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Chang-rae Lee Native Speaker

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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)

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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.

This is only natural, for Henry is employed as a sort of industrial spy, and his most recent assignment is to infiltrate the people surrounding John Kwang, a Korean-American New York City councilman who may be headed for bigger things. Dealing with the slick Kwang causes him to reminisce about his own father, who owned fruit and vegetable stores and encouraged him to marry a white woman. Inadvertently following his father's advice, he ended up married to Lelia, a speech therapist. Their son died at seven when he participated in a "dog pile" gone wrong. Subsequently, Lelia wanders off periodically and then finally leaves Henry for good. Lee creates the perfect tone for Henry—distanced, but never ironic or snappish. His observations and memories have the discomfiting feel of revealing truth. He tells how his father made him recite Shakespeare to show off his English for customers, and how one day he was commanded to allow a regular customer to exit a store without paying for an apple she had bitten and returned to a shelf. "Mostly, though," says Henry, "I threw all my frustration into building those perfect, truncated pyramids of fruit." He also describes how his father employed recently arrived immigrants because they were the hardest workers. His grappling with his son's death ("You pale little boys are crushing him, your adoring mob of hands and feet, your necks and heads, your nostrils and knees, your still-sweet sweat and teeth and grunts") and the slow rapprochement between him and Lelia are wonderfully drawn. The sections on his work are somewhat more challenging, particularly since his exact job is not very clear in the beginning, but Lee's careful prose conveys an immigrant's ability to observe without participating, and an outsider's longing for place and identity.

A serious, masterful, and wholly innovative twist on first-generation-American fiction.

Jeff Yang (review date 7 March 1995)

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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 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 make him a perfect spy. A closeted identity is a necessary tool in this field, and Henry's lifelong fear of appearing alien has been useful:

If I may say this, I have always only ventured where I was invited or otherwise welcomed. When I was a boy, I wouldn't join any school club or organization before a member first approached me. I wouldn't eat or sleep at a friend's house if it weren't prearranged … call me what you will. An assimilist, a lackey. A duteous foreign-faced boy. I have already been whatever you can say or imagine, every version of the newcomer who is always fearing and bitter and sad.

Henry, friendly assimilist, cultural chameleon, has always been able to get close to others without being touched himself. But his most recent assignment has been a disastrous failure: asked to investigate a Filipino American psychotherapist named Luzon, he instead finds himself offering up revelations, blending facts from his life with the faux data of his cover. His son, his wife, his assembled artifacts of assimilation, have been stripped away, and he is all too vulnerable.

John Kwang—Korean American Queens councilman, potential mayoral candidate and messiah apparent of the gorgeous mosaic—is Henry's second and last chance. Hoagland plants Henry as a mole in the Kwang campaign. It seems like a plum gig. Henry's long-disused ties of blood and language make it easy for him to gain Kwang's trust. But Henry himself is slowly seduced by this patriarch, this Moses out of Flushing, in whom so many have invested immigrant hope. Kwang calls Henry by his Korean name, weaves around him a cocoon of familiarity. By story's end, Henry must make a painful choice: Should he tell Kwang's secrets, or should he keep them? If he speaks, he will be returned to his former state of cultural denial—the good agent-American, condemned to a voiceless life. Silence, by contrast, might set him free.

Here as elsewhere, for Lee, "to speak or not to speak" and "to be or not to be" have identical meanings. Language is pandemic, it infects and pervades and mediates everything: Speech is culture, speech is power, speech is sex. It's Lelia's crispness of tongue, her confidence in lingua Americana, that first attracts Henry. "Even before I took measure of her face and her manner," Henry muses, remembering their original encounter,

I noticed how closely I was listening to her. What I found was this: she could really speak…. Every letter had a border. I watched her wide full mouth sweep through her sentences like a figure touring a dark house, flipping on spots and banks of perfectly drawn light.

In contrast with Lelia's lack of verbal inhibition, Henry is emotionally ingrown, mute. He attributes this to being brought up within his father's culture of silent endurance, where pain must be swallowed in public (before the whites) and can only be expressed in private in the secret speech of home, in the father tongue which Henry, at the hands of his American education, has lost. Henry notes that what remains is "all that too-ready devotion and honoring, and the chilly pitch of my blood, and then all that burning language that I once presumed useless, never uttered and never lived."

Having smothered that burning tongue beneath the English of his teachers and peers, he's left with a language stacked against him: "There isn't anything good to say to an average white boy to make him feel small. The talk somehow works in their favor, there's a shield in the language, there's no fair way for us to fight." So is it any wonder that when grown-up Henry speaks, it is with a dissociation that suggests that the syllables and images flowing from his mouth sluice around his being without touching it? They come from some external source, the pen of an unseen author, some primeval phrase book; they aren't native to his heart. Henry has become living proof that man can be an island, even an Alcatraz. What he wishes he could say lies trapped behind the seal of the Good, the Silent, the Model Minority.

The spy in the house of culture: Lee's device works on so many levels, none deeper than as an examination of the position of the immigrant, and particularly of the Asian immigrant. Since World War II, of course, Asians in America have faced suspicions of divided or imperfect loyalty. The internment of Japanese Americans and, more recently, allegations in the news of Chinese immigrants acting as sleeper spies: these are examples of how the foreignness of Asians is seen as running deep as blood. We are not only different from whites, but also blacks. Thus, too frequently, our survival in America's bicameral politics of race means adopting one or another alias, smiling and wearing camouflage.

I remember a late night with an Asian American friend who'd been brought up midwestern; we were discussing Los Angeles's Museum of Tolerance, the identity theme park that had recently opened to mostly white, mostly uncritical acclaim. To enter its exhibit halls, you must pass through a set of doorways that damn you to self-definition, marked in cold letters WHITE and COLORED. Of course, we thought, this device would shock and "educate" only those for whom the recognition of this divide was not a fact of daily life, and how often is any person of color given a choice between these doors? And then we considered our own childhoods, marked by spot-moments of acceptance and rejection, by inane and desultory wranglings with identity.

"Which door would you've gone through?" my friend joked.

I thought for a moment before answering.

"In one, out the other, I think."

While I was being half facetious then, on another day I might have meant it—a more bitter or honest day. As Henry notes in Speaker, "It's still a black-and-white world."

"It seems so, Henry, doesn't it?" Kwang agrees. "Thirty years ago it certainly was. I remember walking these very streets as a young man, watching the crowds and demonstrations. I felt welcomed by the parades of young black men and women…. I tried to feel what they were feeling. How could I know? I had visited Louisiana and Texas and sat where I wished on buses, I drank from whatever fountain was nearest. No one ever said anything."

"Soon there will be more brown and yellow than black and white," Kwang says. "And yet the politics, especially minority politics, remain cast in terms that barely acknowledge us…. [I]f I don't receive the blessing of African-Americans, am I still a minority politician? Who is the heavy now? I'm afraid that the world isn't governed by fiends and saints but by ten thousand dim souls in between. I am one of them."

Dim souls—finless, featherless creatures of the gray world. In the binary of our race politics, Asians are regularly seen as double agents, outsiders and in-betweeners harboring an enigmatic personal agenda; more so now, when anti-immigrant hysteria has brought back the interrogator's hot lights and the loyalty oath. In post-Proposition 187 California, to be yellow or brown invites accusation. To be a nonnative speaker becomes a daily confession. "Traitor" and "spy" and "false speaker of language" have become identical; and now more than ever we are tongue-tied.

Like every politician, Kwang has skeletons hidden in his closets; unlike many, he won't be allowed to keep them. Since he resolutely refuses to enter a door—WHITE or colored—Kwang will be swept off the stoop. This, Henry grows to realize, is the nature of his assignment. And so: speak or be silent? The time comes when Henry is asked to call his loyalty, an identity to keep and be damned. It's to Lee's credit—or is it?—that Henry gets a third option, and a resolution of his Who Am I? is withheld. After all, there are no easy answers, and admission through whichever door comes at a price that Asian Americans—that no one—should have to pay.

Speaker's world, with its New York precisely drawn as a mosaic cracked, its boycotts and bombings, the machinery and manipulation of its politics, is familiar enough to leave the reader wondering if chapters after the last will be played out in headlines.

Richard Eder (review date 19 March 1995)

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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.

The Cuban-American family matrix contains a civilization largely unlike that of a Mexican-American family—a fact that no longer ought to surprise us. The Chinese-American families depicted by Gish Jen and Maxine Hong Kingston—different from each other, of course—represent a rich and elaborate communal tradition. Chang-rae Lee's Korean-Americans offer a stark contrast: a painfully laborious and grimly isolated striving.

The emotional heart of Native Speaker and by far its most interesting aspect is the narrator's—Henry's—recollections of his immigrant father, and the anchoring these recollections provide to his hyperactive and far less convincing present-day story.

The father's money was painfully acquired in a fruit and vegetable business that started with nothing but hard work, and ended up with five well-placed stores in Manhattan. It has allowed Henry to grow up in the suburbs, go to a good college, and get a job whose antiseptic and well-paid abstraction is the antithesis of fruit handling. Antiseptic, but hardly clean: Henry works for a private intelligence agency. Its specialty is infiltrating immigrant communities on behalf of financial or political establishments anxious to know about any threat they may pose to their interests.

At the point the book begins, Lelia, a remedial English teacher, leaves for a love affair in Italy—she is fed up with her husband's masks and with what she calls "Henryspeak." Also Henry has botched an assignment. He was to keep an eye on a Philippine psychoanalyst suspected of organizing support in the United States for the deposed (now dead) Ferdinand Marcos. Henry had enrolled as a patient but made the mistake of letting himself slide into sympathetic transference. His bosses—a chilly, blithe Wasp and a warm, avuncular Greek—all but abduct him from the case, and not long afterward the doctor dies in an "accident."

With the greatest solicitousness—and an edge of threat—Henry is given a second chance. He is to infiltrate the entourage of John Kwang, a charismatic Korean-American councilman from the New York City borough of Queens. Young and appealing, Kwang has made a fortune from a small empire that started with dry-cleaning equipment and built up to manufacturing and real estate holdings up and down the East Coast. More to the point, he has begun to unite the various ethnic communities in Queens and to win the confidence of black leaders whose following has been in bitter and sometimes violent conflict with Korean shopkeepers. He may become a threat to the mayor.

What follows is an elaborate chronicle of scheming, duplicity and violence. Henry will become more and more closely drawn to Kwang, who takes him into his confidence. For a while it seems that he may resolve his own internal split. Perhaps it will not be necessary to choose between his Korean heritage and his American ambitions, and to use the latter to betray the former. Perhaps Kwang proves you can make it as both a Korean and an American. Nothing is as it seems, though; corruption and disguise are the universal price of success. Henry will end by resigning ambition and helping Lelia—now returned and reconciled—in her job of teaching immigrant children to speak English.

Lee's story of political skulduggery, a chilly corruption and a paranoid world maneuvered by hidden forces is written with a fair amount of awkwardness and a fair lack of skill. Kwang could be any ambitious political idealist turned bad. Henry's ruthless spymasters have the deceptive geniality of Le Carré characters but lack their fine and particular needles of ice. Lelia is inert: a remedial instrument to help Henry abandon his masks. Their lovemaking is so remote that we may feel we have passed by a hotel door incautiously left open.

The book's life comes mainly from Henry's recollection of his father and of the harsh silence with which he made his way. He swept floors, worked 14 hours a day, and kept vigilant, relentless track of each day's incremental gains. For a while, the family would picnic with other struggling Koreans, all of whom contributed to an investment fund—a "ggeh"—from which each, by turn, could withdraw the capital to set up a small business. Once they all began to prosper, the community broke up. Henry's father moved the family to a suburb among American neighbors he never came to know.

While the struggle was still going on, Henry's mother—who died partway along—would greet her husband's return each night with the same three sentences: "You must be hungry." "You come home so late." "I hope we made enough money today." When, in his teens, Henry sought to engage his silent father in conversation by asking about his day, his mother erupted in fury. Don't you realize, she demanded, that he hates his work, that he cannot stand selling vegetables, that he gave up his college engineering degree and his entire idea of himself in order to make a place in the United States for his family?

Lee has written a bleak portrayal of an immigrant society newer and rawer than that, say, of the Chinese and Japanese who have been coming here for generations. His book is raw as well, in its story and much of its writing. Still, the figure of Henry's father, whose love is expressed in sacrifice, whose sacrifice is expressed in harshness and whose harshness distills into an odd hint of poetry, is a memorable one.

Rand Richards Cooper (review date 9 April 1995)

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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 South Korea when he was 3 years old, is no spy novelist. His interest lies in language, culture and identity; for him, the spy makes a convenient symbol for the American immigrant.

"Speak enough so they can hear your voice and come to trust it," Henry's spymaster boss lectures him, "and no one will think twice about who you are." We may consider a spy, with his Zelig-like ability to fade into the background, to be a born assimilator, but Mr. Lee slyly suggests the opposite: the immigrant's assimilated son is a born spy.

What is the cost of being a born spy? Henry Park's American wife, Lelia, finds him detached and cold. One of the novel's best passages concerns the Korean housekeeper who raised Henry after his mother's death. All his life, Henry has treated her as a mere employee, and his wife is first bewildered, then horrified, to learn that he doesn't even know the woman's name; he has always called her by the Korean equivalent of "ma'am." Who is this man she has married? Lelia wonders. It's a moment of deep mutual strangeness. Like a spy, the truly multicultural person seems to have several identities; that's the flip side of being no one at all. Mr. Lee's novel delves adroitly into our fascination with the plasticity of identity.

Equally moving are scenes recalling Henry Park's estrangement from his father, a successful grocer so imbued with the habits of work that at home he'd take one bite of an apple—reflexively sampling for freshness—and then put it down. Mr. Lee treads this familiar immigrant ground with skill and feeling, showing how father and son wield their respective languages to wound each other, and how Mr. Park's creed of hard work initially appears to Henry as mindless sacrifice and stoicism. Yet after his father's death that creed creates deep anguish and remorse in the son. "What belief did I ever hold in my father," Henry asks, "whose daily life I so often ridiculed and looked upon with such abject shame?"

Somewhat surprisingly, given all this hurt, Native Speaker offers a hopeful take on America's traditional role as beacon to the world. When Lelia remarks to Henry's father that a Korean street in Queens must look and sound just like one in Korea itself, the grocer demurs. "My father explained to her how if she looked carefully at the people she'd see the extra spring in their steps, the little boost everyone had, just by the idea of where they were, 'Look, look,' he implored her, crouched, slapping the pavement with both hands. 'This is an American street.'"

Native Speaker has some glaring flaws. Its plot is implausible and overblown; the tense shifts unnecessarily in mid-novel, producing sentences like "Yesterday we're in Ozone Park"; and central characters like John Kwang exist less in their own right than as father figures trucked in as therapy for the narrator. Mr. Lee's prose is wildly uneven as well, its tone now breezy and ironic, now ponderously melodramatic: "A good spy is but the secret writer of all moments imminent"; "I celebrate every order of silence borne of the tongue and the heart and the mind." Whole hunks of Native Speaker exist at a level of quality far below the novel's best moments. You feel like taking up a paring knife.

That Mr. Lee can make these mistakes and still have something fine to offer shows just how talented he is. When you're done with the paring knife, what you have left is a tender meditation on love, loss and family. Here, for example, is Henry Park recalling the table rituals of his childhood:

As we sat down, my mother cracked two eggs into my father's bowl, one into mine, and then took her seat between us at the table before her Spartan plate of last night's rice and kimchi and cold mackerel (she only ate leftovers at lunch), and then we shut our eyes and clasped our hands, my mother always holding mine extra tight, and I could taste on my face the rich steam of soup and the call of my hungry father offering up his most patient prayers to his God.

Hidden inside Native Speaker is a memoir struggling to get out—a rapturous evocation of a past life, viewed across a great gap of time and culture. I wish Chang-rae Lee had scrapped the spy stuff and written that book.

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