Chang-rae Lee Native Speaker
Born in 1965, Lee is a Korean-born American novelist.
Although it employs a spy-novel plot, Native Speaker (1995) focuses mainly on themes of cultural assimilation and language use among Korean Americans. Henry Park, the protagonist, who was born in New York City but raised in a traditional Korean household, works as a spy for a private, commercial intelligence agency. He is assigned to infiltrate and report on the political organization of the charismatic Korean-American New York City councilman, John Kwang. Over the course of the story, Henry must come to terms with his ethnicity and with his desire to be accepted by both American and Korean-American communities. These inner conflicts affect his career, his marriage to an Anglo-American woman, the impact of his son's death, and the way he relates to his Korean family and culture. While some critics argue that Native Speaker fails as a spy novel, most agree that Lee's prose style, well-drawn characters, and insights into the Asian-American immigrant experience make it a highly successful autobiographical novel. Representative of the critical reaction, Rand Richards Cooper writes that "[h]idden inside Native Speaker is a memoir struggling to get out—a rapturous evocation of a past life…. I wish Chang-rae Lee had scrapped the spy stuff and written that book."
SOURCE: A review of Native Speaker, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXII, No. 23, December 1, 1994, p. 1565.
[In the following review of Native Speaker, the critic lauds Lee's prose style and development of characters.]
In quiet, rich tones, Korean-American Henry Park, the narrator of this debut, speaks more clearly about his estranged wife than about his work.
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SOURCE: "Secret Asian Man," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 10, March 7, 1995, pp. 26-8.
[In the following excerpt, Yang presents a highly positive review of Native Speaker and discusses Lee's examination of the difficulties posed by language for non-native speakers of English in the United States.]
Let me take this moment to confess to sins of the first and worst order for a writer: sins of language, my original sins. I was born in America but English wasn't my first tongue, not even my second. I was raised to toddlerhood in a three-room Brooklyn flat across from the hospital where I was born and where my mother and father worked. I received their native Chinese from an aunt who spoke little else, then frightened my weary immigrant parents by mangling it with Spanish. To their horror, I was experiencing multicultural meltdown, becoming a linguistic bastard. While my nanny-aunt was busy elsewhere, I'd been left to sample the forbidden fruits of public broadcasting—Villa Alegre, Carrascolendas—and, gracias al televisor, was stumbling ever further from their model of that good second-generational child who should be, must be, reared as a bi gok lang (American) speaking ying gi (English).
They sent me to nursery school early, to root out the traces of my parents' speech and of the polyglot electric box. Now I'm told that over the phone I don't...
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SOURCE: "Stranger in a Strange Land," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, pp. 3, 13.
[Eder, a nationally known journalist and critic, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the following mixed review of Native Speaker, he praises Lee's depiction of the Korean-American immigrant experience but criticizes his handling of the novel's genre elements.]
When she temporarily walks out, Henry's wife, Lelia, hands him "a list" of who he is. She writes, among other things: "You are surreptitious … B plus student of life … illegal alien … emotional alien … genre bug … yellow peril: neo-American … stranger … follower … traitor…."
Like the author, Chang-rae Lee, Henry is a Korean-American. Instead of a writer he is a spy; but it is clear that his spy condition is more important as a symbol than as a plot element. The plot of Native Speaker is garish and strained, in fact. The novel's strength lies in its portrait of a man whose national and cultural identities live a double life inside him.
Over the past 20 years the fictional mosaic of America has been filled in by writers of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Caribbean origin, among others. Each depicts the shocks, gains, losses and alterations from the interplay of an immigrant culture with an established one; otherwise, each is entirely different.
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SOURCE: "Excess Identities," in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 24.
[In the following review of Native Speaker, Cooper criticizes Lee's poorly developed spy plot and uneven prose style, but praises his depiction of Korean immigrant family life.]
Henry Park, the narrator of Chang-rae Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, is the son of Korean immigrants, a boy known as Marble Mouth in kindergarten, when his tongue felt "booby-trapped and dying" as it wrapped itself around the agonies of English. Grown up now, Henry has taken the classic path of American assimilation while using his adopted language to clear the way to college and a career.
A curious career—for Henry is a spy. He works for Glimmer & Company, a New York dirty-tricks firm that specializes in what he wryly calls "ethnic coverage," hiring first-generation Americans to keep watch on the immigrant communities they still have a foot in. For its shadowy patrons, Glimmer & Company keeps tabs on labor organizers, radical students and the like. Henry's job, on behalf of an unnamed client, is to infiltrate the organization of John Kwang, a city councilman from Queens whose progressive rainbow-coalition appeal is gaining prominence on the New York political landscape.
Native Speaker brims with intrigue and political high jinks, but Mr. Lee, who came to this country from...
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