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Award-winning author Chang-rae Lee sets his new novel in a dystopian future America. Post-industrial cities like Baltimore and Detroit have been converted into forced labor camps populated by Chinese immigrant workers who produce food and supplies for a suburban elite. He explains how he came to write this cautionary tale of income inequality, class divisions and environmental decline.
- Chang-Rae Lee award-winning author of several novels, including "Native Speaker." He teaches writing at Princeton University.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “On Such A Full Sea” by Chang-rae Lee by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2014 by Chang-rae Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Novelist Chang-Rae Lee says he's always been fascinated by people who find themselves in positions of alienation. His characters have been immigrants, often Korean-Americans, conforming in order to survive tough times. His fifth novel is set far into the future, but the characters are still people thinking about the culture and how they fit in.
MS. DIANE REHMThe title of his new novel, "On Such a Full Sea." It features the entire town of B-Mor, the former Baltimore, telling the story of a young woman who decides to leave. Chang-Rae Lee joins me from KQED in San Francisco. I'm sure many of you will want to be part of the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to you, Chang-Rae Lee. It's good to have you with us.
MR. CHANG-RAE LEEGood morning, Diane.
REHMChang, I'd be particularly pleased to have you talk about the title of the book.
LEE"On Such a Full Sea" is -- it's a quote from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." It's -- Brutus is speaking to Cassius, and he's talking about really taking advantage of a dangerous moment. You know, he's speaking metaphorically, of course, about a flood that is rising about them. And he talks to Cassius about taking advantage of this opportunity, even a dangerous one, to go forward and plot their fortune.
LEEAnd I came across it sort of by accident. I was looking about for a title for a while, and it was very difficult to find a title for the book. And when I read it, read his speech, it just immediately appealed to me because it so spoke to, I thought, my hero Fan's adventure and the quest that she had set herself on.
REHMCan you read for us that portion of the statement?
LEEYes. "We, at the height, are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures."
REHMIs that where you see the country now?
LEEA little bit. I mean, obviously, you know, one writes novels for lots of reasons. But particularly a novel that's speculative, set in the future, I think is an expression of, at least for me, you know, my current anxieties. And among those anxieties are, you know, ideas and worries about class stratification, about the lack of infrastructure, about healthcare issues, about environmental issues, and also what, I guess, is sort of a mania for money and owning things.
LEEAnd so all those things, I think, are issues that we face -- income inequality -- that I think we all sense. You know, I don't think we have to be economists or experts in this to feel as if things are being skewed a little bit in our society.
LEEAnd, again, I -- you know, I don't write political novels. But I think this novel is the one that features my, you know, political sensitivities most of all my work.
REHMHmm. I was interested that the idea really finally came to you on an Amtrak train between Washington and New York. Tell us about that experience.
LEEYeah. You know, for folks who have been on that train, it passes through a part of Baltimore, East Baltimore, that for, you know, as long as I can remember -- I'm in my late 40s -- and since the time I was a little kid, seeing that neighborhood, that really forlorn neighborhood, which in, you know, various iterations has been fixed up, abandoned -- part of it burned out -- and then that one particular day, I saw it again.
LEEAnd I saw the blocks that had been -- sort of the row houses that had been sort of fixed up, but boarded up the windows, clearly to say that no one would be living there anymore and really ready for, you know, no habitation, which I thought was odd. And, you know, after that, I just had the -- I was kind of frustrated, just as a citizen, and thinking, you know, all the things, all the legacies that had gone into almost dooming this neighborhood. And I had the idle thought that, gee, why can't just some group of people, you know, allow it to be -- might they be allowed to, you know, to use this place and...
LEEAnd at the same time, I had been -- I had sort of dropped a novel about contemporary China, focusing on factory workers in contemporary China. I'd gone over, done a lot of research, you know, because my interest in China -- I think, as all Americans are interested in China, its ascendancy, its power, its excesses -- and that was a novel that I had sort of put aside. But then I thought, you know, why can't we just bring a -- you know, again, idly -- why can't we just bring a, you know, an entire Chinese village and have them populate this neighborhood in Baltimore?
LEEAnd maybe they can do something with it. And then sort of it -- the premise kept sticking to me. I just I couldn't quite drop it. You know, on the train ride back, I saw the neighborhood again, making sure to get on the right side of the train. Then when at home, I did some more research. And I realized, you know, it was an interesting premise to me, but of course a premise that would never be allowed now.
LEEYou know, it just couldn't happen. But I thought that, in a very different future, in a future in which America would be in great need for an influx of skilled laborers to produce certain products for certain quarters of the society, that this...
REHMAnd in what year do you imagine this situation would exist about which you've written?
LEEOh, I'm not specific about it, but my sense is about 150 years or so to 200 years.
LEENot the far future and not just around the corner, but within sight.
REHMRight. Would you read for us from the beginning of the novel?
LEESure. "It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone. You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance. Rooftops a mess or wires and junk. The river tea-still, a swath of black. And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, a smell, you think, you don't want to breathe in.
LEE"So what does it matter if the town was razed one day, after our people were trucked out? What difference does it make that there's almost nothing there now? It was on the other side of the world, which might as well be a light-year away. Though probably it was mourned when it was thriving. People are funny that way; even the most miserable kind of circumstance can inspire a genuine throb of nostalgia. The blood was pumping, yes? Weren't we alive!
LEE"You can bet that where we live now was mourned, too, in its time, and though it may be surprising to consider, someday this community might be remembered as an excellent place, even by those of us who recognize its shortcomings. But we don't wish to dwell on the unhappier details. Most would agree that any rational person would leap at the chance of living here in B-Mor, given what it's like out there, beyond the walls. In the open counties.
LEE"And even those relative few who've secured a spot in the Charter villages might find certain aspects of life here enviable, though they would definitely never say so. We, on the other hand, will offer this: you can rely on the time here, the tread of the hours. If you think about it, there's little else that's more important than having a schedule, and better yet, counting on that schedule; it helps one to sleep more soundly, to work steadily through one's shift, maybe even to digest the hearty meals, and finally to enjoy all the free time available to us, right up to the last minutes of the evening.
LEE"Then, if the stars are out -- and they do seem to be out most ever night now -- we can sit together in our backyards and wave a hand to neighbors over the fences and view our favorite programs while sitting in the open air and authentically believe that this stretch of sky sings its chorus of light for us alone. Who would tell us we are wrong? Let them come forward. Let them try to shake our walls. Our footings are dug deep. And if they like, they can even bring up the tale of Fan, the young woman whose cause had been taken up by a startling number of us.
LEE"She's now gone from here, and whether she's enduring or suffering or dead is a matter for her household, whatever their disposition. They are gone, too, transferred to another facility in the far west, the best scenario for them after the strife she caused. We can talk openly about her because hers is no grand tragedy, no apocalypse of the soul or of our times. Yes, there are those who would like to believe otherwise; that each and every being in the realm is a microcosm of the realm.
LEE"That we are heartened and chastened and diminished and elevated by a singular reflection. This is a fetching idea, metaphorically and otherwise, most often enlisted for promoting the greater good. But more and more we can see that the question is not whether we are 'individuals.' We can't help but be, this has been proved, case by case. We are not drones or robots and never will be. The question, then, is whether being an 'individual' makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care."
REHMChang-Rae Lee, "On Such a Full Sea." Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Chang-Rae Lee joins me from KQED in San Francisco. We're talking about his brand new novel titled, "On Such a Full Sea." He's just read for us from the beginning. And that last two lines, the question then is whether being an individual makes a difference any more, that it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care. Tell me more about those lines, Chang, because it would seem that the "we" of the book's narrator stands not only for the people of B-Mor, the former Baltimore, but for all people as a collective.
LEEYeah, absolutely. I think there's this deep and settling feeling that the people of B-Mor, and everyone in the counties and the charter villages, really everyone who inhabits this novel, have about their place. They say, you know, we are not drones or robots and that we are individuals. But I guess the worry is what does it mean to be an individual when you live in such a cloister, when that cloister is so limiting, where there's really no mobility out of that cloister, and that you've made a grand bargain to live there, in the case of the people in B-Mor.
LEEYou know, they are trading a certain kind of -- well, both political freedom and other kinds of freedoms for the safety and security of their jobs and of their settlement.
REHMSo describe for us B-Mor and the type of living that's there, the open counties, and the charter villages and who gets to live there.
LEEWell, B-Mor is settled by the descendants of original Chinese workers who came. And it's a decent place. It has middle class trappings. They can go to the mall. They can shop. They can certainly eat, which they're very fond of doing. And, again, it's literally a walled-community, so that they can produce pristine goods. But of course being walled and facing what's outside, all the dangers and precarious kind of feelings that might arise from those things -- they're happy to be inside. But I think they're stunted.
REHMBut it's basically a factory community.
LEEYeah, it's a sort of factory campus. And it's a place in which their destiny is already set. And from birth to death they can see the whole arc of their being, and their whole arc of their experience.
REHMAnd what is the population itself like? Aren't there -- there's a mix there.
LEEWell, there's a mix of the descendants of these Chinese settlers, but also of what the people call indigenous peoples, who were mostly African American or Hispanic, some whites, but just a smattering of those people who had I guess clung to their old neighborhoods of the former Baltimore. And there's been some mixing.
REHMAnd their major production are customized vegetables and tank-raised fish.
LEERight. And that's what Fan does. She's a diver in the fish tanks, cleaning the tanks. And these fish and vegetables can only really be afforded by the charter people who live in also walled-communities, but these are communities in which they have all the things that we have. They have good education. They have the food, of course, the B-Mor produces. They have luxury goods. They have wonderful restaurants. And it's a place where I would say that the .5 percent lives or even less, a smaller percentage than that.
LEEThey enjoy all the creature comforts and they're protected. But of course they're cut off, too, from everything else, as they want to be by design. But I also look at their society and their little micro culture as being this somewhat suffocating cloister, in which strange behaviors and beliefs and practices begin to arise.
LEEOutside of all that is where the vast majority of the people live.
REHMIn the counties.
LEEIn the open counties. And that's where really nothing happens. There's no government. There's no law. There are no regulations or codes. There's very little infrastructure. People have to educate their own children. The power is thready, the water is bad. It's not apocalyptic, it's just very rough and hand-to-mouth. And that's sort of, you know, the people live by their own wiles. And so, of course, bad things can happen.
REHMSo it's a dangerous place to venture into?
LEEYes. And that's what Fan has taken on. And that's what so inspires the voice of the book, in terms of their observation of Fan and her exploits, what so captures their attention. They can't believe she's gone out there.
REHMI really, really love the description of Fan. Would you read for us perhaps starting at Page 3, in the middle of that page?
LEEOkay. Sure. "She did stand out physically, and not because she was beautiful. She was pleasing enough to look at. She was tiny was the thing, just 100 centimeters or not quite 5' tall, and slim besides, which made her the perfect size for her job in the tanks. At 16 she had the stature of a girl of an 11 or 12, and thereby, when first encountered, she could appear to possess a special perspective that one might automatically call wisdom, but is perhaps a more of a kind of timelessness of view.
LEE"The capacity, as a child might have, to see things in people and events without the muddle of the present and all it contains. Perhaps Fan truly had that kind clarity and not just a semblance of it."
REHMHow does she learn to dive into the tank and deal with the fish?
LEEWell, she's been raised to do so from an early age. There's not much to do in B-Mor. There's some rudimentary schooling, but it's mostly vocational. So everyone really is there as a part of the larger, functioning machine. And she was identified early on as having some physical and athletic talent and really trained like some of the, say, abalone divers on the south coast of Korea, who dive deep and can stay underwater for a long, long time doing their work.
REHMAnd she's able to hold her breath for two minutes without any gear.
LEERight. And that's because, you know, to have breathing apparatus would disturb the fish. And that's the most important thing, is to produce these perfect and clean fish that the charters demand and expect.
REHMYou know, as I was reading your novel I was thinking about West Virginia. And you may have read about the fact that the water there at this moment cannot be taken in. It cannot be used to clean with, wash with. The only thing it can be used for is to flush the toilet. And yet, now they're concerned even about flushing the toilet with this water, which apparently was used to -- it was a chemical used to clean the coal that was taken out of the mines in West Virginia.
REHMI'm reading your book and I'm thinking about what's happening in West Virginia, where people this morning had to travel miles even to take a shower before going to work.
LEEYeah, absolutely. And this book -- I wasn't thinking about our country so much. Of course there's been environmental poisoning all around our country, but in doing research for the novel I've done a lot of looking into -- although these exact kind of scenarios that are happening in China all around because of all their rapid industrialization mining and all the processes associated with those mining. It's scary to think about. And you can just go on the internet and see how the rivers have been poisoned.
LEEAnd that these places are poisoned for a long time. And that we, in fact, it's a surprise that the regions are actually pristine anymore. So this is absolutely one of the things that I was just amazed by and frightened by for not just China, but for us, too.
REHMWhy does Fan leave B-Mor?
LEEShe leaves because her boyfriend, Reg -- a very nice, unassuming fellow -- disappears one day. And there's no word about why he's disappeared. She asks the authorities and there's no word back. So she decides that she's going to set out in a quest to find him. What we find out along the way is that Reg may be so-called sea-free. He doesn't have any genetic or blood markers to suggest that he's going to develop a disease called sea that everyone will develop in this society and in this world, charters, counties, people in B-Mor, people included.
LEESo he's very special. He's this rare animal that they think is being studied by the authorities. But, of course, yeah, he's got the whole business about sea, this disease is that it's in the environment. It's just something that has now become part of the process of being alive.
REHMAnd the fish, itself, becomes suspect.
REHMAnd those people in B-Mor who are working to harvest these fish and these vegetables, all of a sudden find their employment dropping drastically because the people of the charters do not want to eat this fish any more. They believe it may harbor this very disease process.
LEEYeah, and the charters are very, very nervous about anything that they ingest. You know, they've really made a life out of it. There are no other worries for them, in terms of their resources or means. So their life is set. So what they concentrate on is their health. But of course their health in their view, and probably in reality, is under constant threat because of just what's around them, the poisoned world. And so they're always looking for ways to shield themselves. And so there's this boycott on the fish, which causes lots of problems back in B-Mor.
REHMChang-Rae Lee. The book is titled, "On Such a Full Sea." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I wonder from your point of view, what does Reg symbolize?
LEEHe's, I suppose, you know, again, I said he's a very nice fellow, very sweet and kind. Quite simple, you know, he's nothing special.
REHMAnd he loves Fan.
LEEHe loves Fan. And people find him very endearing, but if not remarkable, except for this height. He's very tall. But I think there's something about Reg and Fan that is elemental. There's something pure about them. Not in terms of innocence, but something physically unadulterated. And I think that's the dream that people have about them. That in their physicality, in Reg's being sea-free, in Fan's kind of perfection in her littleness and her persistence, there's a sense that there's this quiet and natural force that transcends all the things that are happening in the society that is outside of the adulteration of the environment.
LEEThat they aren't neurotic peoples like the people in the charters. They're somehow, I guess, pre-society, at least of the society that they live in now. And I think that's one of the things that I was thinking about. I was like all of these folks in these villages and counties -- they're so trapped by their circumstance, whether those circumstances are luxurious or really lowly.
REHMAs Fan sets out, leaving B-Mor, which of course surprises the entire B-Mor community, how does she come across a man named Quig, a former veterinarian who, because the charters have banned pets, has lost his work?
LEEYeah, it's the first person she really meets outside the walls. And he accidentally hits her with his car, breaks her leg, fractures it. Luckily, he takes her in -- it seems out of goodness. And he is a sort of decent fellow, but as you mentioned he's a former veterinarian in the charter village. And he was disgraced after trying to make money after all pets were banned. And of course pets are banned because there was some contagion or suspicion of some disease that originated from pets. But he represents, you know, a fallen charter. Someone who has not mobility so much, but just this kind of rapid descent out of his station and into another.
LEEAnd of course, like everyone in the book who encounters Fan, he also has his own agenda and his own needs for Fan and how he's going to use her. Everyone who encounters Fan in the book seems to need her for some reason, either emotional or financial or otherwise. And he's someone that both cares for her and also sees how he might take advantage of her.
REHMChang-Rae Lee. His new novel, "On Such a Full Sea." Chang-Rae Lee is also the author of "Native Speaker," and "The Surrendered." When we come back your calls, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Chang-Rae Lee joins me. And we're talking about his latest novel, the title "On Such a Full Sea." It's set about 150 years in the future. Some aspects of it are not very pretty but perhaps we might have expected that. Here's an email from Jeff in Baltimore, Chang, who says, "There are many international refugees being resettled in Baltimore. There is a large community of Nepalese refugees near the neighborhood you were talking about in east Baltimore."
LEEWell, I'm sure -- again, you know, it's not so much Baltimore that I'm focusing on...
LEE...but places like Baltimore. And if you go, you know, to visit any, you know, kind of rustbelt city -- of course Detroit we know about -- but other places too, parts of St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Youngstown, Ohio, Buffalo, certainly Utica and all those upstate New York towns, there's so many areas of our country that are so in need of revitalization. Of course there has been a lot of talk lately in the news about just razing those places, you know, shrinking the cities.
LEEAnd that may be, you know, ultimately, you know, an effective response to these neighborhoods. But, you know...
REHMBut isn't that eventually simply destroying parts of our country?
LEEWell, yeah, it seems to me the most expedient thing to do but not necessarily the best one. I mean, we also read about how there's a shortage of affordable housing in our country.
LEEAnd that's one of the things that's so frustrating I suppose.
REHMBefore we go to the phones, tell us a little about yourself, Chang.
LEEYou know, in what regard? Just my personal life now or...
REHMYes, your personal history.
LEEWell, I was born in Korea and I came to the United States after the Immigration Act in 1965. My father was allowed to come in. And I was three years old when we came. And we settled in and around New York City. My father was a medical doctor. And, you know, I had a fairly idyllic suburban kind of life. You know, we had a tight little family. We didn't have a large network of family or friends.
LEEThen -- and, you know, I did all the things I suppose a good immigrant boy is supposed to do, you know, go to a decent school. And when I got out of college I was even, in fact, even though I was an English major, able to get a position at a Wall Street firm for a year, which was really more for my parents than for myself, and in which I quit to try to write. And since that time, you know, between going to graduate school and other things, I've been working steadily on my writing.
REHMDid you regard yourself during that period of growing up as an outsider?
LEEYes and no. You know, I didn't have, you know, those really difficult moments that a lot of immigrant kids do. I was fairly lucky that way. But of course the -- you know, there was always inside a lingering feeling of, you know, a certain kind of detachment, a sensitivity to the differences between myself and others also. I think that also, you know, promoted a certain kind of observational tendency on my part to constantly look outside, to take the temperature of situations.
LEEBut also to have this sort of double consciousness, a consciousness of being there but also watching myself be there.
LEEAnd it's -- and I think that's what all newcomers to a place feel. And it's funny, in light of this book that I've just written, people say, you know, this is a new thing for you. But I've always sort of felt that I've written dystopian fictions all along. That immigrant fictions are in some sense dystopian fictions. Not for most of the populace that are reading it but certainly for that -- the figure of that newcomer, how he or she encounters this new world with different customs, practices, assumptions, a different lens on their presence and who they are.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. First to Doug in Orlando, Fla. You're on the air.
DOUGHey, how you doing?
DOUGKing of my impression of this book is that it's kind of like a "Running Man" "Soylent Green" type thing that in developing characters rather than, you know, the actual social problems. You know, 150 years in the future is kind of too far, isn't it, as far as relating to today's world that may help, you know, move the social issues we have forward?
LEEWell, I -- you know, it may or may not be too far. I guess I'm not -- I don't want the reader to focus so much on the time period and the technical aspects of that. I mean, I think you're absolutely right. The book does focus on character. It does focus on the human question. And in a way, in terms of the world building, I try to build the world in which not some abstracted world that I was just interested in, of course, in technical ways, but the ways in which that world would express certain human expression and conduct and belief.
LEEAnd so I was looking at ways in which, you know, say, you know, a highly regulated society might then form and deform the individuals within it, and how they might think of their own sense of destiny and freedom and all those associated questions.
LEESo yeah, so this is a book that's really about, you know, the human factor.
REHMExactly. And you talk about the people within the charters and how they are constantly optimizing metrics, that they're sort of fixated on risk and fear of failing, of getting old, of getting sick or going broke.
LEEYes. You know, again, they don't have the same concerns physical -- the daily concerns about survival that others do. What they have is -- you know, they've become sort of fetishists of their own experience. They're trying to break down everything so that they're absolutely safe, that they're successful all the time in whatever they do, whether that's, you know, swimming in the pool or having lunch out at their fancy restaurants.
LEEYou know, they can only obsess on that. And that's one of the things that I was interested in is what happens within these little societies and, you know, how does morality get revised and how does it change the people in turn?
REHMWell, and of course right now we've all been sort of focused on health care. And each class is somewhat different in that. I mean, do you see the stratification in the society today playing out in your dystopian future?
LEEOh, absolutely. You know, it's -- the stratification in my future has gone to such a level that there's no mobility in between these things. And if you are mobile between the societies, it means you've taken a huge risk, you know, to go out into the counties where anything can happen. And that's what concerns me so much about the society of my novel but also, you know, our society today, that yes, there will always be class stratification. That's just our system I suppose.
LEEBut it's the entrenchment of those strata, the lack of ability to move beyond or to a different station that seems to me one of our big issues. You know, so that the people who don't have enough education or health care or after school, you know, program or whatever, that they fall further and further behind. Well, those with everything and through tax laws, the regulation through the kinds of ways that people are remunerated for their work in finance say. That they will constantly have this legacy for years and years through their children of having a certain class that they'll...
LEESo it's -- so both ends are, it seems to me -- I think we're all sensing a certain kind of calcification of that, an entrenchment that seems to me not ideal in the least.
REHMAll right. To Jud in Bethesda, Md. You're on the air.
JUDYes, hi, Diane.
JUDCan you hear me?
JUDGood. Well, your guest sounds like a fascinating person who I would love to have several beers with, but part of what he's describing reminds me of the reaction of certain Europeans to American agricultural products that they refuse to allow into their country because they didn't conform to whatever their fears of the moment were. And then they were overruled entirely by the real trade organization which said there's no scientific basis for this. So you can't exclude these things.
JUDBut anyway, I was asking a different thing and then listen for the answer. What I hear in this book in part is that it's kind of an extrapolation of the current -- certain people's version of the current political situation. We have the 1 percent and we have everyone else. And aren't we just getting worse that way, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? And the thing that frustrates me about listening to this is that we're at a moment that is probably -- where all the measures are the most exaggerated in probably 50 years.
JUDA lot of the middle class lost money in the stock market. The value of their houses went down and so forth and we're saying, oh my god, the society is all going in the wrong direction because of how we measure it. I grew up in Newark, N.J., which was an immigrant town. It had the Italians on one side, the Pols and Slavs on the other side, the Irish on another side, the Jews on another side and the African American community in the middle. And most of us didn't own their own houses and yet rose up and graduated from professional schools and did very well.
JUDAnd I don't see what's changed in our society. I mean, the cost of universities has changed. But would you just -- it seems to me that the prescription, if there is one, in the author's thesis is that the government somehow fixed all of this, whereas the main problem at the moment is there are not enough jobs. And the reason there are not enough jobs has a lot to do with the government's policies.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, sir. Go right ahead, Chang.
LEEWell, there's no real prescription in my novel. There's no government in my novel in fact.
LEEYou know, I think what the -- there's a seating of, you know, the processes, economic and social to, I suppose just human -- you know, the market in my novel. And I think the gentleman is probably, you know -- I think the suggestion was that there should be some redistribution that goes on. And I'm not exactly -- I mean, I don't think I'm thinking about that at all. I'm thinking more about, you know, are all thinking -- considering about what a civil society should be, you know, in a capitalist civil society.
LEEAnd to what extent we want to -- what -- in that society -- how much of the extremes do -- can we bear and tolerate? And how -- and at a certain level is it sustainable for that society? You know, is it sustainable for say, minimum-wage workers at certain corporations, you know, where they need food drives in the holidays even though they're working, you know. Is it sustainable for people to be, you know, making all this money, you know, just gargantuan amounts of money. And then not having, you know, the kinds of estate laws that once I think, you know, sort of rebalanced resources.
LEEYou know, it's something like 1 percent of the people own 10 -- you know, 1 percent of the people own 80 percent of the wealth in our country. So it's an amazing idea. Maybe, you know, we can go through statistics but I think we can all sense just on our own that something is skewed. And I guess that's...
REHMBut, you know, it's not just the economy at this point. I think what your novel also takes into account is the environment, and how the environment itself changes to create this kind of dystopian future, though clearly you have no more crystal ball vision than any of us does. What you do have is the writer's imagination. And what you're doing is taking from what you see today both economically, historically and environmentally and somehow putting it together.
LEEYeah, and intensifying and distilling it for effect. But, yeah, it's something that I think, you know, ultimately lies in how we're going to think of ourselves regardless of our policies and what those might be. We can argue all day about that. But what does it do when if we live in a society in which we see and care for the other parts of society less and less and less? Where we are walled off by our circumstance, by our socioeconomic strata?
REHMAnd of course we see those walled communities even today.
LEEYes. But I guess I'm talking also about the walls that are there that aren't -- that we can't see, you know.
REHMSure. Of course.
LEEAnd those are, I think, the -- perhaps the highest walls. You know, those have to change for anything larger to change.
REHMWell, I want to congratulate you on your novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you so much for joining us.
LEEThank you. A pleasure to be here.
REHMChang-Rae Lee. His book is titled "On Such a Full Sea." And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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