Since summer 2010 is marked by rising unemployment and foreclosures, financial struggle and political disillusion, giving a second chance to books feels the right thing to do. Besides, when I enter a used bookstore, I don’t know what I will find since I’m rarely looking for anything in particular.
That’s how I found Chang-rae Lee’s novel Native Speaker. I’m glad I didn’t read it when it was published in 1995. I was a recent immigrant then. My English was far from good but moreover my immigration experience too recent to connect with this exceptional novel.
What Chang-rae Lee has painted remarkably in Native Speaker is a realistic portrait of what it means to be permanently conscious of your identity when you are a foreign born man or woman. First of all because you try so hard to belong to the culture that it shows, second of all because natives remind you of your foreign status. He has done it from a Korean perspective but I’m telling you it works as well from a French perspective and I’m sure anyone born anywhere else and now living in the USA will feel an immediate connection with Mr. Lee’s work.
I’ve read Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, exceptional writers who have also touched me with their work related to the immigrant experience. Like Chang-rae Lee, they were born abroad but moved to the USA at a fairly young age allowing them to speak and write flawless English.
In the novels they write I am particularly interested by the stories of the parents, the people who have left their country for a better life for themselves and their families. They live in between cultures, languages, missing what they have left behind sometimes more than they should and liking their new country with a mix of fear, respect and misunderstanding.
When I read their work I always write down sentences that reonate with my own immigration experience. But nobody ever gave a more perfect definition of the American people and language than Chang-rae Lee in Native Speaker.
“Americans, one of them (immigrants) would say, are wonderful and exuberant people. They dance, they play-fight, then puff up their lips and blow out their chests. They enjoy using their hands. They seem to live always at a football match. They stand in broken columns and flurry with both arms and both legs and they are not afraid to make a mess of themselves. They don’t so much sing as they do chant. Chanting is more satisfying, at least how they do it. Their calls first start all together and slow and then pick up speed and volume until they finally dissipate to separate voices and rounds of hand clapping and cheers. They slap hands in the air. Everyone leaps up and down. The sight is a most pleasing thing. They are every shape and color but they still share this talk, and this is the other tongue they have learned, this must be the special language.”
What can you write after that?