Fast-forward to a few hundred years into the future: Resources in the United States are scarce. The government has fallen apart and most of the population has left, looking for a better life somewhere else.
Immigrant laborers — many from China — have come to fill the labor void, and life in the new America is divided into three distinct societies. First, the Charters, walled-off cities populated by the elites. Next are the working-class cities where the laborers live, and last are the lawless and wild places in between.
That's the world Chang-Rae Lee has created in his new novel, On Such a Full Sea. The story begins with Fan, a young woman in B-Mor — the city we know today as Baltimore — but in this new world, it's been re-purposed as a labor colony for Chinese workers, producing pristine fish and organic vegetables for the elite charter communities.
"It's populated by the descendants of some settlers from a place called New China," Lee tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The whole village was brought over en masse, and Fan is one of their descendents."
On Fan and her journey
She's looking for her boyfriend, a fellow named Reg. He suddenly disappears one day. She decides to leave the security of B-Mor in search of him. She really has no idea where to start, but one of the things that the book thinks about, I think, is the audacity of her leaving. We don't get her point of view; the book is told by a plural "we" of B-Mor, and they consider and muse on all the reasons why she might have left, and all the things that happen to her outside.
On why we never hear directly from Fan
I decided very early on that Fan's idea of herself almost didn't matter. This wasn't going to be one of those talky books in which the hero expounds on everything and herself. This would be quite a different book in which the narration moves in all these different directions. Yes, it inhabits her consciousness sometimes, but there's always this tension, and we wonder, well, is this Fan, is this the narrator?
I quite enjoyed that distance ... gave it sort of a fable-like quality that I found quite appealing, as I really got into writing the book, and I saw Fan as the kind of figure that was out in the distance, clear, but still in the distance, and that we would have to put so much onto her.
On choosing to write a dystopia
Originally, I had wanted to write a social realist novel of contemporary China, focusing on Chinese factory workers in the Pearl River Delta, and I had gone over and done a lot of research, visited a factory, saw all the things and saw where they lived and where they ate.
But when I came back, I didn't quite feel I had enough of a fresh angle on it. So I put that book away, and I was thinking about, looking about for another story, and I was on the train from D.C. to New York, and I passed by Baltimore as I always do, and I always have in my adult life. And I saw again, after, you know, another 35 years of seeing it, the same ghetto neighborhood of East Baltimore.
And separately I thought, you know, it's just a pity that this neighborhood has been abandoned and rehabitated and abandoned again, serially over all these years, and I thought, why can't just some — I don't know — village from China settle this place, and I was just idly thinking that, and I thought, oh gee, well what would happen if such a thing happened? What a crazy, crazy idea!