June 12, 2014
Who was I the last time I read “Native Speaker?”
I don’t re-read books very often, except for the handful that I read more or less constantly, just a few pages at a time before bed, infinitely. The ones that I’ve re-read probably dozens of times apiece in the course of just opening them randomly to read three or four pages…while I have a midnight snack before bed, or wait for tea water to boil, or for my computer to finish processing a printing job. Aside from those, I can probably count on one hand the number of books I’ve picked up again and re-read from beginning to end. I don’t want to take the time, which sounds horrible. But there are so many new things to read, and so many things I’ll never get to read for the first time as it is.
So a book that I choose to re-read has to be one that I both enjoyed that much, but also realize fairly desperately that I need to understand something about it more clearly that I probably didn’t the first time through. Like that something about it rang an inexplicable bell, but through a murky fog.
Native Speaker was like that for me in college, when we first read it in Asian-American Literature class. Having just read Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, which is so different from this one in my memory, I was driven to take another look at what had attracted me so powerfully to his writing in the first place, in the story of a first-generation Korean-American professional spy.
I didn’t actually remember very much of the plot, still in the grip as I was of my memory of Lee’s fluid, lyrical grasp of the experience of being hamstrung by issues of language and culture. But, unlike the protagonist of the novel, Henry Park, without any identifiable reason or claim as to why I had always felt like a foreigner, a non-native speaker—eternally and irreparably. It was baffling.
It probably had fallen into a category of things I once held as “too perfect to let myself get too close to.”
Too close to me in some almost tangible way to risk letting myself know or love them deeply enough to eventually be betrayed or let down.
I’m an inveterate underliner and defacer of hard copies of books; it’s something I have to restrain myself from doing when I read library books, and one of the hardest things for me about reading on a Kindle, is the inability to mark pages and take notes by hand. My copy of Native Speaker was already a several-times used book when I bought it, and there are incidental underlinings and bracketings from several semesters’ worth of Asian-American Literature students before me, in red, blue, and green—ink colors I’ve never used. Notes so pedantic even I would never write them…more like the kinds of observations they felt like they were supposed to make, the facts they were anticipating being grilled on in a quiz, rather than actual personal thoughts or resonances about what the text meant to them.
Then there are just a few underlinings of passages, in black, in the kind of pen that I used religiously at the time, in what could be a younger, clumsier, slightly more pretentious version of my own handwriting. Lines that obviously struck me acutely at the time, but I didn’t readily remember the lines themselves, or why; they didn’t form the backbone of my memory of what I loved about the book.
You don’t tempt fate; you ignore it completely.
Our office motto: Cowardice is what you make of it.
I am the most prodigal and mundane of historians.
It comes flooding back, though.
There are few surprises to my refreshed memory of the book itself. It is as gorgeous as I remembered on the subject of linguistic alienation. (I kind of hate to say that I feel like it’s still Lee’s best book, but I do.) I hadn’t remembered how it ended; I hadn’t had the experience yet for it to mean to me what it does now. But more unexpected is this cumulative, accidental little self-portrait of 21-year-old me: what I struggled with, what I was grasping at language for, what life felt like, what I knew clearly and just how much I didn’t know at all about myself.
(Reading a book set in New York City is also a vastly more rewarding experience when you live there than when you have little personal experience of the place.)
More and different passage of text hit me in the heart this time around. I pick up a pen and start underlining again, this time noting the date in the margin.
In ten years I could be astonished to remember who I was now.
Stranger. Follower. Traitor. Spy.