What does Immigrant Fiction and Dystopian Fiction have in common? You might be surprised! Award-winning Riverhead Books author Chang-rae Lee shares how is recently published book, ON SUCH A FULL SEA, reveals the dystopian nature of the immigrant story.
I wasn’t intent on creating a “dystopian” tale while I was writing On Such a Full Sea. This might seem hard to believe given the society I describe in the novel: a future world beset by environmental contamination and rigidly partitioned by class, where the ultra-rich live in securely gated ‘villages’, workers spend their entire lives in cloistered production settlements, and the citizens of the wild and unregulated ‘open counties’ that surround them are left to survive wholly on their own. Certainly when I was young I was an admirer of classic novels of dystopia such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but in fact, in writing this book I didn’t want any models of the genre to guide me. I was simply working the way I have always worked, which is to imagine characters who find themselves at a pivotal moment in their lives, characters who are questioning their place in their families and communities and, in turn, that community’s place in the wider world. In this regard, I consider On Such a Full Sea to be more of an extension of my previous novels than any radical departure.
This is particularly true if one considers the so-called “immigrant” narratives of my earlier novels, which I’ve always felt were essentially dystopian in nature; for what does such a fiction describe, if not a world in which the beliefs and practices are unfamiliar and sometimes backward, in which the morality is skewed, and whose every civil contour feels wrong, if only to its newly arrived hero, who must venture into and negotiate his way through a brave new world. In a dystopian fiction, we, the readers, are enlisted to experience this ‘adventure’, we are the new arrivals on the scene of a seemingly bizarre civilization, which of course has closer – and thus more unsettling – correspondences to our own than we ever anticipated. This is how I conceived of On Such a Full Sea. The true aim was not simply to do the “world-building” of some speculated future, to fit it out with aptly designed infrastructure and laws and costumery, but to explore what happens to people in certain intensified contexts, to trace and examine how they are formed and deformed by those contexts, and how they might ultimately “re-form” themselves in the face of such pressures.
Chang-rae Lee is the author of NATIVE SPEAKER, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction; A GESTURE LIFE; ALOFT, and THE SURRENDERED, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the “20 Writers for the 21st Century,” Lee teaches writing at Princeton University.
Write about your experience writing the “other” in the discussion boards.