Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee is a clear-eyed account of the status of the Asian American in contemporary America. No other book I have read by an American author has so expertly allowed for cultural identity to be a present in the characters without letting the individuals becoming caricatures, stand-ins, or less than human. In the case of one character, a lady from Korea who manages the house named simply Ahjuhma (Aunt), most other authors would have made her a one-note personality. It definitely seems that the character lends herself to that, but in a surprise shift Lee gives her a hidden grace that flows at unexpected, withdrawn moments. No matter how I act or what I say, I have an internal life, I am a person, this character and Lee seems to say.
The narrator is Henry Park, a middle-aged Korean-American who is estranged from his white American wife. During this time, his work, he is a spy for a private intelligence agency, is breaking his cultural allegiances as he was tasked with posing as a helper for a prominent Korean-American politician with an eye to running for Mayor of New York City. It even appears as if the politician is an alter-ego of the main protagonist. And Henry’s employers, white men, relish as they see Henry take down a man who would demonstrate that Korean-Americans are not foreigners in their own country.
Maybe a little too obvious, (this was Lee’s first novel), his job and his task are metaphors for the status of Asian American in the nineties (when the book is written and set) and today. Asian Americans are enlisted to speak and stand only for their ancestral culture and are sometimes manipulated to turn against other minorities to get ahead. And, while Asian Americans can achieve individual success and familial happiness, for the most part, they cede any social or political notoriety and influence as a price of living in this country.
Throughout the book, the narrator comes to see his life as closer to his father’s than he had thought. This change in consciousness, from a state of rebellion to a sagacity, is perhaps the greatest achievement of this work as we are forced to see his father as less than a grouchy, angry man but more of a pioneer. We come to see his silent pain as more social, economic, and a result of the position he is placed in as an ethnic minority and less of an individual failure. By doing this, Chang-Rae Lee uses his art to unpack privilege.
Book Review: 8.5/10: The best Asian American fiction I have read.