Native Speaker, by Chang-rae Lee, was published in the year 1995. The novel's protagonist is Henry Park, the son of Korean immigrants. Because Henry has only heard Korean spoken at home—and because the English language is so complicated—by the time Henry is enrolled in kindergarten, he has difficulty speaking English correctly and is thereafter known as "Marble Mouth."
Henry overcomes these difficulties, going on to excel in school and attend college. We find out a bit later that Henry now works as a spy for a firm called Glimmer & Company, which specializes in hiring partially assimilated Americans (first-generation) 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 city legislator from Queens.
Henry is married to an American woman named Leila, but readers learn that the two are not living together at present. The couple recently lost their young son, and Leila is having difficulty understanding her husband's distant and cold reaction to this terrible tragedy. Sometimes she thinks she doesn't know her husband at all.
Readers also learn that Henry has become estranged from his father, a grocer. Henry's father believes that, as an immigrant, he has a responsibility to work tirelessly, assimilate into American culture as seamlessly as possible, and mask his emotions. Henry often treats his father with contempt and is not sure he wants to be held to the same standards his father deems necessary for immigrants to the US. Only after his father passes away does Henry begin to regret his cynical view of his father's belief system. Unfortunately, Henry does not seem to realize that his father's habits have taken root in him as well, causing him to become the same type of stoic and withdrawn man his father was.
Native Speaker was the thesis written by Chang-rae Lee to earn his M.F.A. degree from the University of Oregon in 1993. In 1995, the novel became the first book published by Riverhead Books, a subsidiary of what became Penguin Putnam. Committed to books that open up new views and present new ideas, Riverhead fared very well with Lee’s novel, which became an instant critical and commercial success and launched its author’s career.
The novel begins when its first-person narrator and young protagonist, well-spoken and well-educated Henry Park, accepts a new assignment from the shadowy commercial spy agency he is working for in New York City. Because of his ethnicity and his ability to blend into a multicultural environment, he is chosen to try and collect information on the ambitious, rich Korean American businessman-turned-mayoral-candidate John Kwang. Joining Kwang’s campaign undercover, Park has to make up for a previous botched assignment in which he came to sympathize with his target, a Filipino psychiatrist.
At the same time, Park has just been left by his Caucasian wife Lelia, who blames him for utter emotional coldness in the aftermath of the accidental suffocation of their seven-year-old son, Mitt. She has handed him a long list of all his faults, among them being too alien and detached from life.
As Park slowly makes his way into Kwang’s organization, Lee enriches his narrative with Park’s mental reflections and physical observations of what it means to be a first-and second-generation Korean American immigrant in contemporary New York City and the United States. Reflections on the importance of language, language acquisition, and identity are given broad play in Park’s musings. The price paid for being a native speaker, the protagonist believes, is a serious risk of losing one’s cultural heritage and identity and of becoming deeply alienated from one’s parents. At the same time,...
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