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Feature Thu Jan 17 2008

Review: Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen

Review by Cinnamon Cooper


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Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind

by Paula Kamen

(Da Capo Press, 2007)

I've been a fan of Paula Kamen's for several years, and fortunate to call her a friend for a few years. I've seen her writing develop subtleties, her theses grow more sophisticated, and I've seen her personality shine through her writing. I've also seen her struggle with health issues, support her friends, fall in love and enjoy life. And I consider myself blessed and fortunate to get to know Paula the person, after developing such an amazing writer-crush on Paula the author.

Shortly after I moved to Chicago 10 years ago, I picked up her book Feminist Fatale: Voices from the "twentysomething" Generation Explore the Future of the Women's Movement at a local library. I'd recently graduated from college, felt alienated from the feminist community, and I missed reading and discussing feminism with my peers. Sitting alone in my apartment with a borrowed copy of Paula's book made me feel less alone. She seemed to get what it was like to be a young feminist and feel alienated from a movement. After I finished the book, I read her short bio and realized Paula was just a few years older than I was and she lived in Chicago. My appreciation of her work deepened and my writer-crush began.

A mutual friend introduced me to Paula a few years ago, and when she found out that we have a shared interest in feminism, Chicago and supporting some of the same organizations she became supportive of me without missing a beat. She didn't hesitate to encourage me, congratulate me and introduce me to her friends. And all the while she was doing this I kept finding myself wishing I had her writing skills, her book deals, her voice. I found myself in awe of her as much as I found myself appreciating her.

I mention this explanation of my introduction to Paula because it seems to mirror her relationship with her friend and fellow journalist Iris Chang. Paula's most recent book Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind follows a complex path through their friendship, the relationships that Iris had with others, her death and Paula's need to understand why she killed herself.

This book isn't only about Iris's life, work and the loss of an amazing and sensitive investigative writer, it's about Paula's friendship with and professional admiration of Iris. In fact, Paula touches on so many things in this book, it's amazing Paula is able to keep a common thread tying them all together. Their relationship was full of amazing contradictions and Paula lays them all out so the reader can see Iris as the complex person she knew. Paula doesn't make this book her opportunity to wax lyrically about the joys of their relationship. She examines her own weaknesses while comparing them with Iris's to create a more complete and honest understanding of what it was like to be friends with someone who seemed to get everything you wanted and whose energy was taxing and remarkably hard to bear.

Amidst Paula's revelations about their friendship and the quality of life Iris enjoyed, she is able to share some of Iris's writing advice, comments from many of her friends, medical information about bipolar disorder and suicide, as well as describe signs that only a fully-informed professional would have been able to see in Iris. But because Paula has so much experience writing about feminist issues, she critiques medical treatments and misdiagnoses, or under-diagnoses, of mental illness in women and particularly Chinese women, without overshadowing Iris herself. But there isn't the sense that Paula is objectifying Iris's death. Even though Paula calls out for journalists to understand that writing about heavy emotional subject matter affects them, she doesn't seem to be taking advantage of her friendship with Iris to push her own agenda. Yet she doesn't remain cold and unbiased the way journalists are supposed to be toward their subject matter.

After reading Paula's book on Iris, I realized I had to read Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking before I could write this review. I knew only vaguely about the incidents Iris wrote about in her book. Reading Iris's book was traumatizing and made it impossible to read anything long for quite some time afterward. I was appalled and disgusted and angered and found myself dwelling on the images in the book, both the photographs and the visual imagery Iris created. Reading Iris's book gave me a better understanding of Paula's writing and a better understanding of how affected Iris must have been by the subject matter after her book was published and the negative feedback and threats began to roll in.

Reading The Rape of Nanking also made the tangents in Paula's book seem less like tangents. After reading about the rape and murder of hundreds of thousands of Chinese people at the hands of Japanese soldiers, I felt like I could use a good therapy session. It made me wonder how Iris could have spoken with the dozens of people she tenaciously interviewed without having had one herself. I have to agree with Paula's thoughts that journalists need support in finding ways to not be affected in a toxic way as they cover devastation and dark topics. I also found myself wishing I'd gotten to know Iris, as I continue to hope this book may prevent future Irises from following in her devastating footsteps.

Iris's writing encouraged countless young Asian women to follow their dreams of writing. Paula interviews a few in this book, and I was lucky to meet one on the train. I was reading Paula's book and taking notes in my notebook when a young woman sitting across from me gained my attention and asked breathlessly, "Is that a book about Iris Chang the writer?" I nodded and handed her the book. She skimmed the inside jacket text and handed it back to me. She seemed visibly shaken, and I wasn't sure how to respond to her. "She's the only reason I got my parents to agree to let me become a writer. They wanted me to go to law school. But I showed them her books in high school and told them I wanted to make life better for people through words, not law. When they found out Iris killed herself they pulled me out of school for a quarter and made me come home because they were worried I would do the same thing. They then told me about aunts, and uncles and older relatives who had all killed themselves and made me go to a psychologist." I was stunned by her telling a complete stranger this and asked if she was now back in school. "Oh, yeah. The shrink gave me a clean bill of health, and we wrote up a mental health plan to make my parents feel more comfortable, and now I feel more interested than ever in following in her footsteps. I've switched to being a history major, too. I should probably read this about her." I agreed. She thanked me for listening and ended with, "It's not like my people, you know. To open up about ourselves. We have to be perfect, we Chinese. We have to prove ourselves through continuous action, not emotion. But that's not good."

I think Paula would agree with her. Paula's book came about because of a eulogy she wrote for Salon.com. She describes how inspiring Iris was and how she found herself using Iris as the example she gave during a speech to writing students. After exhorting that they just "Iris Chang it", she would tell them they had nothing to lose by thinking big. It's advice and a view I've seen Paula describe to others, as well. As a fan of her writing, and someone who has benefited from Paula's encouragement, I'm excited to see how she "Iris Changs" her next book. But I think I'll read this one once more, just to make sure I didn't miss anything.

 
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