Diaspora, criminal suspicion, and the Asian American: reading Native Speaker and A Person of Interest from across the Pacific
ABSTRACTThis essay attempts to practice an Asia-based critical reading of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest. Lee’s protagonist Henry Park is a second-generation Korean American coached to be ‘unapparent and flat’ as part of his role as ethnic spy, while Choi’s Professor Lee is a ‘person of interest’ to the FBI as a suspect for the Brain Bomber. Affectless and generic, Park and Professor Lee at once embody the stereotype of poker-faced, emotionally flat Asians, and then find themselves accused of an ‘un-American’ lack of expressiveness that leads to social immiscibility and even potential criminality. Both texts play with the idea of Asian Americans as ‘alien,’ not only figuratively so but interpellated into roles of espionage or possible terrorism, and consider how Asian American subjectivity is linked to diasporic origin. In reading these works within a transpacific context, I discuss the significance of a ‘native speaker’ within a contemporary Korean context and read the Korean language punning behind Lee’s novel. In Choi’s novel, I consider the significance of the author’s refusal to identity her protagonist’s Asian country of origin, as well as her imputed linkage between Japan and terrorism.
Keywords:Diaspora, nationalism, Asia, Asian American, language, espionage, native speaker, immigrant, empire, Korean language, Korea, Japan, race, terrorism, polygraph, guilt, criminality
Hyungji Park is a Professor in the English Language and Literature Department at Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea, where she teaches courses on the Victorian novel, Asian American literature, and popular culture. She has published numerous articles, many focused on the problem of empire and gender, both in nineteenth century Britain (and India), and in Korean American literature. She is also currently serving as Dean of Underwood International College at Yonsei University.