Abstract: Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995)

This abstract is for my paper titled, “Re-imagining Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker through the National Politics of Global Capitalism.”

In Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee offers a nuanced vision of how globalization affects the relationship between minorities and the nation-state. The novel’s protagonist, Henry Park, is a Korean American spy. Challenging the conventional portrayal of spies as patriotic figures, Lee presents Henry as an employee of the transnational corporation, Glimmer and Company. The firm provides “native informants” for hire and operates purely in the service of global capital. Lee seems to present Glimmer and Company as a potentially subversive space where minorities can retaliate against state-sanctioned forms of racial oppression by severing national ties and forming fiscal relations with a transnational economy. Through this capitalist system minorities can also market their racialized physiognomy and cultural knowledge for money. But Lee questions whether this self-exploitation for profit can constitute as true progress. In Native Speaker Henry must commodify his race and culture because his espionage work requires him to infiltrate ethnic communities and conduct a “minority watch,” observing and compiling information about specified targets. Lee reveals how this self-commodification perpetuates oppressive stereotypes. He also critiques the apparent fluidity of global capitalism by demonstrating how money still flows down predictable channels. Henry and other spies are generally hired by wealthy, white individuals to obstruct minority agitators who are struggling to overturn the oppressive status quo. Lee finally reveals that globalization does not offer minorities complete emancipation from a single nation-state because capital must moves through political systems. In the novel the US government is a client of Glimmer and Company, relying on the corporation to police its national identity and manage populations. Lee therefore accentuates that minorities must continue striving for political protection of rights rather than complacently participating in a global economy where race has merely achieved superficial currency.

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