The Strings of Serial Identity:
Abjection and Assimilation in Lee’s Native Speaker
by Robert Russell
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “abjection” as both “the action or an act of casting down or brought low”; and “the state or condition of being cast down or brought low; humiliation, degradation; dispiritedness, despondency” (OED). As its first definition conveys, abjection is an act, or rather infliction, committed by one group or individual against another group or individual; and as it pertains to social dynamics, it is the act of social exclusion committed by the majority, hegemonic class unto the minority class, resulting in an ideological, oppressive perception of the minority class as subordinate and exclusionary, one which is scaffolded by racialized structures of power. As the second definition conveys, the act of abjection results in the psychosocial conditions experienced by those having been “abjected”: “humiliation, degradation, dispiritedness, and despondency.” This definition encapsulates the physical, mental, and emotional effects of the process–effects which produce great detriment, as abjection “simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject” (Kristeva 232). Shame arises from the act of abjection; the “abjected” individual experiences at once the innate desire of inclusion as well as disdain and rebellion towards the majority, in turn, allowing an ambivalent rift to take hold within his perception of both the world and himself. It is a process which not only foments the deracination, dissolution, and dislocation of an individual from his environment, but also inspires the dissociation, disconnection, and detachment of the self.
In Chang-Rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker, the two characters which abjection, both in its process and result, most saliently affects are Henry Park and John Kwang. Henry Park, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, grapples with the internalized effects of abjection from his early childhood and their subsequent influences on his sense of selfhood as an adult. From an early age, Henry began to recognize and understand that the societal impositions placed upon his family, in particular his father, were constricting and detrimental, yet his father, instead of rebelling against the molds which the racialized structures of society forced upon him, strove to submit to the perspectives of the majority in an attempt to assimilate and embody the ideal of the “model minority.” Bearing witness to his father’s willful subjugation to unfair strictures forced upon him and his family by society enkindled a pervasive shame in Henry, one which would bloom into an acrimonious detachment from his family, society, and himself, in turn negatively affecting his own capacity for compassion, authenticity, and awareness. It is not until Henry meets John Kwang that these unconscious influences which have maimed and hindered Henry’s perspective become clear to him. John Kwang, an eloquent, confident, ambitious politician running for New York City mayor, like Henry, also grapples with abjection, though in different ways. As a Korean-American on the campaign trail, he is often regarded with suspicion regardless of his favorable viewpoints and care for the minority classes. He faces a societal abjection grounded in the pervasive perspectives of not just the majority, dominant class, but also of the minority classes who question the verity of his sentiments. However, John Kwang also faces another kind of abjection, one which is the result of corruption: as the novel unfolds, Kwang is plighted by an involuntary, uncontrollable “self-abjection” resulting in his own devolution. By the end of the novel, Kwang’s narrative trajectory has taken a turn for the worse, and the mechanisms of abjection are crucial in understanding how such a denouement could have taken place, as well as the effect which it has on Henry.
Henry Park, from the very onset of the story, experiences a certain abjection from his marriage to his wife Lelia; the novel opens with the line, “The day my wife left me she gave me a list of who I was” (Lee 1). While Lelia’s leaving Henry conveys a different form of the abjection than that which society imposes upon him–Lelia leaves him, rather than “casts” him out–nonetheless, from the first page, the idea of abjection is introduced in a certain detachment from both a relationship with another and an institution, marriage. But it is not until details about Henry’s childhood are revealed that the internalized effects of societal abjection begin to become clear to the reader. In childhood, Henry describes an underlying shame which precluded his father from ever feeling “fully comfortable in his fine house in Ardsley” (Lee 52) and obstructed his mother from engaging with their neighbors: “She would gladly ruin a birthday cake rather than bearing the tiniest of shames in asking her next-door neighbor and friend for a needed egg” (Lee 52). Henry’s recognition of such a pervasive and powerful shame prompted puzzlement and ponderance:
[W]hat 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. (Lee 52)
Shame is the emotion in which abjection manifests physiologically. “Internalized abjection,” which, due to its prevalence in society, becomes ingratiated into the perspectives of the “abjected,” impels the inward stigmatization of not just shame, but also “self-loathing, self-disgust, self-contempt, and self-hatred” (Tyler 26). This internalization of abjection forces Henry’s parents to fear not their neighbors but the act of imposing upon them, as it may be perceived as against the norm, against the social hierarchy of power, an action both out of place and an admission of weakness or desperation. That such an “internalized abjection” emanates from an invisible source is a point of confusion for young Henry who questions why his parents should be so afraid of something he cannot see explicitly or feel tangibly. Henry’s early realization of an instinctual shame not only influences his relationship with his parents, particularly his father, but also his own burgeoning sense of selfhood.
In an effort to combat the pervading abjection which forced his family into shame, Henry’s father, who ran a grocery store, consistently pandered to the white customers often at the expense of his immigrant workers. While young Henry in the moment was puzzled by such doings, adult Henry remarks upon them with the awareness which only time and distance can bestow: “My father like all successful immigrants before him gently and not so gently exploited his own” (Lee 54). But his workers were not the only ones his father used to exploit; as Henry describes, “My father…urged me to show them how well I spoke English, to make a display of it, to casually recite ‘some Shakespeare words’” (Lee 53), the “them” being the white neighbors and customers who frequented the store. To make a “display” of his son certainly had an effect on young Henry, forcing him to wonder, “What belief did I ever hold in my father, whose daily life I so often ridiculed and looked upon with such abject shame?” (Lee 53). Henry’s ridicule of his father is a response to his father’s actions, and the while the word “abject” here means “despicable” (OED), it nonetheless bears the echoes of social abjection.
What Henry was inevitably recognizing but which did not have the words to definitively name in his young age, was the process of assimilation–the “acculturation strategy in which people do not wish to maintain their heritage culture and seek to participate in the larger society” (Berry) through a process of “making or becoming like” the larger society (OED). Henry’s father, in exploiting both his workers and his son to appease the white customers in order to maintain a façade of “successfulness,” assimilates towards the dominant social group–white people. While Henry’s “abject shame” for his father is the result of witnessing his father denigrate his culture, himself, and others for the opportunity of upward social mobility, it is also a shame that results from the shame imparted unto his family by abjection, one which invariably affects young Henry as well. The shame which affects his parents, as well as their actions to combat it, begins to affect Henry from a young age, forcing him to remain quiet, unobtrusive, and reserved throughout his childhood. He describes how, “When I was a boy, I wouldn’t join any school club or organization before a member first approached me. I wouldn’t eat or sleep at a friend’s house if it weren’t prearranged. I never assumed anyone would be generous to me, or in any way helpful” (Lee 160). While shame is the result of abjection which affects his parents, silence is the result which affects Henry, a certain anxiety that he might be “over-stepping” invisible bounds by reaching out to others, engaging in fun activities, and in general, being social. These internalized traits, borne of an invisible societal abjection, indelibly mark Henry’s development into a young man, wherein he begins to become more aware of the societal conditions which influence his family and his own sense of self.
Henry Park’s sense of selfhood is fragmented; throughout the first half of the novel and into the second, a complete, concretized understanding of an authentic self evades him, remains elusive. And from the very beginning of the novel, Lelia having left him, Henry faces life detached from the self he had known for the past decade or so, the self as a husband and a father. Furthermore, Henry’s work as a spy for a company called Glimmer & Company requires him to wear multiple masks, to take on entire life-narratives, and act as a different person in order to infiltrate the lives of his targeted subjects as means to glean information about them. As he describes it, “I had begun to think that each of us was leading the life of a career criminal…Our work is but a string of serial identity” (Lee 33). That Henry is constantly trying on different “masks” for his line of work invokes WEB DuBois’s concept of double consciousness–the forced action by which an individual must view himself through the eyes of another, and in turn, measure, adapt, and conform to the other’s perspective; in other words, to assimilate to the perception of others. And Henry is good at his job; he excels in his assignments and is often lauded for his achievements. It would appear that assimilation comes naturally to him–an assertion substantiated by the environment of his upbringing wherein his parents consistently strove to assimilate to the dominant culture of the majority group. However, the unconscious toll which assimilation takes on Henry inevitably comes to light when he meets John Kwang.
John Kwang, the ambitious, confident politician on the campaign trail for the New York City mayoral election, embodies more than just the “model minority” for Henry. Kwang represents upward ascendency, the success of the minority which carves a fracture into the prevailing systemic distinctions which work to confine and subjugate minorities. Kwang is both inside the definition of the minority as well as outside: he speaks Korean and perfect English; he has adopted the prevailing dominant culture while still maintaining his own heritage culture despite the process of assimilation threatening to diminish and denigrate it. About Kwang, Henry describes,
Before I knew of him, I had never even conceived of someone like him. A Korean man, of his age, as part of the vernacular…a larger public figure who was willing to speak and act outside the tight sphere of his family. He displayed an ambition I didn’t recognize…he didn’t seem afraid like my mother and father. (Lee 139)
For Henry, John Kwang has been able to triumph over the societal impositions which affected Henry’s parents, and in turn, himself. Instead of being afraid of others, Kwang is confident; instead of being silent, he has found his voice; instead of being ashamed, he is ambitious, present, and emphatic. Meeting Kwang not only reveals to Henry the toll which societal abjection had taken on his parents, but also unveils what was previously unknown to Henry–that a minority, a Korean American man, could subvert abjection not through assimilation, but with the proclamation of his own heritage culture. Upon meeting Kwang, Henry realizes that the background of life which he has so readily submitted to, as his work requires of him, is not his sole fate; Kwang has helped him understand that he need not be “a comely shadow who didn’t threaten” (Lee 53), but that he can, in fact, be present, be visible, and be loud without shirking or diminishing any part of his selfhood.
However, Henry’s admiration and self-identification with John Kwang eventually begin to break down as Kwang devolves into corruption. Kwang’s descent coincidentally foments Henry’s own recognition that, as scholar Tina Chen asserts, “his impostures and false acts as a spy have come to mark him personally; he is a man whose very identity is in question” (Chen 64). Kwang’s devolution is the result of the psychological toll which combatting abjection can take–a certain “self-abjection,” the fracturing of one’s own identity in order to placate the perspectives of others. Kwang, as a politician gaining traction with the public, must always consider how others are perceiving him, and he must always tailor his presence to their expectations lest he say or act in a less-than-favorable way and jeopardize all the progress he has made. Just like Henry in his work, there is an inner Kwang and outer Kwang, and the equilibrium of such double-consciousness must be meticulously calibrated; when one self becomes too large, the other self is squeezed out and lost, which can have devastating consequences. Calibration is the skill which Henry has learned to hone through his work. As Tina Chen writes,
Henry becomes enmeshed in the complexities of his own performance; he is a performer who leaves behind the self-consciousness of impersonation to embrace the seamless transformation of imposture…however, each act of imposture heralds a paradox: only by first losing himself in his performances…can Henry “find” himself. (Chen 653-54)
But while Henry is able to “find” himself through the splitting of his own identity, Kwang is unable to; he lacks the skill of self-calibration. As Kwang’s “outer” self grows bigger and the pressure from the public increases, his true “inner” self grows smaller, becoming more and more fragmented and inspiring paranoia and delusions of grandeur. The “self-abjection” imparted from Kwang’s subversion of societal abjection ultimately entails his downfall.
Navigating the calibration of double-consciousness is inherent in the Asian-American immigrant experience as it is a critical aspect of assimilation. In order to surpass the cultural disparities that comprise the hierarchy of class and culture, one must learn to adapt to the whims of the dominant class while still retaining the cultural heritage which such a system strives to estrange. Henry, by his father’s aspiration to be a model minority, has been introduced to the fragmentation which results from such an endeavor–he sees the detriment, experiences it directly, and is shaped in his adulthood by the aftermath. John Kwang, in his ambition and political aspirations, appears to have conquered it: having not just embodied the notion of the model minority but transcended it, having assimilated to the dominant class and culture while still retaining his own cultural heritage. However, as Henry finds out, the negative effects of assimilation often lie buried, invisible from the surface, but nonetheless present and dangerous. In John Kwang these negative effects which are the result of “self-abjection” bloom into a deadly conflagration as the pressure from the public increases and foments paranoia, driving corruption. While Kwang inevitable succumbs to self-abjection, Henry Park overcomes it, finding himself in the process and reforming the pieces of his fractured identity, a feat that, presumably, he would not have been able to achieve had he never met John Kwang. Abjection and assimilation reside at the heart of Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, the always-already, present yet invisible obstacle which threatens both the exterior and interiors lives of Asian American immigrants and the generations which follow.
"abjection, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2022.
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