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Novelist, poet, and painter Diana Chang is recognized as the first American-born Chinese writer to publish a novel in the United States. Although she spent most of her childhood in China, the United States proved to be the setting for Chang’s formative years as a writer. Chang is best known for her novel The Frontiers of Love (1956), a compelling exploration of ethnic identity in a multiracial environment; however, her writing is not limited to issues of culture or ethnicity. over the course of her career, Chang has received many awards and honors, testaments to her place in American literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born in New York City to a Eurasian mother and Chinese father, Chang spent her early years in China, primarily Beijing and Shanghai, where her father was an architect. Chang attended an American school in Shanghai’s International Sector. After World War II, China descended into civil war. The Communist Party forces won, and Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Chang’s family fled the country and resettled in New York, where Change attended high school.
After high school, Chang attended Barnard College, where she studied philosophy, English, and creative writing. She has acknowledged the importance of this education to her writing, especially the influence of philosophers such as S0ren Kierkegaard. During her time at Barnard College, two of her poems were published in the prestigious Poetry magazine. She began her career as a junior editor in book publishing before devoting herself to writing full-time. At the age of twenty-two, Chang published her first novel, The Frontiers of Love, which has become a classic of the Asian American literary canon.
The Painting Professor
In 1979 Chang returned to Barnard College as an adjunct associate professor, teaching creative writing for ten years in the English department and an interdisciplinary art course called ”Imagery and Form in the Arts.” She has also worked as a literary editor and, for more than six years, she edited The American Pen, a quarterly published by the American Center of PEN in New York. Beyond her literary endeavors, Chang is also an artist who has premiered several solo exhibitions, and her art work has been used to illustrate one of her chapbooks, What Matisse Is After: Poems and Drawings (1984).
Awards and Publishings
Chang has won several awards for her creative work, including a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship, and a New York State Council on the Arts Award to adapt her short story ”Falling Free” into a radio play that was aired in thirty-five cities in the United States. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including American Scholar, Nation, New York Quarterly, and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Works in Literary Context
Escaping Ethnic Restrictions
For some writers, understanding the origin and impact of their familial roots is essential to their identity. Chang, however, does not always depend on her ethnic background for subject material; in fact, the experience of being of mixed ancestry and the identity crisis that often results is actually the subject of very little of Chang’s work. She has commonly acknowledged the wide-ranging focus of her works, remarking that while some of her writings draw on her Chinese-American heritage, many others could have been written by anyone of any nationality. Because Chang’s work is not restricted by ethnicity, scholar Weihsiung Wu says, ”Chang succeeds in dramatizing a contemporary angst and in demonstrating that life is a constant improvisation.” For Chang, the purpose of writing is to explore life’s universal truths, to find selfhood as a human, not as a particular race.
A Creative Nature
Although she is not known primarily for her verse, Chang’s various poetry collections have been well received because they are, says Wu, ”rich in startling imagery, concise in language, and often cryptic in meaning, … [issuing] invitations to perceive freshly and to rediscover reality through feeling and form.” Without a doubt, all of Chang’s volumes of poetry are characterized by both artistic and literary creativity, and nature is a common theme in most of her poems. For instance, ”Most Satisfied by Snow,” a brief, powerful poem that first appeared in 1974’s Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, shows Chang’s gift for writing quiet, yet emotionally vivid lyric poetry. The poem, much like her artwork, displays delicately crafted images that are enhanced by the use of metaphor, simile, and personification to convey meaning. Poems such as ”Most Satisfied by Snow” demonstrate not only Chang’s economy and precision of language, but also, perhaps most importantly, a preoccupation with how nature can lead to self-development and self-awareness.
Works in Critical Context
The Frontiers of Love
With its complex and sophisticated portrayal of Eurasian life in Shanghai, the novel The Frontiers of Love has prompted academics to recognize Chang as a pioneer in Chinese American literature. Contrary to what some critics have suggested, Chang’s
reputation as an accomplished writer is also strengthened by her concern with issues beyond ethnicity. According to scholar Amy Ling, ”In Chang’s novels, the questions of stereotypes, ethnicity, duality, and the forging of a new identity fall under a larger existentialist theme. In most of the works of the Asian American writers . . . authorial identity is indistinguishable from the author’s ethnic identity, but Chang is a protean author, a master of disguises whose authorial identity cannot be fixed by ethnicity.”
Chang’s approach—or lack of—to cultural identity is a source of critical contention. Critics such as Wu acknowledge that ”although Chang has a remarkable understanding of the Chinese way of life, neither her fiction nor her poetry conveys a Chinese sensibility.” Chang has frequently attracted criticism from Asian American authors and scholars for writing about non-Asian American themes and characters. Since The Frontiers of Love and, to a lesser extent, The Only Game in Town are Chang’s only novels with Asian American themes, critics accuse Chang of sacrificing her heritage because, says Ling, she ”wants to fit in” and is too preoccupied with the ”theme of being in the world” in all of its manifestations. Other commentators have been much harsher. For example, the Chinese American writer and critic Frank Chin, notorious for his hostile stance toward Asian American writers he believes have ignored essential Asian American themes, has repeatedly criticized Chang in scathing reviews.
Scholars who approach Chang’s work from an angle other than ethnicity note the positive influence Chang’s visual talent as an artist has on her writing. Academic Dexter Fisher, for instance, says, ”As an artist, [Chang] has a visual commitment to imagery that she succeeds in translating into verbal form. . . . Her use of understatement lends an element of surprise to her poetry as well as a resonance that goes beyond the subject.” In the introduction to Chinese American Poetry: An Anthology, editors L. Ling-chi Wang and Henry Yiheng Zhao also compliment Chang’s imagistic style, saying, ”It seems that, to her, language can go on by itself without referents, just as in paintings, where colors and figures can be significant in their own dynamics without depicting any objects. This ideal state is not as easy to achieve in poetry as in painting. Yet Diana Chang proves that it is still a possibility worth striving for.” Certainly, these comments are applicable to ”Most Satisfied by Snow,” in which a few carefully created images are used to celebrate a speaker’s gaining insight into her own process of discovering who she is.
- Fisher, Dexter, ed. The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
- Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon, 1990.
- Nelson, Emmanuel S. Asian American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
- Wang, L. Ling-chi, and Henry Yiheng Zhao, eds. Chinese American Poetry: An Anthology. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.
- Wu, Wei-hsiung. Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
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