for the rest of the world.

How much of her being Chinese American or Asian American contributed to the misdiagnosis of her illness? You mention in the book that she didn’t act out in the way that you would expect someone to act out.

Right. I didn’t realize this either, until working at it, that just culturally, Asian people, generally, can manifest mania much differently than a white person. There is a much narrower range of acceptable behaviors.

Like what?

For example, this is really boiling it down, but the classic symptoms for a white person at the manic level is promiscuity and shopping: having sex with tons of people randomly, going shopping, racking up debts. You wouldn’t see that as much in an Asian person even in their most unhinged state.

Why is that?

There is just a much narrower range of acceptable behavior. For an Asian person, what would seem very excited, to a white person, could just seem a little excited. Iris’s husband was white, so I could see him watching her. Of course she was excited, had insomnia, but it wasn’t the total recklessness he might see in a white person.

“White” is the norm Kamen is using here.  (What about black and other people of color who have bipolar disorder?)  And while I agree that often Asian American clients are often not well-served by majority practitioners in the mental health field, I don’t know if that’s so much of an issue of “culture” or color as it is of not being an attentive clinician.

Here I feel Kamen is overstepping herself and speaking as if she’s an expert in mental health, which she’s not.  But clearly she has decided to portray Iris Chang in one particular way, and she has done so without the input of the community that Chang claimed as her own.

One thought on “Writing Iris, writing ourselves

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s