Chang-rae Lee published her first novel, Native Speaker in 1995 to an extraordinarily receptive critical engagement. The honors and awards collected by Lee for freshman effort were the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. In addition, Native Speaker earned the Notable Book of the Year Award from the American Library Association and it found a slot as a finalist for the PEN West Award. Pretty heady stuff for a newcomer.
Set in 1990’s New York, Native Speaker examines a variety of themes related to the immigrant tension as the 20th century draws to a close through what amounts to a memoir penned its protagonist, Korean-American Henry Park. Henry is in emotional turmoil in the wake of his marriage falling apart shortly after their son’s accidental death. At the same time, the novel is also something of a postmodern subversion of espionage thrillers with Henry’s job turning out to be a spy for a private intelligence firm. With no political agenda or ideology to pursue, the conventional framework for a character whose job is to spy on others as a means of creating dramatic tension is purposely undermined. Henry’s career qualifications as someone capable of assuming different roles and projecting a variety of personas therefore serves the novel’s theme of immigrant assimilation and loss of identity rather serving the purpose of manufacturing dramatic conflict.
Although generally well-received by the public, some members of the Korean-American community have complained that Native Speaker presents their culture in an unflattering light that fails to present a rounded portrait of their struggle for the purposes of artistic convenience.