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  1. Book ImageInheritance: A Novel

    Lan Samantha Chang

    Spanning seven decades and set in China and America against a backdrop of political chaos and social upheaval, this arresting debut novel tells a timeless story of familial devotion undermined by deceit and passion and rebuilt by memory.

A Conversation with the Author

Q: Your novel, Inheritance, explores a family rift that is intensified by the split between mainland China and Taiwan. Early in the novel, two brothers are divided by their political views. One is an ardent Communist and the other a Nationalist officer. In 1949, when the Communists come to power, the family literally splits in two, with the narrator’s mother leaving for Taiwan and her beloved sister staying on the mainland. The two sisters are out of touch until after Mao’s death in 1978. Is the novel based on a story in your own family? Could you comment on your decision to portray this period of Chinese history?

A: Both the current governments of democratic Taiwan and communist China trace their origins to the Republican Era, the period from 1911 to 1949 when China became the world’s biggest country to attempt democracy after thousands of years of dynastic rule. Inheritance is set during those tumultuous years of struggle against civil unrest and continuing military aggression from Japan. In those years my parents were born and raised in China. The novel is set in the world my parents knew when they were young. As a matter of fact, my father’s younger brother did become a communist as a teenager, while my father chose to leave the country for Taiwan in 1949. My father, who is apolitical, has always been pretty reticent about his family, and I didn’t learn about my uncle’s communist beliefs until a few years ago, when my father went back to visit his family and put two and two together. At some point during his visit, my father saw a familiar name on a government publication, a name he remembered from his youth. He realized that this man, one of his late brother’s close friends, must have converted his brother to communism when they were teenagers. Although I know nothing more than this, the idea—of two brothers with conflicting political beliefs—worked its way into my imagination. The rest of the novel has no basis in my family history. The novel is an imaginary history, an exploration into lives that might have been.

Q: Would you speak more of this idea of “imaginary histories”?

A: I often say that while growing up I found my parents, particularly my father, to be a mystery. My parents had been through a great trauma—their fears for us and the few stories they told indicated this—but they spoke about the past so seldom that to this day I feel that I am missing some very basic facts about their lives. This silence came, I think, from a desire to protect us. They wanted to forget the past and focus on the future. Inheritance is in many ways an attempt to people this silence, to fill it with the voices and visions of an imaginary past. The characters, and the drama that shaped their lives, are invented. I’ve always been interested in the idea of two sisters who share one great love. My narrator, Hong, recalls her childhood in the turbulence of war, and seeks to uncover the great mystery of her childhood: the love triangle of her mother, her father, and her beloved aunt. I’ve also been intrigued by the idea of a child as a detective: collecting clues, gathering evidence, trying to fit together the lives of her parents as if there were a great, key piece of information at the heart of it all that would explain everything. Of course, the basic question—Who are these people I know and love?—remains a mystery.

Q: Describe the research you conducted while writing the novel.

A: I began researching the novel with the rather idealistic notion that I’d somehow be able to recapture the world of China in the 1930s and 1940s. Like many researchers I soon became mired in the human problem of time: namely, that we live forward in time and that it’s impossible to truly know the past. I grew up with immigrant parents in whose memories that old China was still vivid. So I went to China in high hopes of finding that world, only to discover that it was no longer there. China had changed, was changing enormously every day. In the last forty years books had been burned, walls razed, records destroyed, and people encouraged to look forward. The new country was abounding with vibrancy and growth, new attitudes, new policies, new life. I realized that I would never be able to recapture the past. This recognition was daunting but also curiously liberating: I understood that in certain ways I would be required to rely on my imagination. So I went about my research using what I could find. I went to Chongqing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, the city where the Wang family lived. I spoke to my parents and relatives, particularly a distant cousin of my father’s who lived in Hangzhou. He also did some research for me on his own. Around this time I was fortunate to receive funding from two great universities, Princeton and Harvard, and access to their libraries. I found old maps, archives of old newspapers, and many memoirs and photographs. With the aid of my parents and a brilliant Harvard undergraduate, Ye Siqin, I was able to glean details and ideas from these sources. Now that it’s finished, I am grateful that I wrote the novel when I did, because so many of the people who participated in the events of the 1930s and 1940s are dying. My father’s cousin, Wen Guangcai, passed away in Hangzhou just last year. I’m very glad that I was able to meet him and talk to him.

Q: You grew up with three sisters in the town of Appleton, Wisconsin. Did your relationships with your sisters inspire this novel? Is the tumultuous relationship between Junan and Yinan anything like that between your sisters?

A: No one who hasn’t had a sister can know precisely what it’s like, and every set of sisters has a different story. In my experience, there’s a tremendous intimacy—growing up as daughters of the same mother and father, and the possession of a shared emotional world—and yet a tremendous difference, a great divide, that becomes even more obvious when romantic love enters the picture. Love is the enormous gamble we all take, and regardless of how similar our upbringings are, our lives can differ greatly after we choose partners. In my novel, two sisters fall in love with the same man, and only one of them can have him. This choice, on his part, changes their lives forever. The different destinies in store for these two women—political, personal, and financial—make up the second half of the book. And yet they are, despite years of estrangement, still closer to each other than they are to anyone else on earth.

Q: A profile in the New York Times once described you as struggling not to be categorized as “the next great female Asian American writer” in a literary tradition dominated by white males. As one of a generation of young writers of color now publishing their second books, how do you balance being an ethnic writer in a white world?

A: I'm an American writer. I grew up reading Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, and Maxine Hong Kingston, and I love them. American literature is a big house with plenty of room for everyone; I believe that trying to carve it into subdivisions is a waste of the readers’ time. I’m writing for the reader who’s hungry for human stories that go beyond the ethnic identity of the characters. In my next big project, I’m returning to the Midwestern setting in which I grew up. This world is peopled by characters of many backgrounds, but their stories are all human stories.

Q: What novels have influenced you in your writing of Inheritance?

A: Inheritance presented two challenges: the challenge of creating a narrative voice that could encompass the span of years and the changing worlds of the novel, and the challenge of adapting a story set in the past to a more contemporary narrative structure. I read and reread Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, a great novel with a love triangle whose characters Isabelle, Osmond, and Madame Merle were of particular interest. I found The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie very helpful in the way in which Rushdie uses the first-person narrator to tell family stories that took place before he was born. I also read and reread The Makioka Sisters by the great twentieth-century Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaka, which taught me a great deal about how one great novelist melded Asian material with more European literary forms.

Discussion Questions

  1. Inheritance tracks events of loyalty and betrayal across four generations of one family. Has one factor triumphed over the other in the fractured family picture we witness at the novel’s end?
  2. Why is Hong compelled to revisit the past and uncover the secrets of her parents?
  3. What role does chance play in the lives of the characters in Inheritance? What lessons can be learned from Junan’s efforts to control her family members’ destinies?
  4. How do the sisters Junan and Yinan change over the course of the novel? What qualities of each remain constant?
  5. What does the relationship of Hong and Hwa hold in common with that of Junan and Yinan? What universal themes of sisterhood does Inheritance consider?
  6. Despite the constant economic and political upheaval that occurs over her lifetime, Jinan shrewdly maintains her family’s wealth. Yet she lacks other forms of enrichment. Describe the different forms wealth takes in the lives of the novel’s various characters and how it affects the choices they make.
  7. Describe how Hu Mudan represents the spiritual center of the novel.
  8. What does Hong hope to prove through her relationship with Hu Ran? What does she ultimately learn?
  9. In explanation of her grandfather’s gambling addiction, Junan comments: “Only in paigao did he find what he desired: the dedication to uncertainty, the fellow players who shared his own need to extinguish themselves in the wild and bitter hopefulness of chance.” How does this self-endangering appetite for risk manifest itself in the behavior of other characters in the novel? Is this instinct true of everyone?
  10. What salves do the various characters on the novel discover to deal with their regrets?
  11. How might Hwa have told the story of her family differently from Hong?
  12. Junan offers “thoughtlessness” as an excuse for her father’s behavior, and retains a deep affection for him. Does Li Ang deserve her sympathy?
  13. Is Hong right to withhold the truth from her half-brother Yao about Yinan and Junan’s last meeting?
  14. How is the great flux of historical change in Chinese society over the course of the twentieth century manifest in the generational differences among the members of Hong’s family, from Chanyi to Evita?
  15. Lan Samantha Chang attests that her inspiration to write Inheritance came, in part, from her desire to know the long-buried China from which her parents emigrated. What does our desire to write or read fiction that recounts history reveal about how we choose to process the past?

About Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang's fiction has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Story and The Best American Short Stories 1994 and 1996. Chang is the author of the award-winning books Hunger and Inheritance, and the novel All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. She is the recipient of the Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships at Stanford University. She also received, from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a Teaching-Writing fellowship and a Michener-Copernicus fellowship. Her many awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she directs the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Books by Lan Samantha Chang

  1. Book CoverAll Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost: A Novel

    "A smart, thoughtful, and often poignant meditation."—Boston GlobeMore

  2. Book CoverHunger: A Novella and Stories

    “Spare and haunting tales that ask ordinary questions about that extraordinary emotion: love.”—Chicago TribuneMore

  3. Book CoverInheritance: A Novel

    Spanning seven decades and set in China and America against a backdrop of political chaos and social upheaval, this arresting debut novel tells a timeless story of familial devotion undermined by deceit and passion and rebuilt by memory.More