Friday, November 12, 2004

The Crushing Burden of History: Iris Chang Commits Suicide at 36 

I spent Veteran’s Day brooding about Iris Chang’s suicide. I almost saw her a few months ago on her book promotion tour of The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, which I have been meaning to read. I picked up some extra hours at the library instead and I'm sorry I didn't go hear her speak. I could not bring myself to read The Rape of Nanking, her controversial and courageous history of the Japanese occupation of the city during World War II. I know my limits and that I could not bear to read about such atrocities in detail. When the Japanese invaded Nanking, they committed acts of such savagery and barbarism on the unarmed civilians that the Nazis stationed there were writing home begging Hitler to put a stop to it. Although the actual number of victims is unknown, it is believed that as many as 300,000 civilians were murdered. Children, women and the old were tortured and massacred in beheading contests, mass live burials and acts of sickening sexual sadism. These atrocities weren’t committed by a few individual soliders in the heat of battle, but in a systematic orgy of violence that lasted for months. It is theorized, and I believe, that the event was swept under the historical carpet for political reasons during the Cold War, and the Japanese have done their part since to deny the tragedy as nothing but communist propaganda. Iris Chang was personally and professionally vilified by the Japanese. I guess I have a bit of a problem with the Japanese proclaiming their status as atomic bomb victims while aggressively hushing up some of their own dark historical roles and contributions. Germany certainly doesn't. And Japan? It's high time that the comfort women were given repartions, or at the very least a public apology, before they all die off. In any case, I have untold admiration for writers of Chang's courage who bring these events to light and give survivors opportunities to bear witness.

From what I’ve read it seems that Iris Chang was a brilliant but painfully sensitive woman who tended to become too involved with and immersed in her tragic material. When she killed herself she had been interviewing POWS of the Bataan Death March for her next book. I’m certain that the collective pain of all of her interviewees and exhaustion from her ambitious work schedule contributed greatly to her suicide. What a tragedy and what a great loss, and how sad that she chose Veteran’s Day, a day honoring the veterans that she was going to give voice to in her next book, to end her life.

One of my grandmother’s childhood friends survived the Bataan Death March, just barely. She has had deep enmity for the Japanese every since. When I was considering doing the Jet program she wrote me a letter admonishing me to make sure that it wasn’t some white slavery trap. I laughed at her quaint cultural chauvinism, but a few days later I heard about an Oprah show with all of these women recruited over to Japan as show girl entertainers. Once they arrived they were forced into prostitution and held virtual prisoners. They thought they would surely be killed eventually but at the completion of their contract the Japanese men, very business like, said that they were free to go and sent them on their way.

Even thinking about what the Japs did in Nanking makes me feel anger and hate towards the Japanese. But this isn't particularly constructive emotion, especially since the perpetrators are long dead. It must be really hard to do this kind of digging, in order to bring the facts to light, without becoming overwhelmed by all the (justified) negative feelings.
I was very saddened to read about her suicide today.
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