When I was sixteen, Iris Chang gave the graduation address at my high school, from which she had graduated the decade before. It remains, to this day, one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen.
I wish that I could find a video or transcript of the speech, because it is difficult to do justice to it without access to the text, but she exhorted us to resist the forces of cynicism and disappointment, and told us that we had the power to change the world, and somehow managed to make it seem more like a road map than a collection of graduation-day platitudes.
At the time, Iris was only thirty, but she had already published two books, including The Rape of Nanking, a meticulously-researched account of Japanese atrocities during their conquest of that city during World War II. At sixteen, I was not yet planning to go into the human rights field, but I remember watching her give that speech, and thinking that if I grew up to be someone like her, who did the things that she did, that would be something to be proud of.
Many times, since then, I have thought about her speech when I have felt tempted to be the kind of person who just gets on with life and doesn’t bother reaching for something better. At those times, I have remembered seeing her, up on that stage, telling a room of fascinated children that we would have moments when cynicism and surrender seemed like attractive options, but that she believed we would be strong enough to overcome them. And then I have decided that cynicism can wait for another day.
I am not the only one she affected that way. Author Paula Kamen once wrote in Salon about turning “Iris Chang” into a verb, meaning to think big. She encouraged her university students to “Iris Chang it”: “Just decide what you want and go get it. To the point of being naive.”
This isn’t a funny post, because six years after she gave that graduation speech, Iris Chang killed herself.
And then this week, for reasons beyond my understanding, Vice Magazine decided that the way to remember her, and the personal costs she bore in her attempts to stand in solidarity with the victims of horrific crimes, was to publish a photograph of a fashion model reenacting the scene of her suicide. Which was accompanied by a caption explaining where to buy the outfit the model was wearing. And which was part of a multi-page spread called “Last Words,” which also contained stylishly accessorized reenactments of the suicides of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen, and of one of Dorothy Parker’s unsuccessful suicide attempts.
Iris had a son, who was two years old when she died, and is only eleven now. She had a husband, and parents, all of whom are still alive. If seeing the photo was enough to make me burst into tears, I can only imagine how her family must have felt when they saw it. (I fervently hope that they did not). There is no question in my mind that Vice did her family a disservice when they decided to publish it.
But the magazine’s decision to publish this spread was also a disservice to its readers. Iris and the other writers depicted in the spread have expanded our world through their work, and made it a more interesting, vital, and just place. Vice could have depicted them in a way that honored that work, and encouraged their readers to seek it out, thereby making their own worlds bigger and more exciting. Instead, it depicted them as nothing but a group of high-gloss deaths, good for selling clothes and not much more. There was nothing about that photograph that would lead someone to, say, read Iris Chang’s Atlantic piece on the “Oskar Schindler of China.” How unfortunate that is. I cannot understand why anyone in the writing business would want to so undermine the value of extraordinary writing, but apparently Vice did.
Vice has removed the article from their website, and replaced it with an unimpressive apology of the “sorry you felt offended” variety. I hope that they will do more than that to make this right.