During a trip to Shenzhen, China to research his new novel, Chang-Rae Lee toured a factory. In one of the dormitories, he observed neatly hung clothes, a shared hotplate and potted plant — objects that struck his attention.
Undercover as a potential investor, Lee witnessed the inner workings of a rarely-seen world. He described the factory as similar in structure to a campus, with a cafeteria, health center and even a rusty basketball hoop. Though he said the surroundings of the factory dormitories weren’t unpleasant, they were built with a functional purpose, leaving no room for aesthetics.
It was the items in the living space that gave the factory life by revealing more about the people who spent their time there.
“You’re not just looking for the facts, you’re also looking for these little human details that you wouldn’t get from the facts,” Lee said during the Living Writers Series event on Feb. 25.
These details eventually made their way into his 2014 novel “On Such a Full Sea,” from which he read during his presentation.
The Living Writers Series, coordinated by literature professors Micah Perks and Karen Yamashita, features weekly readings from writers from all mediums, including novelists, poets and filmmakers. Students listen to artists discuss their creative processes, read from their works or answer questions. The winter series hosts one or two artists each week for nine weeks, capping off with a student reading on March 17.
Yamashita curated this quarter’s series, “Speculations in Color.” She originally wanted to bring Asian-American speculative writers because she’s teaching a course on that topic this quarter but then expanded the series to include a more racially diverse group of writers of color. Though each artist’s work is unique in style and subject matter, all are variations of speculative fiction.
“Speculative fiction … has always been thought of as a marginalized kind of writing,” Yamashita said. “It’s a genre on the side.”
She said recent national and international events of violence involving people of color have sparked responses through art, literature, media and film.
“More and more people who are considered literary writers or realists or naturalist writers are picking up [speculative fiction] because it’s a way to describe what the world looks like now and also to speak politically about things that cannot be spoken about otherwise,” Yamashita said.
This quarter’s series has been particularly popular with students, with attendees nearly filling the 300-seat Humanities Lecture Hall each week.
“I have heard so many students say that this has been one of the best Living Writers Series,” said literature graduate student Cathy Thomas. “It probably has to do with embracing the speculative in a different way, not looking at it as science fiction.”
Chang-Rae Lee’s novel is one take on speculative fiction. While on a train passing through Baltimore, Lee noticed many houses were boarded up. He began questioning why this happened and who made the decision to do so. This led him to imagine another scenario that combined these observations with his experience in China.
He wanted to see what would happen if an entire population of an environmentally-ruined village in China was somehow relocated to this part of Baltimore. However, it was clear that this couldn’t occur in the contemporary world, so Lee set it in the future.
“[‘On Such a Full Sea’] is a speculative dystopian novel out of necessity,” Lee said during the event.
Jason Cohen, a creative writing intern and host for Living Writers, enjoyed this series because students could get a perspective that isn’t often present in literature.
“I am a white male writer and my story has been told many, many times,” Cohen said. “It’s about getting the other stories told, letting everyone get to hear their story in fiction, film and poetry.”