RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fast forward 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 been left looking for a better life somewhere else. Immigrant laborers, many from China have come to fill the labor void. Life in the new America is divided into three distinct societies. There's the Charters, the walled off cities populated by the elites; the working-class cities, where the laborers live; and the counties, as they're called, the lawless and wild places in between.
That is the world Chang-Rae Lee has created in his new novel. It's called "On Such a Full Sea." Chang-Rae Lee joins me from the studios at Princeton University.
Mr. Lee, thanks for being with us.
CHANG-RAE LEE: Nice to be here, Rachel.
MARTIN: The main character is a young woman named Fan. She's from one of these working-class cities - it's called B-Mor, which is a play on Baltimore. Can you describe B-Mor? Who lives there? What do they do? What is life like?
LEE: Well, B-Mor is the former Baltimore. It's been repurposed as a labor colony. And this labor colony produces pristine fishes and organic vegetables for the elite Charters, that you mentioned. And it's populated by the descendants of some settlers from a place called New China, which is I guess a village in New China that had been environmentally ruined. And so, the whole village was brought over en masse about a hundred years earlier. And Fan is one of their descendents.
MARTIN: Let's . She embarks on a journey. What is she looking for?
LEE: Well, 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.
MARTIN: But because we are viewing her story as the collective B-Mor, we don't ever hear Fan herself talk about what's driving her. You write about her love for Reg and that's her motivation. But you don't hear it in her words so there's a distance.
LEE: You sort of enjoy that distance. I wondered about that when I began to write, using this perspective. And 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 or is this the narrator? I quite enjoyed that distance, as you called it; 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. Of course, following the things that happens to her but that we would be supplying the emotional energy and drive.
MARTIN: As you mentioned, along her journey she faces a lot of challenges. She takes up with some unsavory characters out in the counties who exploit her for their own purposes. And it happens to her again when she's essentially sold to a couple, a Charter couple. She's used and taken advantage of in another way, but you get the sense that she is still somehow in control. Is she really or is that the B-Mor residents' hope for her? Is that their projection, what they wish would happen?
LEE: I think there're, of course, as we are afraid of bad things happening to Fan. I mean, they're a very weary lot to begin with. But once she leaves the walls they get even more anxious. But, as you mentioned, I think she has this rootedness, that even those people who are trying to take advantage of her or use her have an immediate grasp of. They sense something about her that they can't quite put their finger on but that's very appealing to them.
So, out in the counties when she meets a sort of doctor, or the bizarre and fetishistic Charter couple and others as well, they all kind of glom onto her. And they express themselves through her in a way. She's sort of a mirror to the people and maybe to the times itself.
MARTIN: This book is a bit of a departure for you though, this dystopian world at least. Why is that something you wanted to write about and imagine?
LEE: I didn't set out to write a dystopian book or a story. 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 neighborhood of East Baltimore. And I thought - separately, of course, I just thought, you know, it's just a pity that this neighborhood has been abandoned and re-habitated and abandoned again and serially over all these years. And I thought, why can't just some - I don't know - a village from China settle this place? And, you know, I was just idly thinking that. And I thought, oh gee, well, what would happen if such a thing happened and what a crazy, crazy idea? So in a way, you know, this book is sort of an immigrant novel...
LEE: ...set in the future. But, of course, once I got into the future and thought about building that world, my present anxieties - things that I worry about, about our own society, about income inequality and the lack of social mobility, health care issues, all those things began to come out as I set the clock forward.
MARTIN: The book is called "On Such a Full Sea." It is written by Chang-Rae Lee. Thank you so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it.
LEE: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.