Native Speaker

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Korean American Henry Parks is "surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy..." or so says his wife, in the list she writes upon leaving him. Henry is forever uncertain of his place, a perpetual outsider looking at American culture from a distance. And now, a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both - and belongs to neither.

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Native Speaker

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Korean American Henry Parks is "surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy..." or so says his wife, in the list she writes upon leaving him. Henry is forever uncertain of his place, a perpetual outsider looking at American culture from a distance. And now, a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both - and belongs to neither.

Winner of the 1995 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Espionage acts as a metaphor for the uneasy relationship of Amerasians to American society in this eloquent, thought-provoking tale of a young Korean-American's struggle to conjoin the fragments of his personality in culturally diverse New York City. Raised in a family and culture valuing careful control of emotions and appearances, narrator Henry Park, son of a successful Korean-American grocer, works as an undercover operative for a vaguely sinister private intelligence agency. He and his ``American wife,'' Lelia, are estranged, partly as a result of Henry's stoical way of coping with the recent death of their young son. Henry is also having trouble at work, becoming emotionally attached to the people he should be investigating. Ruminating on his upbringing, he traces the path that has led to his present sorrow; as he infiltrates the staff of a popular Korean-American city councilman, he discovers the broader, societal context of the issues he has been grappling with personally. Writing in a precise yet freewheeling prose that takes us deep into Henry's head, first-novelist Lee packs this story, whose intrigue is well measured and compelling, with insights into both current political events and timeless questions of love, culture, family bonds and identity. This is an auspicious debut for Riverhead Books, Putnam's new division. First serial to Granta; QPB selection; audio rights to Brilliance; author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Assigned to spy on a fellow Korean American, Henry Park faces an acute crisis of cultural conscience. LJ's reviewer found Henry a "wonderful, honest creation." (LJ 2/1/95)
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2012 Fifty Books/Fifty Covers show, organized by Design Observer in association with AIGA and Designers & Books

Winner of the 2014 Type Directors Club Communication Design Award

Praise for Penguin Drop Caps:

"[Penguin Drop Caps] convey a sense of nostalgia for the tactility and aesthetic power of a physical book and for a centuries-old tradition of beautiful lettering."
Fast Company

“Vibrant, minimalist new typographic covers…. Bonus points for the heartening gender balance of the initial selections.”
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

"The Penguin Drop Caps series is a great example of the power of design. Why buy these particular classics when there are less expensive, even free editions of Great Expectations? Because they’re beautiful objects. Paul Buckley and Jessica Hische’s fresh approach to the literary classics reduces the design down to typography and color. Each cover is foil-stamped with a cleverly illustrated letterform that reveals an element of the story. Jane Austen’s A (Pride and Prejudice) is formed by opulent peacock feathers and Charlotte Bronte’s B (Jane Eyre) is surrounded by flames. The complete set forms a rainbow spectrum prettier than anything else on your bookshelf."
—Rex Bonomelli, The New York Times


"Classic reads in stunning covers—your book club will be dying."

From Barnes & Noble
A provocativenovel about Korean-American immigrant life and the self-discovery of one man, Henry Park, set against the turbulent background of NYC politics & ethnic tensions. "A serious, masterful, and wholly innovative twist on first-generation American fiction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573225311
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1996
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 158,858
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Chang-rae  Lee

Chang-Rae Lee is the author of A Gesture Life, Native Speakers, Aloft and The Surrendered. He won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, among other honors, for his novel Native Speaker, and was selected by the New Yorker as one of the twenty best American writers under forty. His novels have also won Asian American Literary Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and other awards. The Surrendered was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in New Jersey with his family.

Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, typographer, and web designer. She currently serves on the Type Directors Club board of directors, has been named a Forbes Magazine "30 under 30" in art and design as well as an ADC Young Gun and one of Print Magazine’s "New Visual Artists". She has designed for Wes Anderson, McSweeney's, Tiffany & Co, Penguin Books and many others. She resides primarily in San Francisco, occasionally in Brooklyn.


Chang-rae Lee landed on the literary scene with Native Speaker, a detective story about much more than just another crime. Detective Henry Park grows too attached to those he investigates as he discovers the connection between broad social questions and his personal failings. Critics responded, and Lee's debut received a string of recognition, including a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Biography/Critical Appreciation Everyone agrees that Chang-rae Lee is a writer to watch. His debut novel, Native Speaker, (1995) won the American Book Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Plus, two literary cornerstones, The New Yorker and Granta, named him one of the twenty best American writers under forty.

Lee and his family emigrated from Seoul, South Korea to the United States in 1968. His family settled in Westchester, New York, and Lee eventually attended Yale and the University of Oregon, where he earned his M.F.A.

Native Speaker is a story about a Korean-American detective, Henry Park, whose investigative eye is eventually turned upon himself. The novel takes a challenging look at Park's effort reconcile his two cultures in an even larger culturally diverse setting, New York City. The language is simple, yet the reader is allowed a deep and intriguing look inside the head of the main character, the politics that affect him, and his struggles with love and cultures. The New York Times called Lee's debut "highly original," and the Literary Review raved, "... Native Speaker seems like a new kind of novel, the plainsong of unassimilated man, and in the murmur of his nascent voice is the soft clash of borders."

In 1999, Lee's second novel, A Gesture Life continued the themes of identity and assimilation. Lee wrote the novel over the course of four years, although it was originally about the experience of a Korean "comfort woman," forced to sexually service invading Japanese soldiers. Lee traveled to Korea and interviewed surviving comfort women, but two years into the novel, one of the characters, previously considered a minor one, captured Lee's imagination and wouldn't let go. Remarkably, Lee abandoned everything he had written except for one character -- Doc Hata.

Franklin "Doc" Hata is a reserved, older physician, Korean by birth, raised in Japan, and now living in New York City. Only after much needling by his daughter, Doc Hata begins to reveal his painful secrets: his time as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II, his love for one of the Korean comfort women, and the guilt that has kept him silent for most of his life. It's an unforgettable story, and The New York Times called the book "... a work of astonishing psychological acuity and compassion."

With the 2004 release of Lee's Aloft, once again, readers are treated to a portrait of a man in the throes of a reconciliation. Readers who expect Lee's novels to deal exclusively with Asian Americans will be pleasantly surprised to see the author flex his writing skills with the creation of Jerry Battle, the semi-retired head of a (mostly) white Long Island family. On the ground, Battle is inundated with family bickering, his upcoming 60th birthday, and the mystery surrounding his wife's death. Aloft in his small private plane, Battle escapes all of this, although only temporarily. His is the story of how to cope with responsibility -- to the past, and to the unknown.

Lee a writer and a teacher, as well as the director of the M.F.A. Program at Hunter College of City University in New York City. Those fortunate enough to be his students get to learn from the man who knows the stuff of human nature -- that the aftereffect of any act is the core of every great story, and that even the most conventional characters can bear the weight of unconventional story lines.

Good To Know

"If I weren't a writer," Lee reveals in our interview, "I'd probably be working in the food and/or wine business, perhaps running a wine or coffee bar -- or even an Asian noodle soup shop."
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    1. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 29, 1965
    2. Place of Birth:
      Seoul, Korea
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993

Reading Group Guide


Korean American Henry Park is "surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy…" or so says his wife, in the list she writes upon leaving him. Henry is forever uncertain of his place, a perpetual outsider looking at American culture from a distance. And now, a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both—and belongs to neither.

"A novel of extraordinary beauty and pain…nothing less than brilliant." —Frederick Busch

"With echoes of Ralph Ellison, Chang-rae Lee's extraordinary debut speaks for another kind of invisible man: the Asian immigrant in America…a revelatory work of fiction." —Vogue

In Native Speaker, author Chang-rae Lee introduces readers to Henry Park. Park has spent his entire life trying to become a true American—a native speaker. But even as the essence of his adopted country continues to elude him, his Korean heritage seems to drift further and further away.

Park's harsh Korean upbringing has taught him to hide his emotions, to remember everything he learns, and most of all to feel an overwhelming sense of alienation. In other words, it has shaped him as a natural spy.

But the very attributes that help him to excel in his profession put a strain on his marriage to his American wife and stand in the way of his coming to terms with his young son's death. When he is assigned to spy on a rising Korean-American politician, his very identity is tested, and he must figure out who he is amid not only the conflicts within himself but also within the ethnic and political tensions of the New York City streets.

Native Speaker is a story of cultural alienation. It is about fathers and sons, about the desire to connect with the world rather than stand apart from it, about loyalty and betrayal, about the alien in all of us and who we finally are.


Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, QPB's New Voices Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and the Oregon Book Award. It was also an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for a PEN West Award, and Lee was named a finalist for Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40 Award. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and numerous anthologies. He lives in New Jersey, and is the director of the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.


  • As you review the list Lelia compiles of who Henry is (p. 5), which descriptions strike you as the most accurate? The most disturbing? The hardest for Lelia to accept? What characterization might you add to the list yourself? What does Lelia mean by the accusation scribbled on the scrap piece of paper under their bed: "False speaker of language" (p. 6)? Why could this be considered Henry's greatest fault, and his greatest transgression against his wife? How is it possible that a man who "on paper, by any known standard, was an impeccable mate" (pp. 160-161) could be failing his wife so miserably?
  • How does Dr. Luzan unknowingly break down the surface "opacity" (p. 133) Henry has acquired through his experience of working with Hoagland? Would a subject other than an older Asian male have had the same unsettling effect on Henry? How does this assignment begin the process of eroding Henry's professional commitment and confidence? Explain what Henry means when he says, "I can no longer simply flash a light inside a character, paint a figure like Kwang with a momentary language" (p. 206).
  • The adult Henry recalls of his childhood: "My self-conception was that I was frail" (p. 135). Why, despite Henry's intense emotional involvement with his father, does he identify so strongly with his mother? What is his mother afraid of, and how does she transmit that fear to her son?
  • How do Lelia and Henry each react to Mitt's death? What do their different responses reveal about their characters? To what degree are their reactions based on personality and what degree are they based on each character's cultural background? Who or what does each parent believe is to blame for this tragic occurrence?
  • On rare occasions, Henry addresses the reader directly, as "you," for example: "We will learn every lesson of accent and idiom, we will dismantle every last pretense and practice you hold, noble as well as ruinous. You can keep nothing safe from our eyes and ears. This is your own history. We are your most perilous and dutiful brethren, the song of hearts at once furious and sad" (p. 320). What emotions prompt Henry to speak pointedly to the novel's reader? What was your reaction to this passage from the book? Why do you think the author employs this device? Why does he use it so seldom?
  • What do you think Henry means when he says of his colleagues Grace and Pete, "We are friends in the way people in an unprovisioned lifeboat are" (p. 319)? Does he agree with Jack, who believes that all of Hoagland's employees are a family? Why does Henry feel indifferent to whether Jack betrays him? At the novel's conclusion, does Henry feel, as his father did, that the only family is one of blood?
  • In the early phase of Henry's employment at Hoagland's firm, why does Henry believe he has "finally found [his] truest place in the culture" (p. 127)? How do Henry's working under cover and exploiting his own people constitute "the darkest version of what [his immigrant father] only dreamed of" (p. 334)? How does Henry's spy career function in the novel as a metaphor for cultural assimilation?
  • What are the major similarities between Kwang and Henry's father? What are their major differences? Why are these two men tightly intertwined in Henry's mind and heart? What does Henry unexpectedly come to see in Kwang, which Henry "will search out now for the long remainder of [his] days" (p. 141)?
  • Henry's attitudes toward his Korean heritage are complex and conflicted. How do they affect his feelings about having a son of mixed blood? Which aspects of his father's emotional legacy does Henry hope will live on in himself and in Mitt? Which of his family's characteristics does he feel would be better off "diluted" in his offspring? Why does Henry feel that Mitt was blessed to have had Leila's genes and her daily emotional influence in his life?
  • At the novel's conclusion, why does Henry appear to derive joy from his position assisting Lelia? How does her approach to speech therapy differ from the lessons Henry was taught as a child (see p. 233)? How has Lelia's life with Henry and Mitt influenced the way she relates to her students?
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Customer Reviews

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( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2004

    Native Speaker

    We read Native Speaker as a text in The Literature of Immigration class at our college. Chang-rae Lee uses meticulous, deliberate diction. Native Speaker is captivating. It keeps the reader in suspense and engaged with the character of Henry or with the conflicts in the story. Lee also brings out the struggles of cultural awareness and acceptance. Characters are carefully crafted and constructed with multiple facets of their personalities which allows the reader to identify with their own conflicts. Native Speaker was well written with complex ideas and themes presented in a simple and concise manner. We highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to relate to the cultural differences and conflicts that arise for many immigrants while adjusting to a new country.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2004

    Native Speaker

    Chang-rae Lee has a gift for being able to capture people as they are, while using them to demonstrate entire cultures. The relationship between Lelia and Henry is not just one of wife and husband but represents the dynamic between American and Korean-American cultures. Lee's sudden jumps to different times and places can be confusing, but flawlessly captures the human mind's inability to remain in the present for any lenght of time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2004

    Native Speaker

    This book was based on a list of 17 traits written by Henry Park's wife to describe his personality. As you read this book, you begin to realize that every aspect in each scene throughout relates to one or more of Henry's assumed traits. Lee took a list and turned it into a book! Brilliant!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2004

    Native Speaker

    Chang-rae Lee's novel is a well constructed example of the modular, methodical thinking of a spy. As he recounts the detail of the events as they have transpired, he makes certain to leave out nothing and his recall is flawless. The process is painstakingly slow. But it is in these meticulous details that the story both evolves and eventually ensnares its readers. It is within this deconstruction that we become aware of the Korean/Asian culture and what Stew labels as Henry's 'circumspect' nature. This story is both intriguing and thought provoking, especially as you delve deeper into the mind of an immigrant, particularly one of Asian descent. This is an Asian perspective regarding Asians in America. It illustrates a desire to assimilate into an environment in which one continuously feels alien.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Relatable story, writing requires some patience.

    As an immigrant, this book was very relatable to me and the experience of being western and Asian at the same time. The plot was interesting, at times thrilling. The idea that people exist doing the work the character does is fascinating by itself. Overall a very interesting, generally well-written book. I did occasionally have to re-read sentences because the sentence ran on, or the phrasing was different. But was glad to have read this and learned a little more about myself.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2003


    I, as well as another persons I read, had to read this book for my honors 10 english class. Although, I loved this book. It was graphic, but it really gave the story an edge that I simply loved! Chang-Rae Lee is an excellent writer, in my opinion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2001

    Heartbreaking Beauty

    This is the first book I've bought in a long, long time that has really touched me. There is such a beautiful simplicity in the language Mr. Lee uses, but the pain and alienation of his characters comes out just as clearly as if he were as wordy as Thomas Woolfe. This is a stellar accomplishment with the same far-reaching social implications of Elison's 'Invisible Man.' A masterwork from an important new voice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2001

    Wonderful Book

    The book is wonderfully written. If you are a korean and was raised in a traditional family, you will be able to relate to what is said in the book. The book starts slow and ends quickly. A wonderful book to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2001

    Excellent for any serious readers!

    Mr. Lee's debut was successful. This is the story about the man who's in search of his true identity even though there is no intention or consciousness of his own. I guess this man is confused and has just begun to listen to his heart murmuring something to him, vaguely though. Even when I finished the last page of the volume, the story seemed never to be started yet. Rather, the man's journey is beginning at that moment. Great and a bit lighter pleasure for those who have enjoyed Kundera's works.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2000

    Confusing Book

    I had to read this book for school, and it was pretty graphic (I think) to have sophomores read in an english class (although it is honors). Some explicit sex scenes, and kindaof confusing plot.

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    Posted August 26, 2010

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    Posted September 15, 2010

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    Posted July 10, 2014

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    Posted November 27, 2010

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