Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: "Native Speaker" by Lee Chang Rae

This past summer (which seems eons ago), I read Lee Chang Rae's award-winning debut novel, Native Speaker. I have little confidence in my abilities as any kind of literary critic, so I'll just offer up some impressions and thoughts I have after finishing the book.

The protagonist of the novel is Henry Park, who is a 2nd generation Korean-American who grew up in New York. Like many young Asian Americans who grew up in an immigrant family, he has had difficult relationships with his parents and his heritage. He's married to a White American woman and superficially appears to have integrated himself well into society, but underneath it all, he is still estranged from his own homeland, whether that be America or Korea.

The best parts of the novel, in my opinion, are when Henry recalls his childhood memories with his parents, especially his father. As a 2nd gen kid myself, I could easily relate to a lot of frustrations that Henry had with his parents. One great example is how he wished that his parents could have talked to him freely and openly as he perceived his White friends' parents did with their children. Of course, his wife then tells him that that's not all that great either.

Unfortunately, I think the book suffers in the second half because it switches gears in an attempt to go into "espionage thriller mode". Henry works as sort of a shady corporate spy who ingratiates himself with certain targets in order to extract compromising information from them for his firm's clients. From what I understand, Lee Chang Rae was using this as a metaphor for the invisibility that Henry feels as an Asian American man. The issue of invisibilty is a great one to base a novel on, but the way it was executed in the story felt like a distraction to me. Maybe I'm a little biased because I greatly prefer "ordinary" stories whose dramatic tension lay in the all-too-realistic scenarios and possibilities, as opposed to extremely unusual premises. But I would've preferred if the novel did away with the high-concept spy stuff and made Henry even more of an everyman.

I'm also wary of Asian American writers that are held up to sell "cultural experiences" to a mostly non-Asian audience, especially if those writers aren't all that familiar with their ancestral culture to begin with. Despite his unAnglicized name (which may give the impression that he's a recent immigrant), Lee Chang Rae has actually lived in America since he was 3 years old. He was educated at Exeter and Yale, and his wife is neither Korean nor Asian. Not that this should take away anything from him because Asian American is as Asian American does, and there's no single Asian American Experience.

But American society's tendency is to pigeonhole prominent minorities as spokespeople for their demographics. The character of Henry Park grew up in an immigrant working class environment where he and his family faced blatant and open racism. But a lot of Asian Americans grow up in middle class environments because their immigrant parents are doctors, lawyers, or professors; and they face their own struggles with identity and racism, even if people have never screamed, "Chink!" at them. Some Asian Americans aren't immigrants at all and have been in America for many generations, even speaking only English at home. What I'm trying to say is that Lee Chang Rae can only represent just a segment of the diverse Asian American population, and that there should always be room for more than just one spokesperson.

Overall though, I still enjoyed the book, if only because there's such a lack of Asian American literature out there, especially ones that have attracted mainstream recognition and acclaim as this one. I'm looking forward to reading his later works to see how he's changed and developed as a writer.

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