Iris Yang grew up in China with two parents who were high-achieving educators. They wanted her to be a good student and successful woman, and their passion was biology. She aimed to please them and followed their suggested path.
Yang was one of a few students accepted to the China-United States Biochemistry Examination and Application program, and at 23, she was sent to America with a borrowed $500 and poor English. She went on to study molecular biology and worked with researchers at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She made her parents proud, but she could not let go of a deep-seated desire to pursue one of her first loves: literature.
As a young kid, Yang spent hot summers sitting next to her dad with his handheld fan reading stories from both China and the West. It was during the Cultural Revolution when literature was dangerous, and China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong had shut down libraries and ordered books to be burned and people to be “re-educated.” One of Yang’s aunts had been sent to a labor camp, so the idea of writing was nothing Yang would even consider until much later in life. After more than a decade in the US, she started to write, and last year she released her debut novel, “Wings of a Flying Tiger.” It tells the story of a World War II pilot who ends up injured and alone in a remote region of China. She infuses real-life events with her personal family history stories from a very dark period in China’s history.
Iris Yang joins host Frank Stasio to talk about her writing and her newest book “Will of a Tiger,” which came out earlier this year. Yang will host several readings in the Triangle. On Saturday, March 16, she will be at the Durham County Library at 10 a.m. and the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro at 2 p.m. On Sunday, March 17, she will host a reading at the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough. On Saturday, March 23, she will be at the Wake County Public Library in Cary at 3 p.m.
Growing up in Wuhan, China during the cultural revolution:
Even though we grew up in a family of professors, we [were] relatively poor. At the time everybody was poor in China. We grew up without much of anything like even food … Most of the intelligent people were in trouble during that period of time. They were sent to [the] countryside to get re-educated. Lots of universities were shut down, libraries were closed, bookstores had nothing except political stuff.
On adapting to life in America:
To go from a place without much to a place with so much, that’s easier. If you go the other way around, then it would be difficult. It is a culture shock … The first time I went to a supermarket, I was blown away to see all of [that] good stuff around, and [it] looked so fake to me.
On her journey from fear to happiness:
I started writing because I needed help … I read tons of self-help books. Luckily, we have a lot in this country. This particular one said if you write down five positive things a day in 21 days you will be able to switch your mindset from negative to positive … It takes 21 days to change a habit, but it didn’t take 21 days. It took much much longer. I started by jotting down words or simple phrases … But in time, words changed into sentences and then sentences grew to paragraphs and then paragraphs grew to pages.
On the strength her mother showed after a stroke:
After her stroke, she couldn’t use her right hand or right leg. She started to write with her left hand. If you look at her original writing, it was like [a] little kid. But she did it day after day, month after month, year after year. She published four children’s books in China that way.
On the massacre that inspired her debut novel:
The story starts in December 1937 when Japan invaded Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China. In six weeks they killed 300,000 Chinese and raped over 20,000 women, also called the rape of Nanjing. On the verge of this [true life] massacre, my main character Jasmine Bai returned to Nanking trying to save her parents, but she was too late to save her parents. It was in time for her to witness the horrors. She survived this massacre thanks to a group of Westerners and mostly Americans.