Native Speaker

Native Speaker

by Chang-rae Lee

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

The debut novel from critically-acclaimed and New York Times–bestselling author of On Such a Full Sea.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573225311
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1996
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 173,187
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Chang-rae Lee is the author of On Such a Full Sea, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton University.

Hometown:

Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

July 29, 1965

Place of Birth:

Seoul, Korea

Education:

B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993

Read an Excerpt

The day my wife left she gave me a list of who I was.

I didn’t know what she was handing me. She had been compiling it without my knowledge for the last year or so we were together. Eventually I would understand that she didn’t mean the list as exhaustive, something complete, in anyway the sum of my character or nature. Lelia was the last person who would attempt anything even vaguely encyclopedic.

But then maybe she herself didn’t know what she was doing. She was drawing up idioms in the list, visions of me in the whitest raw light, instant snapshots of the difficult truths native to our time together.

The year before she left she often took trips. Mostly weekends somewhere. I stayed home. I never voiced any displeasure at this. I made sure to know where she was going, who’d likely be there, the particular milieu, whether dancing or a sauna might be involved, those kinds of angles. The destinations were harmless, really, like the farming cooperative upstate, where her college roommate made soft cheeses for the city street markets. Or she went to New Hampshire, to see her mother, who’d been more or less depressed and home bound for the last three years. Once or twice she went to Montreal, which worried me a little, because whenever she called to say she was fine I would hear the sound of French in the background, all breezy and guttural. She would fly westward on longer trips, to El Paso and the like, where we first met ten years ago. Then at last and every day, from our Manhattan apartment, she would take day trips to any part of New York City, which she loved and thought she would never leave.

Sometimes she would have kids over at our place. The children she saw had all kinds of articulation problems, some because of physiological defects like cleft palates or tied tongues. Others had had laryngectomies, or else defective hearing, or learning disabilities, or for an unknown reason had begun speaking much later than was normal. And then others—the ones I always paid close attention to—came to her because they had entered the first grade speaking a home language other than English. They were nonnative speakers. All day she helped these children manipulate their tongues and their lips and their exhaling breath, guiding them through the difficult language.

So I told her fine, she could take it easy with work, that I could handle the finances, we were solid that way. This is when she professed a desire to travel—she hadn’t yet said alone—and then in the next breath admitted she’d told the school people not to call for a while. She said she felt like maybe writing again, getting back to her essays and poems. She had published a few pieces in small, serious literary magazines early in our marriage, written some book reviews, articles, but nothing, she said harshly, that wasn’t half-embarrassing.

She handed the list to me at the Alitalia counter at Kennedy, before her flight to Rome and then on to Naples and, finally, Sicily and Corsica. This was the way she had worked it out. Her intention was to spend November and December shuttling between the Italian islands, in some off-season rental, completely alone.

She was traveling heavy. This wasn’t a trip of escape, in that normal sense. She was taking with her what seemed to be hundreds of books and notepapers. Also pads, brushes, tiny pastel-tinted sponges. Too many hats, I thought, which she wore like some dead and famed flyer. A signal white scarf of silk.

Nothing I had given her.

And maps. Here was a woman of maps. She had dozens of them, in various scales. Topographic, touristical, some schematic—these last handmade. Through the nights she stood like a field general over the kitchen counter, hands perched on those jutting hip bones, smoking with agitation, assessing points of entry and encampment and escape. Her routes, stenciled in thick deep blue, embarked inward, toward an uncharted grave center. A messy bruise of ink. She had already marked out a score of crosses that seemed to say You Are Here. Then, there were indications she was misreading the actual size of the islands. Her lines would have her trek the same patches of rocky earth many times over. Over-running the land. I thought I could see her kicking at the bleached, known stones; the hard southern light surrendering to her boyish straightness; those clear green eyes, leveling on the rim of the arched sea.

Inside the international terminal I couldn’t help her. She took to bearing the heaviest of her bags. But at some point I panicked and embraced her clumsily.

“Maybe I’ll come with you this time,” I said.

She tried to smile.

“You’re just trading islands,” I said, unhelpful as usual.

I asked if she had enough money. She said her savings would take care of her. I thought they were our savings, but the notion didn’t seem to matter at the moment. Her answer was also, of course, a means of renunciation, itself a denial of everything else I wasn’t offering.

When they started the call for boarding she gave me the list, squeezing it tight between our hands.

“This doesn’t mean what you’ll think,” she said, getting up.

“That’s okay.”

“You don’t even know what it is.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

She bit her lip. In a steely voice she told me to read it when I got back to the car. I put it away. I walked with her to the entrance. Her cheek stiffened when I leaned to kiss her. Sh ewalked backward for several steps, her movement inertial, tipsy, and then disappeared down the telescoping tunnel.

I read through the list twice sitting in our car in the terminal garage. Later I would make three photocopies, one to reside permanently next to my body, in my wallet, as a kind of personal asterisk, I thought, in case of accidental death. Another I saved to show her again sometime, if I wanted pity or else needed some easy ammunition. The last, to historicize, I sealed in an envelope and mailed to myself.

The original I destroyed. I prefer versions of things, copies that aren’t so precious. I remember its hand, definitely Lelia’s, considerable, vertical, architectural, but gone awry in parts, scrawling and wind-bent, in unschemed colors of ink and graphite and Crayola. I could tell the page had been crumpled up and flattened out. Folded and unfolded. It looked weathered, beaten about her purse and pockets. There were smudges of olive oil. Maybe chocolate. I imagined her scribbling something down in the middle of a recipe.

My first impression was that it was a love poem. An amnesty. Dulcet verse.

But I was wrong. It said, variously:

You are surreptitious
B+ student of life first thing hummer of Wagner and Strauss illegal alien emotional alien genre bug
Yellow peril: neo-American great in bed overrated poppa’s boy sentimentalist anti-romantic
——analyst (you fill in)
stranger follower traitor spy

For a long time I was able to resist the idea of considering the list as a cheap parting shot, a last-ditch lob between our spoiling trenches. I took it instead as one long message, broken into parts, terse communiqués from her moments of despair. For this reason, I never considered the thing mean. In fact, I even appreciated its count, the clean cadence. And just as I was nearly ready to forget the whole idea of it, maybe even forgive it completely, like the Christ that my mother and father always wished I would know, I found a scrap of paper beneath our bed while I was cleaning. Her signature, again: False speaker of language.

Before she left I had started a new assignment, nothing itself terribly significant but I will say now it was the sort of thing that can clinch a person’s career. It’s the one you spend all your energy on, it bears the fullness of your thoughts until done, the kind of job that if you mess up you’ve got only one more chance to redeem.

I thought I was keeping my work secret from her, an effort that was getting easier all the time. Or so it seemed. We were hardly talking then, 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.

By then she had long known what I was. For the first few years she thought I worked for companies with security problems. Stolen industrial secrets, patents, worker theft. I let her think that I and my colleagues went to a company and covertly observed a warehouse or laboratory orretail floor, then exposed all the cheats and criminals.

But I wasn’t to be found anywhere near corporate or industrial sites, then or ever. Rather, my work was entirely personal. I was always assigned to an individual, someone I didn’t know or care the first stitch for on a given day but who in a matter of weeks could be as bound up with me as a brother or sister or wife.

I lied to Lelia. For as long as I could I lied. I will speak the evidence now. My father, a Confucian of high order, would commend me for finally honoring that which is wholly evident. For him, all of life was a rigid matter of family. I know all about that fine and terrible ordering, how it variously casts you as the golden child, the slave-son or -daughter, the venerable father, the long-dead god. But I know, too, of the basic comfort in this familial precision, where the relation abides no argument, no questions or quarrels. The truth, finally, is who can tell it.

And yet you may know me. I am an amiable man. I can be most personable, if not charming, and whatever I possess in this life is more or less the result of a talent I have for making you feel good about yourself when you are with me. In this sense I am not a seducer. I am hardly seen. I won’t speak untruths to you, I won’t pass easy compliments or odious offerings of flattery. I make do with on-hand materials, what I can chip out of you, your natural ore. Then I fuel the fire of your most secret vanity.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Winner of the 2012 Fifty Books/Fifty Covers show, organized by Design Observer in association with AIGA and Designers & Books

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—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

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 bothand 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 Americana 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.

 


ABOUT CHANG-RAE LEE

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.

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • 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?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Native Speaker 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    bekahjohnston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A work of fiction that has intertwined the challenges of being .5 immigrant.
    catalogthis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    "A good spy is but the secret writer of all things imminent."So says Henry Park, and he would know. (Henry being a spy, although I'd have to give a spoiler warning if I were to tell you exactly what kind.)Loved this novel for the beautiful prose, sparse dialogue, and richly (but not overly) drawn characters.
    jiles2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    An introspective book dealing in a seemingly authentic autobiographical style of Korean who has assimilated himself into American culture to the point of being culture-less, and finds a position as corporate spy which suits his complete assimilation. Chang-Rae Lee captures moments and thoughts. Although not his best work, it still makes for a good read.
    omame on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    in the midst of inconsistency and vauge/jumpy plot lines, the perfect sentence or paragraph appears. interesting and compelling perspectives of immigrants from the child of immigrants.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Kept me on edge and entertained the whole time.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    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.