Five is a lucky number for Chang-rae Lee, the Korean-American writer whose fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea , was published this month. It isn't just that five is considered auspicious in Asia, where, says Lee, objects of everyday life such as bowls and chopsticks are sold in sets of five. It's also that Lee and his mother wore the number in sports: she was on a South Korean junior national girls basketball team, and he played basketball and baseball after migrating to the United States as a child. Lee's latest novel is a daring and gripping departure from his previous novels, which deal with race, class and immigrant life in the US. On Such a Full Sea is set about a century from today in a dystopian America where the government has crumbled and people have fled the cities. However, in a city named B-mor, a chilling successor to present-day Baltimore, immigrant workers from China live contentedly in relative prosperity and stability - or so it seems from the outside. Lee talks about his novel with Ajay Singh.
When your last novel, , was published in 2010, you said your next work would be relatively slim. Were you talking about ? How did you end up with 350 pages?
Yes, I was talking about On Such a Full Sea. At that time my conception of it was that it would be more lyrical and poetic, and with more space in between sections and chapters. But as I started writing, I became enthusiastic about following certain storylines, and so it ended up being what it is. Books always defy too much engineering.
How long did it take to write?
This one was shorter, about a year and a half. I was able to work on it steadily without any breaks. All of my other books took quite a while - three, four, sometimes five years. I would drop them for a while or try a different tack.
Why did you decide to create an ethnic Chinese protagonist, a first for you?
I was originally going to write a novel focused on factory workers in Shenzhen, where I went to do research. It was going to be a Chinese-centric, social-fabric book about Chinese power, ascendancy, and cultural and economic influence in the world. But I ended up not really wanting to write that book. I felt there was already plenty of good reporting about China in different media outlets, and I didn't know if I was doing anything fresh or had a special angle. And then this other idea came up about a labour community, and I decided to make them Chinese.
So, instead of writing about Chinese factory workers in Shenzhen, you brought the workers to America?
Right. And that was in response to American anxiety about China and about American decline, two of my core interests. So it [fitted] into what I was thinking about: America's future and China's influence and presence in America. It's kind of funny - I never planned on writing a futuristic or dystopian book. If you had asked me 15 years ago whether that was going to be part of my bibliography, I would have said no.
How do you view life and politics in America as it loses its claim to exceptionalism?
I'm very concerned about income disparities here. On Such a Full Sea is stratified by class and wealth and I see that happening here. American exceptionalism still stands, but I think it's actually a way for us to feel better about ourselves when we have serious problems in our society in terms of disparities in wealth, education, health care … There are several societies that coexist in America now. I see deepening gulfs between those who have and those who will never have. But I wasn't just interested in social stratification and a dystopian society. I was also interested in a certain kind of community that is too willfully obliged to comply and get along, and accept a certain set of circumstances.
Were there any particular works of literature that influenced you in writing your latest book, as has been the case in the past?
When I was a kid I really enjoyed George Orwell's novels 1984 and Animal Farm, and of course Aldous Huxley. I was never a science fiction fan, though. More recently, I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake series. But I didn't have those books in mind when I was writing On Such a Full Sea.
How did you come up with the title?
It's pretty poetic, wouldn't you say? (Laughs) I was going to stick with B-mor but no one seemed to like it - it didn't seem to say anything and didn't have any music to it. I was reading Julius Caesar one day and I came across this quote of Brutus to Cassius in the fourth act: "On such a full sea are we now afloat." And I thought, although my book is not about what Caesar represented, it is a little about tyranny - not a tyranny of dictatorship but a tyranny surrounding what we want so badly of our civil society.
What kind of experience will readers have when they read your novel?
A lot of it is an adventure story and I hope readers enjoy that. But at the same time I hope they also recognise the way the novel is written - the way an unnamed narrator is asking them to look at certain things.