Chang-rae Lee Lee, Chang-rae - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Jeff Yang (review date 7 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 sound Asian, that I sound just like … embarrassed pause, because in this day of recognized diversity, American sounds as American does. So now I'm a speaker of English without portfolio: I can't even successfully mimic the ching-chong mockery of others speaking yellow. I'm stuck in basic broadcast.

Which leads to my second, conscious sin: becoming an accomplice to the murder of my ancestral tongue, a language that could not be resurrected despite years of after-school remedial classes and the best efforts of my repentant parents. My Spanish is still better than my Chinese.

So reading Change-Rae Lee's debut novel was like being handed a confession to sign. I play the literary authority while hiding the suspicion that this name, this face, this carefully disciplined tongue will someday betray me. And half hoping someone will remember that I can't even read a Chinatown newspaper. Sorry, man. Se habla Asian American. Brother Lee too.

Which means we work the contradictions, and this is what we write: spools of cultural history looped and extended with spurious detail. Or immigrant fantasies embedding nuggets of remembered fact. Or ethnic Everyman metaphors that want to recount the story of our selves more surely than we would or could ourselves. All Asian American stories, ultimately, are biocryptography—not fiction, not nonfiction, but un-fiction, coded answers to the question: Who Am I?

Lee does have irony. He gives Native Speaker the disguise of a spy story, lending generic form to the spirit of cultural surveillance that inhabits most Asian American literature. Though the form is only cosmetic: Lee knows full well (as you will, early on) that he won't deliver a thriller's payoff in blood, lead, and adrenalin. What Lee does is to take the bones of a so-American genre and build them into a work of tremendous grace and discomforting resonance.

Lee's protagonist, Henry Park, is a Korean American man born to immigrant parents, raised in ivory suburban upstate New York, educated—overeducated—and then married and employed, both against the grain. His wife is a WASP speech therapist named Lelia, and their relationship has become broken and distant since the death of their son, Mitt, in a tragic accident.

Lelia's mourning over Mitt is raw and melodramatically American, open in a way that Henry finds he cannot match; this she correctly takes as a lack of feeling, or at least emotional truth, on his part. Their daily communication has shrunk into empty terminology. "We were hardly talking then," he says, "sitting down to our evening meal like boarders in a rooming house, reciting the usual, drawn-out exchanges of familiar news, bits of the day. When she asked after my latest assignment I answered that it was sensitive and evolving but going well, and after a pause Lelia said down to her cold plate, Oh good it's the Henryspeak."

If Henryspeak sounds disconcertingly like Company lingo—spook talk—that's no coincidence. Henry works as an ethnic intelligence expert, an identity-mole-for-hire. Working for Dennis Hoagland, a canny opportunist, he and his coworkers are assigned to get close to and observe their own, to speak their language and listen to their responses, reporting their secrets to unknown and invisible clients:

Each of us engaged our own kind, more or less. Foreign workers, immigrants, first-generationals, neo-Americans. I worked with Koreans, Pete with Japanese. We split up the rest, the Chinese, Laotians, Singaporans, Filipinos, the whole transplanted Pacific Rim…. Hoagland had established the firm in the mid seventies, when another influx of newcomers was arriving. He said he knew a growth industry when he saw one; and there were no other firms with any ethnic coverage to speak of.

Henry is a very good agent. The same things that impair him as a husband...

(The entire section is 2232 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 19 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…."...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

Rand Richards Cooper (review date 9 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 961 words.)