He did time as a ”Chuck” and then as a ”Chang” before embracing the correct ”Chang-rae.” Immigrants, 29-year-old Chang-rae Lee laments, too often chip away at their jagged selves, ”rather than asking the culture, ‘Say this part of my name. Learn it. Because this is part of you also.”’
The name Lee has established with his searing debut novel, Native Speaker, owes more to affirmation than to disguise. An accounting of the sacrifices and the deals with the devil committed in order to assimilate, Speaker traces the shame and redemption of Henry Park, a Korean-American who spies on his own people. ”I guess I saw Henry as the kind of person I could have been and probably have been in moments,” he admits. Raised in suburban New York after emigrating from South Korea at age 3, Lee himself tacked a blue-blooded course — Exeter (where he edited a poetry magazine), then Yale (where he majored in English). A year in banker’s pinstripes, a failed novel, and his mother’s death sent him to the University of Oregon’s creative-writing program, where his master’s thesis became Speaker.
”We are your most perilous and dutiful brethren, the song of our hearts at once furious and sad,” Lee writes. ”For only you could grant me these lyrical modes. I call them back to you. Here is the sole talent I ever dared nurture. Here is all of my American education.” He’s learned it well.