Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book Review of Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

Name of book:  Native Speaker

Author Name:  Chang-Rae Lee

ISBN: 1-57322-531-2

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Type of book: Adult, Korean American, 1960s-1990s, spy,

Year it was published: 1995


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 hiw fie, 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 both-and belongs to neither.


Unfortunately I have little to say about the characters. I wasn't endeared to them, nor do I hate them. Henry seems to be confused throughout the book, and I'm still not sure how Leila came back to him and whatnot.


There are two themes that I picked up from reading this book:

"Certainly it is not," he said to me, chuckling in his ho-ho way. "But my feeling after speaking with you now for half the session is that perhaps only a small part of your difficulties is attributable to biochemical issues, if at all. I don't think medication is in order, although you seem to feel it necessary. Were you someone else I'd probably just follow your wishes. I shouldn't tell you that, but I will. Certainly like all of us you have traditional issues to deal with. Parentage, intimacy, trust. But hand in hand with all that is the larger one of where we live, my friend, and who you are within that place. Or believe yourself to be. We have our multiple roles like everyone else. Now throw in an additional dimension. A cultural one. Cast it all, if you will, in a broad yellow light. Let us see where this leads you and me."  (From page 133)

"Yes," he said. "Yes. Let us think differently today. The problem is our acceptance of what we loathe and fear in ourselves. Not in the other, not in the person standing next to you, not in the one living outside in this your street, in this your city, in the one who drives your bus or how mops the floors of your child's school, not in the one who cleans your shirts and presses your suits, not in the one who sells books and watches on the corner. No! No, no!" (From page 152)


For one reason or another there are no numbered chapters in the book. There are breaks though. Every chapter, the author always veers of into tangents or memories of Henry. Unfortunately nothing made sense to me. This is written in the first person point of view from Henry's point of view.

Author Information:

(from Chang-Rae Lee (born July 29, 1965) is a first-generation Korean American novelist.

Lee was born in Korea in 1965. He emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old. He was raised in Westchester, New York but attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He received his BA in English from Yale University and MFA in Writing from the University of Oregon. He worked as a Wall Street financial analyst for a year before turning to writing full time.

He teaches writing at Princeton University, and currently serves as the director of Princeton's Program in Creative Writing.


Few years back I tried reading this book but couldn't and had to drop it. This time I managed to slog through it. Perhaps my age stops me from enjoying the book. (The characters in there are all in their 30s, almost 40s, and I haven't even reached those years...) It doesn't help that I have never ever lived in New York and hadn't even seen it for that matter. This book was written three years after Los Angeles Riots in 1992. (If possible read Caught in the middle by Pyong Gap Min to get some understanding for this book.) (I lived in Russia at the time.) and during the riots, African-Americans destroyed a lot of Korean properties. The author himself being Korean, possibly composed this with fear in mind. It is peculiar that he talks and explores very little of the Japanese occupation on Korea and how it affected his parents.

2 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)

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