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Lan Samantha Chang redefines the ‘immigrant novel’

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Lan Samantha Chang started thinking of the book that would become “The Family Chao” more than a decade ago. It began with one character: Leo Chao, the charming yet domineering patriarch of a Chinese-American family in Wisconsin.

Leo Chao shares some roots with Chang’s own father. “I grew up with a very charismatic, somewhat larger-than-life father,” Chang said. “I don’t think I could have written the book if I hadn’t grown up with like this extraordinarily strong father figure.”

And then there’s the influence of Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” a book that tangles with ideas of faith and free will, difficult fathers and angry sons; it became a model for “The Family Chao” (Norton), the third novel by Chang, who also serves as director of the Iowa Writers Workshop.


Like the Chao sons, Chang and her two sisters grew up in Wisconsin, in a mostly-white town where they stuck out. “I think that the setting plays into the novel in one major way, which is that this family moves to this town at a time when there aren’t many other Asian families in town,” Chang said. “They, along with their fellow Asian immigrants, form a community.”

After that community is shattered by a sudden death and then a trial, the Chao family suddenly finds itself hyper-visible in a community that had mostly ignored them before — with the exception of eating in the Chao family restaurant — and judged on account of their race.

The novel isn’t autobiographical, Chang hastens to point out (for one thing, her father wasn’t a tyrant). And yet, she added, “I’ve realized that for every book I write, I’ve had to put a chunk of myself into it, like a real chunk. Otherwise the book isn’t alive. I think part of the chunk of myself I put into this novel is in the question of what happens when you’ve made your ghosts in a country and it becomes yours, your country, meaning I was not writing an immigrant novel anymore. It’s more of a post-immigrant novel.”


Lan Samantha Chang will read 7 p.m. Wednesday in a virtual event hosted by Belmont Books.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.