Top 100 Badass Writers in History
#85: Iris Chang
The daughter of two Chinese university professors, Chang grew up in Illinois. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University Laboratory High School of Urbana, Illinois in 1989, which provided her with the opportunity to temporarily work as a New York Times stringer.The experience that she gained writing for the paper pushed her to work towards her MA at John Hopkins University and earn positions at both the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune.
From a young age, Chang was interested in recording the experiences of Asian and Chinese immigrants in the US. Her first book followed the life of Tsien Hsue-shen, a Chinese professor, during the Red Scare. ”Thread of the Silkworm” described his experiences as one of the founders of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and work with the US military in debriefing Nazi scientists, as well as his sudden accusation of being a spy and house arrest from 1950 to 1955. Chang used Tsien Hsue-shen’s experiences to examine the inherent racism in US politics and the evolving status of Asian Americans.
Her most significant book was entitled “The Rape of Nanking:The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” published in 1997. Her writing details the many atrocities that were committed against the Chinese by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Partially motivated by her grandparents’ stories about their escape from the massacre, Chang gathered an unprecedented amount of information by interviewing elderly survivors and searching thousands of rare documents in four different languages. This was the first English non-fiction account of the Rape of Nanking.
In August 2004, Chang suffered from a nervous breakdown. She was briefly hospitalized and released with a diagnosis of reactive psychosis and depression. On November 9th she was found dead in her car, having shot herself through the mouth. Her suicide note stated:When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day — but by the minute. It is far better that you remember me as I was — in my heyday as a best-selling author — than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville… Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take — the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me. Forgive me because I cannot forgive myself.
Chang left behind her husband Douglas and their son Christopher. The news of her loss devastated many survivors of Nanjing, leading one community to dedicate a wing of the victims memorial hall in Nanjing to her in 2005. Her memory now lives on in the collection of documents, photos, and human remains from the massacre.