At the beginning of Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Henry Park, a reserved second-generation Korean-American, is abandoned by his wife, tired as she is of his detached persona. Before she pursues a geographical distance to match their personal distance, she leaves behind a list of his character traits: "You are surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy..." Native Speaker explores and locates these traits as symptoms of a larger immigrant experience, as well as charting Henry’s search for identity and development away from self-estrangement.
This beautifully-written debut novel (originally published in 1995) echoes Nella Larsen’s Passing in the depiction of social anonymity as a means of negotiating cultural assimilation - but with an intriguing twist: Henry works for a spy firm, where multiple identities and outsider-dom are requirements of the job as well as external indicators of his status as the conflicted son of first-generation immigrants. Lee’s use of language mirrors Henry’s almost fractured self-identity, moving back and forth from tense spy-speak to an almost elegiac expressivity. Whereas this diversity of voices could be problematic on page, David Colacci’s delivery serves both equally well and binds them together with cool authority, while leaving enough ambiguity to imply the element of performance involved in the travelling through different cultural identities. The precise, measured prose also reminds the listener of Kazuo ishiguro.
Among themes of race and belonging, the novel also touches on the corrosive effects of guilt. One of the sticking points between Henry and his wife is the couple’s different ways of coping with the death of their 7-year-old son, who was literally crushed to death under a pile of the neighboring – white - children. The sense of this death as payment for the sins of the father is implicit, as is the fear of passing on the worst remnants of cultural heritage from generation to generation: “The unspoiled must take leave of the world. They must bear the ills of their loved ones…we make it impossible for them to live in this place.”
Again and again, Henry examines his past, and particularly his relationship with his difficult father, for clues as to his current alienation. in his own way, Henry is as intimidated by his father as his mother was (as a young boy, "my self-conception was that i was frail"). He is estranged from the taciturn industriousness of the new first-generation immigrant father and cannot share that defining experience - in this sense, Native Speaker is a descendant of exile literature; Henry is as exiled from the culture of his father as much as from society.
Finally, external confrontations force Henry to react against his accumulated self-censure and opaqueness. Fittingly, these occur only when he is engaged in espionage, when he wears yet another mask only to see it slip. He finds himself going off-script and opening up to a Filipino psychiatrist, and then infiltrates the staff of a popular Korean city councilman, John Kwang, who becomes a surrogate father-figure. Native Speaker concludes with the end of this journey from estrangement to (self) acceptance in sight, and the present tense of the book’s ending captures Henry’s emergence into light, and the thawing of what Graham Greene described as the splinter of ice in an author’s heart. Dafydd Phillips