Native speaker

by Chang-rae Lee

Paperback, 1995




New York : Riverhead Books, 1996, c1995.


Korean-American Henry Park is a "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. As a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both -- and belongs to neither.

Media reviews

In ‘Moedertaal’, Chang-Rae Lee’s meesterlijke debuut uit 1996, beschrijft de auteur de aarzelende pas van de eerste-generatiemigrant die door de straten van New York schuifelt. Bespiegelingen over taal als verraderlijk mijnenveld en de versnipperde identiteit van de nieuwkomer leidden bij Lee niet tot dorheid, wel tot bevreemding. Bovenal was ‘Moedertaal’ een hartverscheurend liefdesverhaal en een spannende detective die Lee grote prijzen als de American Book Award opleverde. Lee, die samen met zijn ouders op driejarige leeftijd vanuit Seoul naar New York verhuisde, laat zijn personages graag toekijken vanaf de zijlijn. Het zijn buitenstaanders die zich niet kunnen of willen werpen in de modder en het gewoel. Soms, zoals in ‘Een leven van gebaren’, verdringen ze hun gedachten aan een tijd waarin ze niet anders konden dan deelnemen, in dit geval aan een leven in oorlogstijd.
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Maar als hij de opdracht krijgt om te infiltreren in de organisatie van de opkomende Koreaans-Amerikaanse politicus John Kwang, raakt hij verstrikt in een identiteitscrisis met verstrekkende gevolgen.

In dit debuut zijn alle thema's, die in zijn tweede roman zo harmonieus samenkomen al volop aanwezig: het zoeken naar een identiteit tussen twee culturen, de kracht van het verleden en de centrale rol van de taal als voertuig van een cultuur. De bespiegelingen die Lee daaraan wijdt, zijn op zich interessant genoeg, maar komen niet helemaal uit de verf omdat ze ingekaderd zijn in een spionageverhaal dat maar niet van de grond wil komen. Dat weerhield enkele toonaangevende literaire bladen er overigens niet van hem naar aanleiding van dit debuut uit te roepen tot een van de veelbelovendste jonge Amerikaanse schrijvers

User reviews

LibraryThing member Clara53
Henry Park has an unusual job. This in itself might have been plenty to build a story about. But Chang-rae Lee's protagonist, a native-born Korean American, bares his soul and examines not only his unorthodox occupation but his private life itself, scrutinizing it to the utmost degree. The story haunts the reader by its sadness (childhood memories of being raised as a son of immigrants, a tragic event in adulthood, tag of war of feelings about the chosen occupation), recovering cautiously only by the very end, as if picking up the pieces..., gives ample food for thought on a number of issues, all the while revealing the author's unquestionable talent.… (more)
LibraryThing member jiles2
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member sushitori
Story was great from an anthropological perspective, with lots on insight into Korean culture and assimilating into American life. The discussion of native English versus ESL speakers was revealing, with its insight into language and meaning. The author's rambling made some passages incomprehensible (better editing would have helped). Ultimately, the ending left too many questions unanswered.… (more)
LibraryThing member catalogthis
"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.
LibraryThing member bekahjohnston
A work of fiction that has intertwined the challenges of being .5 immigrant.
LibraryThing member omame
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.
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Henry Park, the son of a Korean grocer who lives in New York, is deserted suddenly by his Caucasian American wife. Reflecting back on his life and the events that led him to this situation, he considers the way deceit over his vocation has clouded his marriage. He reviews how his life had been when his dad was alive, when his son was alive, and the lack of understanding by his wife of his Korean culture.

A pervading sense of something having gone wrong opens this book. The search for its cause and more details is the powerful driving force behind this intriguing first novel. Its finest characteristic, however, is the way in which the author expresses what it feels like to be an ethnic Korean growing up in America---the alienation, the anguish, the longing to be a necessary part of the wider culture. It addresses the dichotomy of two divergent cultures that must be embraced by the child of an American immigrant who strives to improve his station in life, the tension that exists between Asians and non-Asians who find themselves living and working side by side, and the intergenerational clash that often occurs between the immigrant generation and its children. NATIVE SPEAKER is an absorbing story and a welcome addition to any growing collection of Asian-American literature.
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LibraryThing member Serenova_Phoenix
I didn't particularly like this novel.

I was required to read it for my Asian American Literature class. We had some every interesting class discussions, talking about the use of language and the fact that Hnery uses language almost as a barrier.

If you are interested in a (fake) autobiographical novel about a civilian spy, then you might like it. But it's not my kind of book.… (more)
LibraryThing member elleceetee
Another of the "books-I-was-supposed-to-read-in-college", but this time for my Asian American literature course. This book follows the last case of Henry Park, a "B-student of life" (as described by his estranged wife) and also a spy. He works for a company that collects information on particular people. This firm uses different people with different immigrant backgrounds to get close to their marks. Henry got too involved with his last mark, so now he's set to shadow John Kwang, a Korean-American politician making a bid for the mayor of New York. Meanwhile, his wife (a speech therapist) and he try to make their marriage work after it fell apart with the death of their seven year old son, Mitt.

This book is largely about discourse - the discourse between a man and wife; the discourse between parent and child; the common language and experiences shared by immigrants in a new country; and the lengths that immigrants go to in order to fit in. It's a very rich book with a lot of layers - again, would have been nice to discuss it with a class (suppose that was sort of the point). I really enjoyed reading it.

Good quote:

"I never felt comfortable with the phrase [I love you], had a deep trouble with it, all the ways it was said. You could say it in a celebratory sense. For corroboration. In gratitude. To get a point across, to instill guilt in your lover, to defend yourself. You said it after great deliberation, or when you felt reckless. You said it when you meant it and sometimes when you didn't. You somehow always said it when you had to." [p112-113]
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