Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When Chang’s first book, Hunger, appeared, it received almost universally positive reviews. Several reviewers compared her to other Asian American women writers such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. However, although it is true that Chang explores some of the same themes and cultural issues as those established novelists of the Chinese immigrant experience—especially the familiar Asian American conflict between parents and children and the Old World and the New—other reviewers compared Chang to such expert stylists of the short-story genre as James Joyce and Bernard Malamud. The latter may be a more apt comparison, for Chang’s stories are not focused so much on the timely social issues faced by Chinese immigrants as they are concerned with more universal issues such as the delicate fabric of family relationships, loneliness, memory, desire, ambition, and loss. Chang herself has said that she is more interested in things that happen over and over again than in time-bound contemporary events. “Pipa’s Story” is more concerned with the stylistic union between the past and the present, the cultural and the personal, than it is with political issues.

The fact that “Pipa’s Story” and other Chang stories have been enthusiastically received for their universality, lyricism, and formal control rather than for their cultural specificity and postcolonial political stance perhaps signals that in the late 1990’s the focus of contemporary fiction was more on what unites people as humans rather than what separates people as members of different cultures. However, Chang’s emphasis on the human universal rather than on the politically particular and her insistence on tight formal and stylistic control in her fiction have been the sources of the only negative reviews she has received. An M.F.A. graduate from the famous University of Iowa writing program and a Wallace Stegner Fellow at the equally famous Stanford University writing program, Chang has been accused by some critics as exhibiting basic, writing school predictability and formal control. This criticism may, however, be a result of a general preference among academic critics in the late 1990’s for the political realism of the postcolonial novel over the lyrical formalism of the post-Chekhovian short story.