Book Review: Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

A few weekends ago, my mom and I flew to Boston to care for and say goodbye to my ailing kun-go-mo (my dad’s big sister). My mom and I, in many ways kindred spirits, got a lot of time to contemplate and discuss our family, heritage, death, faith, and relationships. I spoke more Korean than I had in a long time, progressing from rusty to comfortable over the course of the weekend. My mom and I provided emotional support, English translation, and much-needed distraction as my kun-go-mo was taken into hospice care and our relatives, in their own ways, began to confront her impending death.

It was heart-wrenching to witness their hearts breaking and have so little to offer in the way of solace. My chin-hal-moh-ni (paternal grandmother) was in denial, unwilling to believe that a loving and all-powerful God would allow her to outlive her own daughter. My ja-gun-go-mo (my dad’s little sister) asked her older sister whether she had lived a happy life; the sobering response was, “not really.” And my go-mo-boo (my dying aunt’s husband), who had seen and fought in every battle of her grueling 5-year-long war with ovarian cancer, was on the verge of the impossible, yet inevitable, surrender.

Describing my family tree in English is always hard — Korean has very specific titles for various family members that make it easy to explain who’s who. I identify each of these family members by their titles; I don’t even know all my grandparents’ first names because no one in our family would ever refer to them (directly or indirectly) by that name. This fact, as well as how bizarre it seems to Americans, is directly referenced in Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee’s debut novel that so powerfully channels his personal reflections on what it feels like to be an immigrant. The musings that were prompted by my trip to Boston were reflected so directly in Lee’s novel that I felt like I was looking into a mirror. I read it on the plane, in front of the old-school furnace in my kun-go-mo’s living room, and at her bedside in the hospice center while she slept. As a child of immigrants, every significant interaction I have with my family reminds me that I do not fully belong to the American world in which I exist — that another world also claims me as its own. This novel found me at a moment when I was feeling lost between worlds and told me,

“don’t forget that existing between worlds is a world in and of itself, a world to which you belong, and a world worth writing about.”

Native Speaker tells the story of Henry Park, a young Korean-American man whose assignment at work is to infiltrate the campaign of John Kwang, a Korean-American city council member running for mayor of New York City. Lee gracefully spotlights the stark contrast between Henry’s family growing up and the family that Henry is creating with his wife, Lelia, and how difficult it is for Henry to wrestle with this double consciousness. Upon finishing the novel, I was stunned to learn that Native Speaker was born of Lee’s MFA thesis and published when Lee was only 29. For a while now, I’ve been feeling the itch to write, suspicious that I just might have something to say to the world that’s worth saying. But I often demurred, telling myself that I was too young and inexperienced, subconsciously noting that very few of the books I’ve read are written by young, Asian-American men. This book was a much-needed slap in the face, motivating me to read more books written by citizens of the unique world to which I belong and to confront the reality that I, too, might one day contribute to our bourgeoning canon.

~See what else I’ve been reading in 2020~

Trying to figure out who I am so that I’ll, one day, be able to write “a short bio”

Trying to figure out who I am so that I’ll, one day, be able to write “a short bio”