Native Speaker Summary

Native Speaker is a novel about Henry Park, a Korean American man working through questions of language and belonging.

  • Henry works for a firm that hires first-generation Americans to spy on people from their backgrounds. He is asked to become close with John Kwang, a mayoral candidate.
  • Henry and his wife, Lelia, have been in a rough patch since their son died in an accident.
  • Kwang’s campaign falls apart as a result of his suspicion of another spy and his ties to undocumented immigration.
  • By the novel’s end, Henry leaves the firm and goes to work in speech therapy with Lelia.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

Introduction

Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee’s first novel, won several awards after its publication in 1995, including the American Library Association Notable Book of the Year Award, the American Book Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Award. The narrator, Henry Park, a first-generation immigrant to the US, struggles throughout the novel with issues of language and identity.

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Plot Summary

The novel’s protagonist is Henry Park, the son of Korean immigrants. Because a young Henry had only heard Korean spoken at home—and because the English language is so complicated—by the time Henry was enrolled in kindergarten, he had difficulty speaking English correctly and was thereafter known as “Marble Mouth.”

Henry overcame these difficulties and went on to excel in school and attend college. In the present day, Henry works as a spy for a firm called Glimmer & Company, which specializes in hiring partially assimilated (first-generation) Americans to spy on individuals within their own neighborhoods. Glimmer & Company is successful because the first-generation employees still have a foot in both worlds and thus have easy access to possible instigators, such as radical organizers and labor leaders. Henry cynically refers to the work as “ethnic coverage.” Henry’s latest task is to gain access to the inner circle of John Kwang, a rich businessman and mayoral candidate from Queens, so Henry begins to work in Kwang’s campaign headquarters in Flushing.

Henry’s wife, Lelia, a White speech therapist, has just left him. The two had lost their seven-year-old son, Mitt, due to a terrible accident, and Lelia has difficulty understanding her husband’s distant and cold reaction to the tragedy. Sometimes she thinks she doesn’t know her husband at all.

Henry’s father died just over a year after Henry and Lelia’s son. At the time of his death, he was a businessman for a grocery store chain and lived in upstate New York, but Henry noticed that he seemed less happy than he had when he owned just one store and lived in Queens. Henry and his father were distant: his father believed that, as an immigrant, he had a responsibility to work tirelessly, assimilate into American culture as seamlessly as possible, and mask his emotions. Henry often treated his father with contempt and was not sure he wanted to be held to the standards his father deemed necessary for immigrants to the US. Only after his father passed away does Henry begin to regret his cynical view of his father’s belief system. At first, Henry does not seem to realize that his father’s habits have taken root in him as well, causing him to be as stoic and withdrawn as his father was.

Lelia and Henry reunite after meeting to go through Henry’s father’s house, and one night they see on the news that Kwang’s campaign headquarters are on fire. One employee, Eduardo, dies in the blaze. After going to headquarters to see what can be salvaged, Henry speaks to Kwang, who gives Henry a more prominent position in the campaign.

Kwang’s campaign begins to lose steam, however, and he is visibly exhausted in his TV appearances. One night, he tells Henry that he knew Eduardo had been reporting to the other mayoral candidate, and he expresses regret at the outcome of his plan to have his own campaign headquarters bombed as a result: he hadn’t known Eduardo would die. Later, disgraced by the deportation of those Kwang had run a community money club for, Kwang and his family return to Korea.

Henry leaves Glimmer & Company and begins to work as Lelia’s assistant, dressing in costume and helping children to learn to speak.

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