Sections 1-2 Summary
Chang-Rae Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, won several awards after 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, who immigrated to the United States as a child, struggles throughout with self-identity issues.
As the novel begins, Henry's white American wife, Leila, has left him. Before she departed, Leila handed Henry a list describing some of his personal traits, including "emotional alien," "poppa's boy," and "spy." Leila told Henry to think about this list, which, as the story progresses, is exactly what he does.
At first, Henry thinks this was a "cheap parting shot" given after Leila could not be reached. When he reads her description, he is not offended—at first. Then he finds another piece of paper under the bed.
Leila was a speech therapist; language was very important to her. So Henry is startled by what he reads on this paper: she thought Henry a "false speaker of language." Henry is surprised his wife knew, although he often lied to her. He thinks he is fairly good at lying as it is part of his job as a corporate spy; he must lie to discover secrets.
Despite his lying, Henry feels he is an honorable man, amiable and charming, with a gift for making other people feel good about themselves. He does not use false flattery or seduce; he merely knows how to get people to talk about their most secret passions and thus gather information.
The story flashes back to when Henry first met Leila, when he was in El Paso on a job. An artist friend, Nils, had invited Henry to a party. Leila was there, and they spent all their time together. Henry admits the lies began at this first encounter when he invented a story about being in El Paso.
Leila was more forthcoming, telling him about the classes she taught for immigrants wanting to learn English, and said she could tell Henry was not a native speaker. She noticed how he deliberated before pronouncing words. After the party, when they kissed, Leila asked Henry if he enjoyed it. Henry said he had; Leila responded that she could not tell.
Later in the narrative, Henry offers more details about his job. Employed by multinational corporations, foreign governments, and sometimes private individuals, he provides information about employees by infiltrating their lives and then writing unauthorized biographies.