Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.
Rediscovering the Self
Diana Chang was born in New York City to a Chinese father and a mother of Chinese and Irish descent. Soon after, her family moved to China, where Chang spent the majority of her childhood and adolescence. She lived in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II and attended the Shanghai American School before matriculating at St. John’s University, Shanghai in 1941. After one year, she left St. John’s to take a position as an editorial and feature writer at the English-language Shanghai Evening Post in 1943, on the recommendation of a friend who knew she was interested in writing. Chang later described her weekly piece in the paper as “chatty, personal, and feminine.” She resigned from the paper after eight months for “political reasons,” which she explained as follows in a letter to the author: “I resigned my ‘position’ … because of the Japanese supervision. No Japanese were in the office, so at first—in my naïveté (I was 17 or 18 at the time)—I thought the paper was run by the three or four men I took to be white Protestants engaged in putting out the newspaper.” Her family later returned to New York City, where she entered Barnard College in the fall of 1946 as a transfer to the class of 1949.
Chang chose to major in English, focusing on British and American poets. Soon after entering her first year at Barnard, Ms. Chang’s poem “Mood” was published in the Modern Poetry Association’s Poetry, the most prestigious poetry journal of the time, which was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912. Chang’s literary talent was no secret at Barnard; she was chosen in May 1947 to read an original poem at the Undergraduate Association’s tea in honor of the retiring Dean Virginia Gildersleeve. Her poem “Spring Comes Too Intricately” was published in the campus literary magazine The Bear as the winning entry in a literary contest sponsored by the magazine. In Chang’s yearbook profile, alongside her interests in golf and yoga, her classmates note her status as a published poet. In May 1949, she graduated from Barnard cum laude, and she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa shortly thereafter.
After graduation, Chang traveled to France on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied French symbolist poetry at the Sorbonne. After returning to New York, she held editorial positions at various publishing firms and began working on her first novel, The Frontiers of Love, which was published in 1956 to critical acclaim. She went on to publish five more novels and three volumes of poetry between 1959 and 1991. Over the years, Chang maintained her connection to Barnard, occasionally publishing articles in the alumnae magazine. “Typewriters and Trees” chronicles her experience in an artist’s colony in New Hampshire, and “I See the City” is a photo-essay featuring images by noted photographer Rollie McKenna and excerpts from Chang’s novel, A Woman of Thirty (1959). She returned to Barnard in 1979 as an adjunct associate professor of English, teaching creative writing and an interdisciplinary class called “Imagery and Form in the Arts.”
In 1995, Chang told the journal Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, “When I was asked to teach in the English department at Barnard, I shook in my knee socks because I had never taught before. The chairman [Barry Ulanov] said he was looking for a practitioner, somebody who had written novels and poetry and somebody who had an editorial point of view. … I accepted and found out I loved it. If I had known that I would like teaching so much, I might have gone in for it sooner.”
Chang is considered to be the first published Asian-American novelist, and her works have received a great deal of scholarly attention. With the growing contemporary interest in Asian-American literature, her novel The Frontiers of Love is now regarded as one of the earliest works in that genre. However, categorizing Chang’s work is not simple. Only two of her novels, including The Frontiers of Love, feature protagonists of Chinese heritage, while the others include self-described “WASP” characters. In this respect, Chang’s work is comparable to that of the African-American novelist James Baldwin, whose work features protagonists of various ethnic backgrounds. Both authors were influenced by their ethnic identity and its role in society, but did not limit themselves or their work on that basis, allowing themselves to explore other questions of identity. Baldwin explores his homosexual identity in Giovanni’s Room (1956), which features white protagonists. Similarly, Chang has not let her ethnic identity prevent her from exploring universal problems of identity, Asian or otherwise.
In her introduction to the 1994 edition of The Frontiers of Love, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim writes, “The Frontiers of Love critiques how the sociopolitical pressures in individuals to position themselves within a single race or nation or class or political identity result in the destruction of “feeling selves.” … Because knowing, feeling and acting have their origin in individuals’ feelings, the danger raised in the exclusionary propensities of any form of identity politics is the suppression of feeling in order to arrive at a fixed identity formation.” This theme of examining identity beyond labels such as “race” is central to Chang’s work. Her exploration of identity strives to move beyond the exoticism she sees as an obstacle to universal truths; she is interested instead in the “rediscovery of the self” and the process of the formation of individual identity.
While Chang admits that categorization “seems unavoidable,” she believes that writers don’t need to write for a specific category or conform to a specific category’s demands. In a letter to the author, she wrote, “Empathy for the human condition, an intuitive awareness of ‘being,’ existential & mysterious, a shared sympathy and imagination that the author brings to what one hopes to create—these traits, well expressed render us all more human, more understanding, & embracing of one another.”
Chang’s poetry is also concerned with the exploration of identity. For example, “Saying Yes” deals with the ambiguity of her own cross-cultural identity:
‘Are you Chinese?’
‘Well, actually, you see…’
But I would rather say
But both, and not only
The homes I’ve had,
The ways I am
I’d rather say it
A similar theme of negotiating one’s identity when caught between two cultures is expressed in “Second Nature,” from her book of poetry The Horizon is Definitely Speaking (1982):
The old China muses through me.
I am foreign to the new.
I sleep upon dead years.
Sometimes I dream in Chinese.
I dream my father’s dreams.
I wake, grown up
And someone else.
I am the thin edge I sit on.
I begin to grey—white and black and in between.
My hair is America.
True to form, while Chang uses poetry to examine her Asian-American identity, she does not limit herself strictly to this issue. As an accomplished painter, her appreciation of the arts moved her to compose a collection of poetry called The Mind’s Amazement (1998), which features poems inspired by music, art, and dance.
Chang has found success in the worlds of both prose and poetry, but along with literary success and praise comes the inevitable criticism. Her critics claim that she does a disservice to the the Asian-American community by not addressing issues that stem from her ethnic identity and affect members of that community. Chang herself says that she is in some ways “obsessed” with identity, but does not want to restrict herself to writing exclusively as an Asian-American. She recognizes the complexities of the term “Asian-American” (and “Asian” and “American” and any other identity label, for that matter), and how inadequately these labels describe her own identity. She was no doubt influenced by the Chinese culture in which she spent her formative years, but she also attended American schools, and English was her first language. She considers herself to be an American writer with a Chinese background. In response to critics, Chang told MELUS in 1995, “In my own novels, the identity of the characters is totally different from my own. In those cases, I don’t think I am concealing anything—I am inventing something. I don’t think invention is a form of dishonesty. Novels are imagined, invented lies which can be more truthful than actual life itself.”
— Katie Portante ’08
Chang, Diana. The Frontiers of Love. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.
Chang Diana. The Horizon is Definitely Speaking. New York: Backstreet Editions Press, 1982.
“James (Arthur) Baldwin (1924-1987).” Last updated 2002. Retrieved August 31, 2007 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jbaldwin.htm>.
Hamalian, Leo. “A MELUS Interview: Diana Chang.” MELUS 20:40 (Winter 1995), pp. 29-43.
Ling, Amy. “Writer in the Hyphenated Condition: Diana Chang.” MELUS, 7:4 (Winter 1980), pp. 69-83.
Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Asian American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Chang, Diana. “Spring Comes Too Intricately.” The Bear, Spring 1946, p. 7; “Groups Join to Present ‘Progress’ at Tea Today.” Barnard Bulletin, May 1, 1947, p. 1; “Fulbright Fellows: They Dance with Maoris and Study French Poets.” Barnard Alumnae Monthly, October-November 1951, p. 6; Advertisement for The Frontiers of Love. Barnard Alumnae Magazine, November 1956, p. 27; Chang, Diana. “Typewriters and Trees.” Barnard Alumnae Magazine, November 1957, p. 15; Chang, Diana, “I See the City.” Barnard Alumnae Magazine, April 1959, p. 9; Barnard College Occupation Bureau record card of Diana Chang ’49, filled out 11/22/48 and updated through 1967; and ALS, Diana Chang to Katie Portante, 7/20/07. (Barnard College Archives).