Leaving the Atrocity Exhibit

Historians remember the author of The Rape of Nanking

UCLA history professor Henry Yu, co-founder of a group of historians who are writing textbooks about the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, recently taught Chang's The Chinese in America in an undergraduate class. The text is a diatribe against 150 years of homegrown bigotry, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Wen Ho Lee. His students loved it. "The early parts of the book, where she talks about the early histories, they piss you off," he says. "That's a valuable thing, teaching-wise. I want my students to be pissed off."

It's too soon to know what Chang's legacy will be, whether she will be remembered more for her books or for her activism or for her untimely death. Her suicide was so sudden that people still lapse into the present tense when speaking of her, describing her quirks and idiosyncrasies as if she were still alive. Her official website, irischang.net, makes no mention of her death and continues to list her speaking schedule and contact information. There are concerns that her suicide will overshadow all else, but it's likely, as with the suicides of other famous authors, that the shock of hers will diminish with time as well. Certainly the international movement sparked by The Rape of Nanking will continue, albeit in unforeseeable ways. "I think that's going to be an impact that we're going to feel for generations," says Zia. "We don't even know what that impact is going to be yet, because this brewing tension between China and Japan right now is big, and has the potential to become even bigger. And Iris, her work, was a huge part of that."

Robert Ito is a regular book reviewer for Los Angeles Magazine.

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