Two decades ago, the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers program selected Chang-Rae Lee for his 1995 novel Native Speaker, helping launch his career as a novelist. Earlier this month he released his fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea. He read from the book at the 82nd Street Barnes & Noble before answering audience questions.
On Such a Full Sea has been described as a dystopian novel, a term Lee shies away from. The novel is set in B-Mor, a future version of Baltimore where the American government has begun resettling Chinese refugees escaping polluted villages. In this sense, it is a dystopian novel, Lee admits. Still, he never imagined writing a novel of the genre. It was never part of the original concept.
The first idea for the settlement of B-Mor came to him while riding on the train between Washington and New York. The Northeast corridor line passes through some of the more decrepit neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia. At the time he had been researching Chinese factory communities for a social fabric novel set there when he arrived at the the idea of repopulating these post-industrial American cities.
The result is what Lee calls a strange immigrant novel. The basic premise though is incompatible with contemporary American immigration policy. Placing the novel in the future solved the practical problem. Suddenly he found himself writing a dystopian novel, a prospect he described as “a little scary.”
He reads from a passage where protagonist Fan is swimming around in the tank of a vast fish farm. In this future, the Chinese immigrants of B-Mor grow vegetables and farm fish for the elite. They live within a protected walled city. Ultimately though this is an adventure tale, and Lee says, “I found myself floating away.”
The narrative is first person plural, an unexpected choice for a dystopian novel. He says the narrative voice was something he started with early on in the process. The choice to use the plural is a way to capture collective voice of B-Mor, the people Fan leaves behind. Ultimately her journey is about leaving a safe place behind, even if that place is faulted.
Lee had an interest in writing about a kind of planned community, and B-Mor is just that. The collective voice represents that community, and their internalization of Fan’s adventures. The plural first person allowed for intimacy and distance in unique places; its impossible to ever really know exactly what Fan is thinking, but the collective voice can speculate and wish and hope.
Though there are moments that might seem as though On Such a Full Sea enters into the dystopian tradition, Lee says he specifically avoided reading up on similar novels. Certainly he has read the classics, especially Ray Bradbury, but mostly years ago while in school. “I don’t want models,” he says of other books, and suggests even that using the plural first person voice was a protest against the tradition.
He was striving for a more psychological novel than something like Orwell, Huxley, or Bradbury. Though a kind of centralized government exists, its never omnipresent like those other dystopias. The government is not an antagonist to Fan. Economic status is far more important anyway. Status and class limit the characters and build tension intentionally. But mostly he wanted to look at the characters from the inside and strip away the political issues.
The distance of the plural first person also allowed for a greater distance from Fan. She became a mirror and vessel for the community voice reflecting back the issues. Lee says this is the exact opposite advice he gives his writing students. Lee teaches undergraduate creative writing, and so often is dishing out advice on writing technique.
“I don’t really write short stories,” he says, to explain how he sticks to an idea. “I have to feel as if i both know the story and have a lot of questions about it at the same time.” The constant questions about characters and place sustain a longer work like a novel. Novels stop being interesting when the author or the reader run out of questions.