The Similar Effects of Audience Reception in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity-Narrative and Equiano’s Slave-Narrative.
Captivity and slave narratives allow insight into the trauma that the victim experiences; however, the victim’s narrative is often influenced and therefore, altered, to conform to the society’s pressures at that time. Focusing on the reception of the audience creates a struggle for the writer which is seen in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity-narrative as well as Olaudah Equiano’s slave-narrative. While it is clear that Rowlandson’s captors are quite generous, Rowlandson is forced to conform and portray the natives as the Puritan community views them: as inferior savages. There are many instances in Rowlandson’s narrative where her statements are extremely contradictory, showcasing the striking difference between what Rowlandson actually experiences and how she writes it to appeal to her audience. Equiano faces a similar struggle. He writes his slave-narrative to demonstrate the inhumane struggles that black slaves face and to address the notion of integration instead of segregation. Equiano understands that his narrative must appeal to white audiences and therefore embellishes his story by adding untrue facts and conforms to ‘white culture.’ Both Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” and Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” are similar in the way that they both aim to please the primary audience for whom they are written, resulting in contradictory statements, embellishments, and conformity to society’s expectations of that time.
Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is full of opposing statements, a clear indicator that her actual experience is altered to appeal to the readers to whom she is writing this for. Michelle Burnham states that “[the] curious split in the narrative tone of Rowlandson’s narrative makes it seem as though the… observations of her physical journey were recorded by one voice, and the spiritual quotations and conclusions drawn from her experience recorded by another” (Burnham 61). Burnham also declares that Rowlandson’s inconsistencies are a result of “the individual psychology of the captive and the demands of Puritan society” (Burnham 61). Rowlandson’s account of her captivity is greatly influenced by the society surrounding her, forcing her to alter the way in which she writes her experience.
The difference between Rowlandson’s ‘two voices’ within her narrative is extremely important in analyzing her purpose for writing this narrative. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian states that there are two types of narration: “empirical narration… defines the author’s role as a participant, while rhetorical narration… defines her role as an interpreter and commentator” (Derounian 82). Derounian also concludes that Rowlandson’s differing voices are a symptom of “[conforming] to the Puritan doctrine of providential affliction” (Derounian 83). Clearly, Rowlandson’s native captors are quite generous as they “[carry her] poor wounded babe upon a horse… then they set [Rowlandson] upon the horse’s back with [her] wounded child” after getting tired (Rowlandson 260). The natives understand that Rowlandson and her child are wounded and tired. Instead of allowing Rowlandson to suffer, her captors generously offer her rest and help her make the journey easier. She illustrates the generosity of her captives again in another encounter that she writes about, stating: “I was fain to go and look after something to satisfy my hunger, and going among the wigwams, I went into one and there found a squaw who showed herself very kind to me, and gave me a piece of bear… In the morning I went to the same squaw, who had a kettle of ground nuts boiling. I asked her to let me boil my piece of bear in her kettle, which she did, and gave me some ground nuts to eat with it: and I cannot but think how pleasant it was to me” (Rowlandson 269). Rowlandson is clearly being treated with humanity and, more importantly, recognizes it. The “squaw” gives Rowlandson a piece of bear to eat, despite the fact that there is seemingly not a substantial supply of food. The natives she travels with are constantly scavenging for food in order to sustain themselves and yet, this woman selflessly offers Rowlandson some of her own food – an act of pure generosity. Despite addressing these hospitable acts of kindness, Rowlandson is constantly telling her readers that her captives are “barbarous creatures” (Rowlandson 259) and “inhumane creatures” (260). Rowlandson goes so far as to compare the Natives’ way of living to “a lively resemblance of hell” which is completely contradictory to what she actually describes (259). Rowlandson writes about her real experiences with the Natives, showing that they are generous and kind to her, yet she continuously refers to them in derogatory ways in order to appeal to her Puritan readers. Rowlandson is so concerned with audience reception that she includes these contradictory statements, whether unconsciously or consciously, and even over compensates by continuously referring to her experience as a religious test to guarantee the approval of her Puritan audience.
Rowlandson, on a number of occasions, refers to her experience as a religious journey or test. Derounian states that “as a Puritan writer, [Rowlandson] possessed the added responsibility of turning personal experience into public ideology” (Derounian 85). This part of Rowlandson’s narrative, in Derounian’s terms, is her rhetorical narrative. Rowlandson attempts to find meaning in her experiences and ultimately uses the Bible to do so. She writes with the purpose of appealing to the Puritan community and to do so, she must conform to the ideals imposed by the Puritan community. Rowlandson repeatedly quotes the bible and refers to her experience as a test from God. In the end, Rowlandson thanks God for “carrying [her] through so many difficulties, in returning [her] to safety” (Rowlandson 288). Rowlandson also turns to scripture countless times and makes a point to write about this fact. Rowlandson understands who her audience is and she knows that the only way they will accept her captivity-narrative is if she compliments her and her society’s religious beliefs. Rowlandson’s narrative is morphed into a spiritual journey in order to appeal to the public, the same way Equiano morphs his experience into more of a heart-wrenching slave-narrative.
Equiano adds false statements to his slave-narrative in order to appeal more towards his audience. Equiano’s aim is to show the Americans that enslaving black people is unjust. One way Equiano does this is by dramatizing his own personal experience in order to showcase just how terrible and gruesome so many other’s experiences are. Equiano’s journey from Africa to America is the most important dramatization. Ronald Paul writes: “Equiano was not in fact from Africa but born and raised in South Carolina, albeit as a slave” (Paul 848). Equiano could have written his slave narrative from his own real experiences of being born in America; however, he decides to incorporate this fabricated information. This is important in analyzing how Equiano gets his point across to his readers. Equiano writes with the same focus in mind as Rowlandson: audience reception. The suffering of the slaves who actually are forced to take the trip from Africa to America is a gruesome one. Equiano describes ‘his’ experience on the ship, stating that: “The stench of the hold… was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time… The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us… the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died… The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable” (Equiano 697). Despite this being a fictional experience to Equiano, it is something very real that happens to many slaves during this time. By incorporating this detail, Equiano is able to resonate with the readers. When reading this section of his slave-narrative, Equiano’s audience is able to fully understand the horrors that the slaves undergo and therefore feel more inclined to join the abolitionist movement. By stating that these horrors the slaves withstand in their travel from Africa to America are “almost inconceivable,” he makes sure that his readers know that he is not exaggerating – that these horrors which people believe to be unimaginable actually happen. To add on to this, Equiano opens his slave narrative by introducing his family and culture – his fictional life in Africa – in order to humanize black people to his white readers.
Equiano’s entire life in Africa is completely fictionalized; however, he incorporates what many slaves would have experienced before their capture for a very important reason. As Marc Hewson explains: it is difficult to ignore a person’s humanity when their life runs parallel to yours. This is exactly why Equiano incorporates the segment revealing many of the African slaves’ experiences in their homeland. Although the culture that Equiano describes is quite different from the white American culture, for example, “cutting the skin across at the top of the forehead” as a type of tradition, there are many similarities amongst the two cultures (Equiano 689). Equiano acknowledges the differences between the black slaves and the white people while simultaneously drawing similarities and running parallels between them. Equiano emphasizes the fact that the slaves who are kidnapped from Africa have families, traditions, dances, music and poets, just like the white Americans do (689). In this way, Equiano forces his readers to see him and the people of his culture as humans and makes it impossible for them to justify the treatment and oppression that Equiano and all black slaves face. Equiano knows that he must show his readers that black culture is just as legitimate as white culture; however, he also knows that he must appeal even more so to his white readers by actually being them.
Equiano conforms to the white culture that he is immersed in for the same reason that Mary Rowlandson adopts a cruel outlook towards the natives: to appeal to their intended audience. Susan M. Marren states that: “By referring to the enslaved Africans as his countrymen and suggesting that his own life has been violently disrupted by the slave trade, Equiano impresses the members of Parliament with the devastating impact their inattention to the abolitionist cause would have on countless individuals much like himself. At the same time, he flatters the Englishmen’s notion of the inherent superiority of their culture. This is a shrewd rhetorical gesture: recognizing that he must please the cause of abolition on and in the dominant culture’s terms, Equiano argues that the slave trade merits abolition because he… can appreciate the superiority of white, Western culture” (Marren 96). This is especially important when examining Equiano’s purpose in writing his slave-narrative. As previously stated, Equiano’s main goal is to abolish slavery and in order to do that, he knows that he must attract white readers by flattering them and reinforcing the idea that they are the “dominant culture.” Equiano even writes that he believes the white men to be “superior to [the black race]; and therefore [he] had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit, and imitate their manners” (Equiano 703). Ronald Paul addresses the fact that Equiano is attempting to “not only… ‘imitate’ his former White masters but even ‘resemble’ them in every way” (Paul 848). The quote above from Equiano’s slave-narrative proves that his aim it to reach out “toward a White readership” (Paul 848). Examining this segment deeper, it is clear that Equiano is attempting to compliment white society. This may seem strange considering the fact that Equiano writes about so much suffering that he and many others endure at the hands of the white slave-owners; however, Equiano does this because he knows that if he attacks his white readers, he will lose his fight against slavery. Equiano is smart: he understands that, in order to achieve his goal of ending slavery, he must pick the right audience and alter his writing to appeal to them, the same way Mary Rowlandson does. Equiano continuously reminds his readers that he believes white people are superior, not because he believes it but because it is the only way to effectively achieve what he sets out to do in writing this narrative.
At first glance, Mary Rowlandson’s and Olaudah Equiano’s narratives appear to be completely opposite. Rowlandson’s aim in writing “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” disguises itself as a rationalization for the oppression of Natives as well as a spiritual journey focusing on the positive aspects of Puritanism. On the other hand, Equiano’s narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” appears to have the sole intention of abolishing slavery. Upon closer reading and analysis, both of these seemingly different narratives have one important aspect in common: they aim to appeal to a specific audience and are therefore altered to adhere to that. In a world dominated by Puritanism and rejection of Native culture, Mary Rowlandson must petition to her Puritan readers. This results in contradictory statements, making it unclear how Rowlandson actually feels towards her captors. She illustrates multiple instances in which she exposes the kindness and the generosity of the group of Natives with whom she is travelling with while simultaneously bashes them. Equiano, on the contrary, incorporates false stories into his narrative as well as compliments the white, Western society in order to ensure his likability amongst this ‘dominant’ race. Both of these narratives are forever altered in order to meet the needs of the society at the time of publication, proving that these narratives are actually quite similar in terms of their intentions.
1. Burnham, Michelle. “The Journey between: Liminality and Dialogism in Mary White Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative.” Early American Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 1993, pp. 60–75. www.jstor.org/stable/25056920.
2. Derounian, Kathryn Zabelle. “Puritan Orthodoxy and the ‘Survivor Syndrome’ in Mary Rowlandson’s Indian Captivity Narrative.” Early American Literature, vol. 22, no. 1,1987, pp. 82–93. www.jstor.org/stable/25056648.
3. Equiano, Olaudah. “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology American Literature, Edited by Nina Baym. 8th ed., vol. A. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 688-721.
4. Hewson, Marc. American Literature, 11 October 2016, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON. Lecture.
5. Marren, Susan M. “Between Slavery and Freedom: The Transgressive Self in Olaudah Equiano’s Autobiography.” PMLA, vol. 108, no. 1, 1993, pp. 94–105. www.jstor.org/stable/462855.
6. Paul, Ronald. “‘I Whitened My Face, That They Might Not Know Me’: Race and Identity in Olaudah Equiano’s Slave Narrative.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 6, 2009, pp. 848–864. www.jstor.org/stable/40282603
7. Rowlandson, Mary. “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” The Norton Anthology American Literature, Edited by Nina Baym. 8th ed., vol. A. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 256-288.
Manipulation of the Spy Novel in Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker
Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker describes the difficult and oftentimes discouraging assimilation of a young Korean American, Henry Park. Throughout the novel, Henry struggles to find his true self in either Korean or American culture. His effort to mold an identity in a foreign country leaves him an “emotional alien…stranger [and] follower,” often feeling like he is invisible to those around him (5). Similarly, Chang-Rae Lee manipulates common Asian stereotypes to aid his novel’s purpose. It is not a coincidence that the sneaky, reserved, private, and secretive traits required of a spy are also fitting of American expectations for immigrants. Indeed, Lee’s choice to assign Henry the career of a spy is a cultural convention in itself. Ultimately, Henry’s role as a spy serves as a symbol for the American immigrant experience. Chang-Rae Lee moves beyond the one-dimensionality of a traditional spy novel and, instead, uses Henry’s career as a vehicle to express the fractured and conflicting identities induced by assimilation into American culture.
A Korean native, Henry is the perfect candidate for his occupation. While exact details of his work are never fully expressed, we learn that he is employed by Glimmer and Co., a shady information firm specializing in gathering secret and beneficial data on individuals in immigrant communities. Undoubtedly, Lee is playing on stereotypes defining Asians as sneaky, quiet, and deceptive. Henry’s appeal to spying stems from the “cultural legacy of silence” learned from his parents who were authentically Korean (Chen 639). Almost inescapably, Henry finds that his “truest place in the culture” is his job, especially since his boss “bemoaned the fact that Americans generally made the worst spies” (118, 160). In order for his work to be effective, Henry must devise fictitious narratives for himself so that he will remain undetected when faced by his clients. As a result, the line between Henry’s true self and his portrayal to outsiders is often indistinguishable. Similarly, Lee draws on parallels between Henry’s physical position as an outsider and spy and his position as an emotional or cultural outsider resulting from his immigrant status. Also, the nature of impersonation required of a spy echoes the immigrant inclination to present a front to those considered “more” American than immigrants themselves. The invisibility Henry practices as a spy “coincides with the in/visibilities of race” (Chen 645). After all, even Henry is familiar with “that secret living” practiced by foreigners in America (163). For example, his childhood is plagued with memories of customers at his father’s grocery shop who “didn’t seem to see [him]” and “didn’t look at [him]” because he “was a comely shadow who didn’t threaten them” (49). In this way, Henry and his career become a metaphor for immigrants more generally. Furthermore, for someone who has ambiguous self-perception and identity, it is ironic his work at Glimmer and Co. requires him to investigate, dissect, and sum up the identities and intentions of others. While Henry’s career requires him to explicitly describe others’ identities and invent multiple identities for himself to accomplish this goal, he is completely dependent on those around him to shape his personal identity. His “inability to divorce personal problems from professional obligations” leaves him searching for self-definition and validation through others’ eyes. As an end result, his professional secrecy bleeding into personal relationships contributes to his already fractured identity.
By the end of the novel, Henry realizes that his deceptive acts and false identities as a spy have personally compromised him. His performance as a spy has deeply affected his sense of self and his personal relationships. In general, his “co-mingling of reality and illusion” comes to represent a larger immigrant struggle between American assimilation and ethnic allegiance (Chen 653). Indeed, these struggles become evident in his personal and professional relationships with his wife, Lelia, and his subjects Doctor Luzan and John Kwang. For instance, the story begins with a list of descriptors that Lelia has left for Henry before she leaves him for the islands, adjectives like, but not limited to, “surreptitious, illegal alien, emotional alien, stranger, follower, spy” (5). This list is what initiates Henry’s internal conflict about his true identity and leaves him realizing he does not know who he truly is or which culture he belongs to. Lelia’s list reveals Henry’s lack of self-agency and more generally: “[she] symbolizes his general willingness to let someone else determine who he is” (Chen 165). Instead of protesting Lelia’s unflattering descriptions of him, Henry accepts her assessment and spends their separation living up to or being defined by her perceptions of who he is. By engineering this element of the narrative, Chang-Rae Lee illuminates the struggle that immigrants experience in resisting outside ideas of who they are and what defines them as “American.”
In general, Henry’s identity crisis is caused by his “inability to divorce his personal problems from his professional obligations” (Chen 644). During his separation from Lelia, Henry is assigned coverage of a psychoanalyst, Dr. Luzan. In order to gather information successfully, Henry must create a pseudo-self, or a “legend,” as he refers to it (22). However, when Dr. Luzan asks Henry, “Who, my young friend, have you been all your life?” during the therapy session, Henry realizes that he is “stringing the legend back upon himself” (205, 22). Thus, Henry’s “true” personal narrative becomes intertwined with the fictitious Henry Park, causing him to “becom[e] dangerously frank, inconsistently schizophrenic” (22). He explains: “When I was in the chair across the desk from Luzan I completely lost myself” (22). In this moment, Chang-Rae Lee attempts to illuminate the result of being from two different cultures yet belonging to neither. Since Henry can commit to neither his authentic self nor his fictional narratives, he is left feeling completely isolated and “othered.” Additionally, Henry’s relationship with another assignment subject, John Kwang, reveals the same sort of ambiguity. If it is Lelia who represents to Henry everything American he aspires to be, then it is John Kwang who represents the most cherished aspects of Korean lifestyle and culture. Although Kwang ostensibly represents the same type of American-ness as his political opponent, he is still able to retain his inner Korean heritage. For Henry, Kwang embodies the kind of seamless assimilation that he is unable to achieve. As with Dr. Luzan, the “legend” that Henry writes for himself becomes unravelled as his admiration for Kwang grows. Henry eventually “succumbs to the illusions of his own performances,” and his relationships with both Dr. Luzan and John Kwang signify his inability to separate his fictional self from his “real” self (Chen 644).
Henry’s role as a spy ultimately serves as a symbol for the American immigrant experience. Despite the ability of those around him to easily define his role in America as a non-native speaker, Henry is never quite able to reconcile his Korean background with his American residence. In short, Chang-Rae Lee’s deliberate career choice for Henry draws on parallels between Henry’s physical position as an outsider and spy and his position as an emotional or cultural outsider, an alienation resulting from his immigrant status.
Chen, Tina. “Impersonation and Other Disappearing Acts in Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002): 637-667.
Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead, 1995.
The Relinquishing of Roots
Does assimilation into American culture occur easily for immigrants or individuals with foreign-born parents? As the characters in Chang Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker, demonstrate, adjusting to the Western world comes with great difficulty and often ultimately results in a sense of alienation and shame. The narrator, Henry Park, a Korean-American suffering from an identity crisis, reveals the resentment he feels for his parents who relinquish their Korean roots in an attempt to attain the typical American dream.
Throughout the novel, Henry Park’s attitude is critical, frequently finding fault with others. Differing from both of his parents who lack pride in their Korean heritage and instead try blending in with the Americans, Henry personally resides more in a territory of uncertainty, unsure about the classification of himself as a Korean or an American. For this reason, Henry comments:
I remember thinking of her, What’s she afraid of, what could be so bad that we had to be that careful of what people thought of us, as if we ought to mince delicately about in pained feet through our immaculate neighborhood, we silent partners of the bordering WASPs and Jews, never rubbing them except with a smile, as if everything with us were always all right, in our great sham of propriety, as if nothing could touch us or wreak anger or sadness upon us (52).
He openly questions his mother’s hesitancy and shame associated with her Korean background when he says, “I remember thinking of her, What’s she afraid of, what could be so bad?” (52). The partial italicization of Henry’s scrutiny profoundly exemplifies the stigma Mrs. Park feels associated with her status as a Korean-American immigrant. Lee’s sparing use of italics dramatizes her embarrassment and heightens the moment in the work. Henry’s reference to his family’s life as a “great sham of propriety” heavily attests to his objections for the front his family put on after immigrating. The extent to which the Park family goes in order to gain acceptance, such as hiding all negative emotions and instructing Henry to “show them how well [he] spoke English, to make a display of it,” clearly exhibits the difficulties that accompany assimilation into the American culture (53).
The Parks maintain an outsider status in their neighborhood. Due to the Park’s pride associated with independence and unreliance on others, Mrs. Park would discontinue cooking mid-recipe rather than borrowing the necessary ingredients”My mother…would gladly ruin a birthday cake rather than bearing the tiniest of shames in asking her next-door neighbor and friend for the needed egg she’d run out of, the child’s pinch of baking powder” (52). Even such a small thing that carries no consequence brings shame upon her. By sharing this memory of his mother from the past, Henry allows the reader a greater understanding of the struggles his family underwent in the United States where they were viewed as complete foreigners in spite of attempting to relinquish all of their Korean ties. Henry’s critical tone illustrates his disapproval of his parents’ complete loss of their Korean identity, despite being born there, following their relocation to North America.
After moving to the United States and devoting his whole self to chasing the American dream, Henry’s father’s life not only revolves around money but also around the exploitation of his workers for his personal benefit. Henry’s cynical question “What belief did I ever hold in my father, whose daily life I so often ridiculed and looked upon with such abject shame?” highlights the rocky relationship he had with him his entire life, cultivated by Mr. Park’s failure to fulfill the typical paternal role (53). By questioning, “What belief did I ever hold in my father?” and employing the words “ridiculed” and “abject shame,” all of them with such strong negative connotations, Henry enables the reader to easily perceive his critical attitude towards his own father. With the lack of respect that Henry holds for Mr. Park, he surely does not find a role model in him and makes no effort to conceal his disdain from anyone, including his father. In addition to the people in his community who estranged Mr. Park, his own son also alienates him “for the way he had conducted his life with [his wife,] and then his housekeeper, and his businesses and beliefs” (49). As Henry reflects on his upbringing, he allows the reader an opportunity to partially understand the personal impact that the lack of acceptance into one’s community has on his or her identity. After coming to America, Mr. Park found himself as a minority lacking all standing despite his degree in industrial engineering. In an attempt to regain the dignity he loses as a foreigner in the United States, Mr. Park turns to making money. The Parks’ lifestyle significantly changes from their initial existence as the traditional immigrant family in America living off of each day’s profit and dealing with very cramped living arrangements to trying to blend in with the upper class and repressing their Korean roots. Henry’s desire for his father’s temperament to revert back to being in generally better spirits is apparent when he remarks,
I wondered if my father given the chance, would have wished to go back to the time before he made all that money, when he had just one store and we rented a tiny apartment in Queens. He worked hard and had worried but he had a joy then that he never seemed to regain once the money started coming in (51).
The alteration in his father’s disposition is evident to Henry, who in the past remembers his father dancing to music, working on his car, and socializing with other Korean friends. Henry notices these sources of joy in his father’s life disappear following his great influx of money. By musing about the past, as evidenced when he says, “I wondered,” Henry manifests how capitalism and “America, the brand of culture we had to live in,” adversely impacted Mr. Park’s quality of life and ultimately the entire family (103). Henry reflects on the level of his father’s happiness prior to falling victim to America’s materialistic nature as demonstrated through Henry’s observations of his father’s customers as “blue-haired matrons…[with] fancy dogs, and the sensible young mothers pushing antique velvet draped prams, and their most quiet of infants, and the banker fathers brooding about annoyed and aloof and humorless” (53). Henry recognizes through his father that tangible items and attaining the American Dream, in Mr. Park’s case becoming very wealthy, affording his family the opportunity to live in a big house with a big yard, own fancy cars, and join the exclusive pool and tennis clubs, rarely result in contentment unless surrounded by a strong network of family and friends. Mr. Park evidences that an individual who completely rejects the core of his or her being in an attempt to integrate one’s self into another culture loses his or her true identity and struggles to find happiness.
As exemplified through the Park’s experience as Koreans in a new place, although immigrating to the United States affords new opportunities, obstacles such as discrimination can result in cultural alienation. Henry’s critical tone throughout the work imparts the hardships that immigrant families undergo as well as his discontent for his parents’ absence of pride in their heritage. Ultimately, the Park family will remain lost in America until they defend their Korean roots and find pride in their background.
“Necessary Fictions”: Negotiating Identity Through Storytelling in Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker
In Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee, Luzan asks Henry, “Who, my young friend, have you been all your life?” (205). It is through the narrative form that Luzan is able to see beyond Henry’s words. Luzan urges Henry “to take up story-forms” (206), and as Henry narrates his dilemmas to the doctor, he also negotiates his identity through his storytelling. Although Lee presents various identity markers in Native Speaker, including skin colour, gender, occupation, language and values, she reveals that such markers are inadequate in expressing a person’s entire identity, as they bear with them stereotypes of different racial and social groups and therefore tend to set up binaries of the Self versus an Other. Society imposes such markers on individuals, ridding them of the ability to construct their own identity. Identity is a representative form based on what an individual feels defines and is a part of him or her. In the face of such a dilemma, Chang-Rae Lee presents storytelling as an alternative medium in Native Speaker for an individual such as Henry to negotiate his identity. Storytelling as a viable medium through which one can discover his or her identity might appear to suggest that verbal and written languages are feasible identity markers, but storytelling and worded language need not necessarily occur together. At its heart, storytelling is a universal activity that reveals humans’ desire to share experiences and communicate with others. Although Ludwig argues that “language is a key; it tells you more about a person than the person’s face or ‘ethnicity’ in the sense of origin…the way you speak defines you” (234), language can also be a tool to inflict violence, as seen from Henry’s spy registers. Henry writes “like some sentient machine of transcription” (203), giving him the “illusion of noninvolvement” (Ludwig 226). Henry simply notes down what he observes, and his conveyance of information using just language without storytelling results in Luzan’s death. Henry understands that he “no longer can…paint a figure like Kwang with a momentary language, but that…the greater truths reside in our necessary fictions spanning human events and time” (206), revealing that it is storytelling, not language, that reveals a character’s identity. Moreover, Lee shows us that language can be meaningless, as Henry’s father starts hurling words like “my hot mama shit ass tight cock sucka” (63) at his wife in anger, and Henry breaks in by shouting big words like “socio-economic” (63) at his father in “complete sentences” (63). While the words themselves do not mean anything in this context, it is the true intention of the speaker, hidden behind those words, that conveys a message. When a person uses language to juxtapose and distance oneself from others, just like the other identity markers in the novel, it creates an “Other” figure. Rather than aiding in identity negotiation, such a usage of language locks people into stereotypes within binaries. Thus, language alone is insufficient as an identity marker because “the world isn’t governed by fiends and saints but by ten thousand dim souls in between” (196).Lee portrays on a style of storytelling that resembles P’ansori, a Korean storytelling tradition in which it is not only the language of story that is important, but also elements such as rhythm, sound and audience participation. In P’ansori, a singer narrates a story, but he or she is not alone in the act of storytelling. A drummer who accompanies and interacts with the singer “is not a passive respondent but, rather, an equal partner” (Park 274) in narrating the story through rhythm. Lee draws out attention to sound in the novel as well, having Henry describe Kwang’s accents as “melodic” (150) and being “a languorous baritone” (297). Moreover, Kwang believes that the blacks’ “songs and chants” (195) empowered them, even though he did not even understand the English language at that time. With P’ansori as the main example, it becomes clear that storytelling trancscends narration in verbal or written language. Although language is one of the storytelling mediums, Lee demontstrates that stories could be told in more than just one way. For example, Lelia discovers the story of who Ahjuhma is not through verbal or textual language, but through a physical struggle over laundry. Storytelling through verbal language fails for Lelia and Ahjuhma, as Ahjuhma refuses to talk to Lelia, yet Lelia nevertheless is able to discern that Ahjuhma is “an abandoned girl” (73) after the tussle over the laundry. It is thus through the universal medium of storytelling that identity can be communicated, rather than through language alone.Henry is able to express his identity because of the universality of storytelling, but this medium also requires agency and personal involvement in order for it to be a feasible means of identity negotiation. As Okihiro mentions, “our memories have been massaged by white hands, and how can we remember the past when our storytellers have been whispering amid the din of western civilization and Anglo-conformity?” (Okihiro 34). Lee reflects this in Native Speaker when Henry’s father “offer[s] the classic immigrant story, casting himself as the heroic newcomer” (49-50) because he knows “what every native loves to hear” (49), thus allowing the “native[s]” (49) to define his identity as part of the model minority. Yet Henry knows that the reason behind his father’s success, the ggeh, reflects a communal success rather than an individualistic one, and although the ggeh occupies a significant part of Henry’s father’s life story, he gives it up in order to fit into the larger narrative of the “native[s]” (49). The abandonment of his personal story thus leads Henry’s father to stereotype himself as part of the model minority, and he therefore foregoes the true narrative that actually defines his identity. Similarly, there is a lack of personal involvement in the storytelling present in Henry’s spy registers, as he merely writes what he observes in a passive manner, as though he were uninvolved. Here, Henry does more than just inflict violence through the passivity of his storytelling. He attempts to tell others’ stories for them, eventually leading to the death of Luzan, and thus, robbing Luzan of his chance to tell his own story. It is only when Henry tears away from passive writing and narrates information of Kwang as a man rather than as a political figure that he discovers “the leap of [Kwang’s] identity no one in [Henry’s] work would find valuable but [him]” (211). As Henry begins to tell stories with more agency and personal involvement does he begin to discern others’ identities, and through his communication with others, also discovers himself.However, without an audience, storytelling would be futile as well, because without someone to listen to them, the stories would become lost and forgotten. As such, even though storytelling is a viable medium through which to construct and negotiate identities, “the inalienable human condition of access to language…means nothing if access to an audience is absent” (Lim 14). The audience in this case includes not only the readers of Native Speaker, but also the fictional characters in the novel. Storytelling is not simply a unidirectional activity where a story is merely told, but a story must be told with the audience in mind as well. P’ansori is relevant here as audience participation in the form of ch’wimsae is a crucial component of storytelling in this novel. Ch’wimsae involves “stylized cries of encouragement… as a way of energizing the singer (as needed)” (Park 275), and “the more accomplished the person, the more powerfully his or her voice blends into the rhythmic and melodic flow on the stage” (Park 275). Audience participation is thus a vital component of storytelling as it supports the storyteller and becomes a crucial part of the performance. Henry, however, is unable to perform ch’wimsae as he feels like “an audience member asked to stand up and sing with the diva, that [he] know[s] every pitch and note but can no longer call them forth” (267) whenever he enters a Korean shop. He suggests, though, that were he “able with [his] speech” (316), the Korean waitress he knows “would turn and she could confide in hushed tones” (316) the story of her life. Yet Henry is unable to do so and chooses not to express himself through a different medium of storytelling. As an audience member, he fails to participate in the storytelling process, leaving the Korean waitress’s tale untold. Similarly, readers cannot simply turn an “educated gaze” (Moraru 71) to storytelling, as such an approach would be too formal and removed and thus lead to stories losing their personal significance. Without an audience, stories would remain confined within the “whispering amid the din of western civilization and Anglo-conformity” (Okihiro 34).Not only does the audience or reader have to listen to the stories being told, they also have to interact with such stories in order to shape the story through their own imagination. For Mitt, a silver coin which his grandfather gives him takes on significance because the story his grandfather tells him of “a lost young prince” (102) sparks his imagination, and in turn, Henry understands the significance even though Mitt dies. It is because Mitt imbues the coin with significance in his imagination that Henry is able to imagine that the coin could still bear “the press of a flesh” (102), therefore leaving a trace of Mitt behind for Henry. At the end of the novel, Lelia participates in a similar engagement through sounds, as she speaks “a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are” (349). Throughout the novel, the only words that reflect accents textually are names – “Leel-ya” (12), “Mahler” (232) and “Kwan” (238). This suggests that as names are suggestive of their own origins (for example, “Ichibata” would indicate that the name originates from Japan), they are also the words that potentially allow speakers to speak in different “native languages” (349) and use their own unique pronunciation. With Lelia speaking all the various names in different “native languages” (349), she thus participates as an audience member by engaging with children of the minority groups, producing their unique sounds rather than simply forcing them to produce hers. Moreover, by setting Henry up as the Speech Monster, Lee also positions Henry to play-act, allowing the children to participate in a story setting where they speak the “secret phrase” (348), or rather, produce the magical sounds to defeat the Speech Monster. Again, there are elements of P’ansori style audience participation here, as both storytellers and audiences alike negotiate the narrative through “mutual shaping” (Park 283), thus acting as “a confirmation of the close relationship linking the singer, drummer, and audience” (Park 275). The story told and sung in a P’ansori performance is therefore not static. It changes and shifts according to the input from the singer, the drummer, and the audience. In order for storytelling to have significance, readers and audiences must engage with stories imaginatively to shape the narratives and instill meaning and significance into them. At the end of Henry’ and Lee’s stories, at the end of the novel, there is no real resolution since stereotypes still remain. However, storytelling itself could be the means to the novel’s conclusion. The novel ends with a scene that suggests that nothing has changed, because the children hear Henry speak and “wonder…as they check again that [Henry’s] voice moves in time with [his] mouth, truly belongs to [his] face” (349). Lee, however, might not necessarily be proposing a resolution to the problem of racial stereotypes and classification. As Henry leaves his job as a spy, his narrative starts to take on the present tense. In the earlier part of the novel, Henry says “who we were” (240) but in the closing scene he uses “who we are” (349) instead. The shift from past to present in the novel reveals its cyclical nature, since as the reader reaches the narrator’s present, the narrator starts writing the past, which is the story we have just read, and the beginning of his recollection signifies the start of the story for the audience. This cyclical structure suggests that storytelling as a means to the end for negotiating identity, as readers engage and reengage with the story of Native Speaker in this cyclical pattern. The reader participates in rediscovering and reconstructing Henry’s tale in order to better understand what Henry believes represents him. Such repeated engagements also allow readers to remember Henry’s story, unlike the facts which Hoagland shares with Henry about his clients. Hoagland “did the drill” (39) on Henry’s clients, running off lists of facts about the clients and whether the information was useful or not, and such facts do not usually stay in a reader’s mind as clearly as a story does because the significance does not register. Meanwhile, storytelling gives significance to an identity as and audience is able to listen to, engage with, and remember the tale.While the potential weakness of Native Speaker is that the different groups’ various accents are not conveyed and the novel thus comes dangerously close to advocating what Ludwig calls co-opting “a flattering pattern of ethnic pluralism as multiculturalism” (Ludwig 221), this flaw is justified because the story is told with and from Henry’s voice and viewpoint. Henry himself tells us that he does not have a good command of the Korean language, that when he speaks it, his tone is “uncertain, tentative” (267), and it would be justifiable to say that Henry can only narrate his story through “the figurative power of his own language” (Kim 251). As the story is a first-person account, if Henry were to reflect the accents linguistically, his storytelling would not be as truthful because he would be defining others and fitting them into stereotypes. Rather, Henry allows these other characters to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories in the voices and sounds that are natural for them to produce. Moreover, the text also shows self-reflexivity in drawing our attention to the limitations of written text, as written text cannot truly produce sounds. Since there is a need to engage with storytelling as audiences or readers, Lee could be suggesting that even though his narrator does not provide us with linguistic cues of accents in his storytelling, we as readers can and have to produce and imagine these sounds ourselves, in order to participate in the communication process through storytelling, as Lelia does at the end of the novel when she speaks “a dozen lovely and native languages” (349). Perhaps Mitt dies of suffocation not due to a mere “accident” (129), but rather due to Henry’s unwillingness to “read him stories” (239). Henry realizes this, as he recalls that Mitt and his grandfather were able to “build a bridge” (239) between them by communicating stories through words and sounds. Mitt, fascinated by the recorder, is himself a recorder, and only by recording can he “mimic…these notes of who we were…rich with disparate melodies” (240). Just as Henry rediscovers himself and his own father through storytelling, stories also need to be shared to be remembered, engaged with again and again to produce “a dozen lovely and native languages” (349). After all, “the truth, finally, is who can tell it” (7).Works CitedKim, Daniel Y. “Do I, Too, Sing America? Vernacular Representations and Chang Rae-Lee’s Native Speaker.” JAAS 6.3 (2003): 231-260. Web. 10 April 2010.Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. Print. Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “The Ambivalent American: Asian American Literature on the Cusp.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. 13-32. Print.Ludwig, Sämi. “Ethnicity as Cognitive Identity: Private and Public Negotiations in Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker.” JAAS 10.3 (2007): 221-242. Web. 10 April 2010.Moraru, Christian. “Speakers and Sleepers: Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, Whitman, and the Performance of Americanness.” College Literature 36.3 (2009): 66-91. Web. 10 April 2010.Okihiro, Gary Y. “Is Yellow Black or White?” Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994. 31-63. Print.Park, Chan. “‘Authentic Audience’ in P’ansori, a Korean Storytelling Tradition.” The Journal of American Folklore 113.449 (2000): 270-286. Web. 16 April 2010.