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[638] Native Speaker – Chang-Rae Lee


” My ugly immigrant’s truth, as was his, is that I have exploited my own, and those others who can be exploited. This forever is my burden to bear. But I and my kind possess another dimension. We will learn every lesson of accent and idiom, we will dismantle every last pretense and practice you hold, noble as well as ruinous. You can keep nothing safe from our eyes and ears. This is your own history. ” (320)

Native Speaker is a rare but interesting crossover between spy fiction and ethnic literature. This book is more thought-driven as the protagonist, a thirtyish Henry Park, son of Korean-American immigrants, reflects on the day his wife said goodbye to him, and left him a stinging assessment. The story then goes back and forth in time, taking different courses, as Park gradually unveils his personal crisis, including the recent loss of his son, 7-year-old Mitt, who suffocated under a dog-pile composed of neighboring white kids. The loss has jolted both Henry and Lelia into reconsideration of who and what Henry is. Lelia is frustrated at her husband’s seemingly emotionless reaction to their son’s death.

Soon there will be more brown and yellow than black and white. And yet the politics, especially minority politics, remain cast in terms that barely acknowledge us. It’s an old syntax. (196)

Indeed Henry is a private man. Surreptitious his wife calls him. The tendency to repress emotions actually makes him the perfect candidate for his work, a spy for a detective agency. He’s part of a multicultural team that specializes in gathering useful information on non-white subjects for shadowy clients. His latest subject is a Korean-American city councilman pegged as a good contender for New York’s mayor seat and intriguingly described as the figurehead of a mixed coalition. But John Kwang often reminds Henry of his own father, who cared less about rights except for his business, and of himself, who never feels comfortable in his own skin. Kwang has the best of two worlds. So white but yet so Asian.

The novel explores the linguistic choices and flexibility of a person who has grown up working to develop an identity largely by trying on those of others. Lee is erudite to use spying as a metaphor for Asian American experience, suggesting for Henry and the reader how being raised in a restrained Asian American household while being perpetually ostracized by white America can make one feel like a spy on the outskirts of society.

The first half of Native Speaker that concerns Henry’s atmospherics with his wife is a bit slow-going. But in hindsight this is largely due to the fact that Henry Park was confused about who he was. As he begins to define himself as a person no longer shrouded in self-centeredness, Henry becomes enlightened to the immigrant experience at large thanks to John Kwang’s campaign. The novel touches on many aspects of immigrant and minority experience, includng the difficulties inherent in the position of a minority politician and interethnic tensions. Kwang’s ideal is what Henry has always dreamed of, but is bound to fail because blind assimilation is not true multicultural diversity. It’s a betrayal to both his own kin and heritage as well as the entire immigrant population. Henry is awaken to the reclamation of his Korean identity, marking the end of the effacement of self.

349 pp. Riverhead Books. Paperback. [Read | Skim | Toss] [Buy | Borrow]


2 Responses

  1. Native Speaker was my first experience reading Chang-Rae Lee. I loved the way he combined spy novel with an intricate musing on race and culture. It’s also always fun to read about places I know well, in this case Flushing, Queens.

    • It’s a refreshing book to read. I’ve read so many coming-of-age stories but this one will stick with me. Isn’t Flushing the huge Asian community in New York now?

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