Love among ruin: Lee discusses discovery, perspective with ‘On Such a Full Sea’



Through a series of quite fortunate events, author Chang-rae Lee and his book On Such a Full Sea ended up being the perfect fit for Week Two at Chautauqua Institution.

Lee had been invited to the Institution before to speak on one of his previous novels, A Gesture Life.

“He wasn’t able to come at that time,” said Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. “But we’re thrilled that he’s able to come now.”

Lee will discuss his book at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy as part of the 2014 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle programming.

Babcock said that as she was planning the 2014 selections, she had a hard time finding a book that would fit with the theme of Week Two at the Institution, which is “Feeding a Hungry

Babcock said that she didn’t want a book too obviously related to food or food shortages, but one that related to the broader issues of hunger and want.

On Such a Full Sea takes place in a future version of the United States and focuses on a town called B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, where workers provide mass amounts of food for the upper-class “Charter villages.” Part of the book’s premise is based on the discrepancies between the haves and have-nots in Lee’s futuristic society.

“He’s a great writer, and he has this wonderful new book,” Babcock said. “It’s a book that will help the readers think about the subject of food shortages, because it’s set in a time where they’re greater than they are today.”

Besides relating to the theme for Week Two, Lee’s novel also fits neatly with the CLSC theme for this season, which is exploration and discovery.

“Well, obviously, the heroine, Fan, is on a journey of discovery,” Lee said. “She’s searching for her boyfriend, and I think in her mind, and as far as we know, that’s really her mission. That’s what she’s focused on. But in a way, she’s a vessel for us, in terms of the reader and how we follow along.”

s a way of bringing readers into the world of B-Mor and taking them into it in a detailed fashion, which he feels is important in books that introduce altered visions of the world.

“She’s a kind of mirror on this society,” Lee said. “Through her, we get to experience all the different folks and their practices and their ways.”

Fan’s journey is also one that impacts her in multiple ways.

“Every discovery is both external and internal, right? That’s why people go on journeys. That’s why people go on vacation, that’s why people read books: to find out about something else,” Lee said. “But in the course of that, invariably, if you’re there and you’re fairly sensitive, everything is both a challenge and a reflection of you.”

On Such a Full Sea is a departure from Lee’s writing wheelhouse, which tends to be realistically or historically based. Lee was frank about how the idea for the book came to him.

“I didn’t intend to write the story,” Lee said. He said the novel he originally set out to write was based in reality, but he couldn’t find the “most interesting angle into that story.” 

Lee_Chang-rae_CLSC_070314_coverThis led Lee to create the futuristic version of the world that Fan lives in.

“I decided that I would set the story in a very different world so that I could discuss and observe what I really wanted to observe about our society,” Lee said. “Sometimes, when you want to observe society, it’s best not to actually look at that society, but a slightly altered version of it.”

Echoing Margaret Atwood, Lee said that he’s not a science fiction writer or a writer of alternate realities. 

Lee emphasized that his book “isn’t interested in creating a whole new world, just a different angle into our world. So everything is just slightly shifted.”

Despite the futuristic and maybe unfamiliar setting, Lee raises some eternally-relevant questions in On Such a Full Sea.

In one passage, he addresses the romantic and curious nature of childhood and how, eventually, “perspective begins to reign.” Lee said that he wanted to touch upon the struggle between “delightful curiosity and wonder” and “perspective and circumspection.”

“I think there’s always a struggle between those two things,” Lee said. “Without one or the other, without perspective, the discoveries don’t mean as much. Yet if you don’t have that curiosity, you’re never going to discover anything at all.”

In another passage, Lee writes about how “sometimes you can’t help but crave some ruin in what you love.” It’s an uncomfortable truth, but Lee thinks it’s important.

“Maybe that’s part of love,” Lee said. “That’s part of passion: understanding that it’s fragile, that it’s vulnerable. That it won’t always be there. Maybe we want to see a little ruin because it’s like a defense mechanism. It’s all about the power of love and how wonderful that is. Except the other side of it is so tragic, or it can be. That’s our fear.”

Lee also employs a plural narrator as a way of connecting readers with Fan’s world. Lee said he wanted to address the idea of a group or collective identity, and that using a plural narrator to do that “came very naturally.” 

“I wanted it to be commenting like a chorus, but also having emotional reactions like an individual would,” Lee said. “I didn’t want it to be all just one kind of voice — I wanted it to be a ‘voice’ with lots of voices and emotions and feelings in it.”

Lee said that he plans on discussing how On Such a Full Sea evolved from his earlier idea with Chautauquans. He’s also looking forward to fielding questions, which he said are “the most enlightening part of any talk.” 

For Babcock, arranging Lee’s visit to Chautauqua was just a matter of all the right pieces falling into place at the right time.

“We’re introducing him to Chautauqua this year. We’re introducing our readers to his work — it’s just a really wonderful combination,” Babcock said.

It’s exciting for Lee as well.

“I was thrilled when I found out about Chautauqua and what it was,” Lee said. “And the more I’m finding out about Chautauqua, its long tradition of intellectual life and the arts — those are just the kind of readers that I’m looking for: thoughtful readers, sensitive readers, well-read readers. So it’s a perfect group.”

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  1. Chautauqua, Week Two: Chang-rae Lee | “I’d have my secretary do it, but she’s dead."

    […] For Week Two at Chuatauqua, I had the privilege of talking to Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-rae Lee about his new book, On Such a Full Sea. I got to be a true journalist and conduct my interview with him over the phone while on the way back from Niagara Falls, so that was fun. Lee was a great subject and was brimming with wisdom when I talked to him. Check out my story on him here! […]

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