Native Speaker


Chang-rae Lee

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Native Speaker Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Chang-rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1965, but his family emigrated to the United States when he was three years old. He grew up in Westchester County in New York, where his father opened a psychiatric practice. When he was a teenager, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, obtaining a prestigious education that eventually led him to Yale University to study English literature. He graduated in 1987 and went on to work very briefly as an analyst on Wall Street before attending graduate school at the University of Oregon. His first novel, Native Speaker, served as the thesis for his Master of Fine Arts degree and was published in 1995, ultimately winning him the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. He has since gone on to win many other literary awards, and his 2010 novel, The Surrendered, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. He has also taught creative writing at widely respected institutions like Princeton University and Stanford University.
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Historical Context of Native Speaker

Native Speaker takes place in the 1990s, a period during which the United States’ immigrant population was on a steady incline. The number of undocumented immigrants peaked in the year 2007 and then tapered down again, contrary to the common assumption that immigration to the United States has seen a consistent increase in the last 30 years. The 1990s therefore saw a somewhat unique influx of migration and, consequently, a mixed response about whether or not the nation should increase or decrease the number of immigrants coming the country. Polls have shown that the majority of Americans in the early 1990s were more hesitant to welcome immigrants than they were in the early 2000s, perhaps because many people stopped fearing that an increase in the immigrant population would make work harder to find. However, the general attitude that the immigrants in Native Speaker face is decidedly unwelcoming, as evidenced by the fact that many of John Kwang’s undocumented constituents get arrested and face deportation at the end of the novel. In a way, then, Native Speaker predicts the controversy surrounding immigration and deportation that eventually came under the political spotlight of the 2010s. 

Other Books Related to Native Speaker

In addition to Native Speaker, several of Chang-Rae Lee’s other novels touch on immigration and identity. A Gesture Life, for instance, examines an immigrant’s attempt to seamlessly assimilate into American culture in much the same way that Henry Park does in Native Speaker, though the two characters have different reasons for wanting to do this. Other contemporary novels that explore the ins and outs of immigrant life in the United States include Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Lee has also publicly praised Hohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a novel about migration that he believes tells an important and timely story about what it’s like to move from one culture to another. More broadly, Native Speaker’s story of an outsider struggling with his identity while making his way through New York City recalls Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, and both books consider the ways in which racism and prejudice can make people of color feel “invisible” in their own cultures.
Key Facts about Native Speaker
  • Full Title: Native Speaker
  • When Published: 1995
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel, Immigrant Fiction
  • Setting: New York City
  • Climax: While lounging in bed at a hotel on Staten Island, Henry and Lelia watch the news and learn that John Kwang’s headquarters in Queens has been bombed.
  • Antagonist: Dennis Hoagland, but also racism and xenophobia

Extra Credit for Native Speaker

Comfort Food. When his mother was dying, Chang-Rae Lee spent a year learning how to cook the Korean meals she used to make him when he was a child—an experience he recounted in his New Yorker essay “Coming Home Again,” which was adapted as a short film in 2010.