Speaking and Mourning: Working Through Identity and Language in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker By Matthew L. Miller In his five novels to this point, Chang-rae Lee suggests a penchant for trauma associated with identity, especially concerning Asian Americans and their integration in America. Paying attention to his works one can find a two-pronged trope in his fiction that notes how immigration can become a traumatic experience and how that trauma can be worked through. To better understand these themes, I explore Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker. Through this book, Lee most completely interrogates the traumas that impact the Asian American psyche: racial melancholia, economic hardships, and language acquisition. The protagonist Henry Park, someone working in these processes and maintaining his own melancholic identifications, finds himself at a crucial juncture: he appears emotionally detached and psychologically haunted at the novel’s beginning. This essay focuses on the protagonist’s traumas, specifically addressing his rocky past concerning assimilation and his English language acquisition. He has created an inauthentic persona through his job as an ethnic spy and a professional immigrant, I contend. The real pain of his son Mitt’s sudden death, both a trauma of the heart and of the self, makes Henry lose the promise for the successful navigation of both language and identity as an Asian American. Henry looks to replace Mitt’s example with John Kwang before he symbolically dies in controversy. Lee embeds the book with two characters that show Henry how to mourn loss and work through his traumas. Henry exits the novel with the promise of a healthy life and with an authentic identity. For Asian Americans, immigration and its often required assimilation causes a melancholic relationship to the United States, a relationship that fosters simultaneous separation from and alignment with the majority (white) norm. Anne Anlin Cheng explains, “The double malady of melancholia for the racial-ethnic subject is the condition of having to incorporate and encrypt both an impossible ideal and a denigrated self” (72; emphasis original). For many people, this ideal manifests into the “model minority,” a dangerous, inaccurate myth that Asians are the perfect new Americans who quietly and politely climb the ladder of success. To acquire this ladder though often demands allegiances to stereotypes of Asian Americans, who may lose
In my essay entitled “Speaking and Mourning: Working Through Identity and Language in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker,” I argue that the novel’s protagonist Henry Park finds himself at a critical juncture in his life at the novel’s beginning. I analyze the protagonist’s relationship to language acquisition and identity, which have been developed by Lee to be associated as traumas. Furthermore, these topics are complicated by the death of his son, Mitt. This loss is a trauma of the heart and of the self for the main character who sees a successful navigation of language and immigration lost by his son’s accidental passing. Lelia and Dr. Luzan are characters that help to promote Henry’s change and working through of the traumas he has encountered. By the novel’s conclusion, Henry has begun to work through his psychological insecurities with language and identity and begins to mourn his son’s death. I find that Lee leaves the reader with a hopeful outlook for the protagonist’s future. This essay theoretically frames Asian American identity and the concept of “working through.”
Miller, Matthew L.
"Speaking and Mourning: Working Through Identity and Language in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker,"
Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies:
Vol. 7, Article 11.
Available at: http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/aaldp/vol7/iss1/11