Describe the historical context of Native Speaker and how it is embedded in a larger literary history that includes literature before/after it.

The historical context of Native Speaker’s writing and publication is the 1980s–1990s, a period in which much of the novel is set. Because Chang-rae Lee includes the struggles of Henry’s parents and other immigrants their age, the historical context also extends back another generation. Lee’s novel has also influenced subsequent Korean American fiction and Asian American literature more broadly.

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Native Speaker, which was published in 1996, is largely concerned with the experiences of Korean American people from the late 1980s onward. Henry Park, the protagonist, is a Korean American man who has grown up in New York. However, much of the novel is concerned with Henry’s parents, who immigrated as adults. In this regard, the older generation’s experiences, extending back several decades to the early post-Korean War years, are also part of the historical context. As one of the earliest successful Korean American novels, Native Speaker has also had a strong influence on literature by Asian Americans, not only those of Korean heritage.

Henry feels torn between his commitment to the Korean American community and his identity as a patriotic American. His conflicted loyalty is shown in his relationship with an ambitious Korean American politician and his work in espionage. Henry’s personal relationships also are strained by this inner turmoil. His wife Lelia leaves him, calling him an “emotional alien” who cannot overcome his difficulties with communication. In this regard, as the novel’s title ironically indicates, language represents culture.

Some twenty years after the novel’s publication, the US-born Korean writer Thomas Chung noted that Koreans and Americans of Korean descent had been writing and publishing about their American experience since the early twentieth century. The literary genres in which they write include novels, poems, plays, short stories, memoirs, and graphic novels. Some authors make Korean and Korean American characters central in their novels, as Lee did, but also set draw on genres such as the thriller; a recent example is Jimin Han’s A Small Revolution. Others address the Korean experience in other countries such as Japan—notably Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.

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