After reading NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan’s review of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, I joined the slew of readers who called it “offensive”, “classless”, “ignorant” and “racist.” (Jenny’s more articulate critique was posted earlier as the inaugural post of this blog.) My exact comment was:
With her racist & punchy “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction,” Ms. Corrigan might wakeup tomorrow and realize that she’s become the Alexandra Wallace (of “ching chong ling long” fame) of book reviews.
Maybe a part of me was grasping at meme-straws, but I’ve given myself a few days to think about the review as well as my response to it. I still think the juxtaposition can be productive. First some similarities: Both Corrigan and Wallace showed misjudgment. Both were almost immediately denounced by Asians and non-Asians alike. Both probably regret what they said/wrote.
Though if you read through the comments on the NPR review, in the case of Corrigan, there’s a sense of “How could you, Corrigan?” or “How could you NPR?” We get the feeling that Corrigan’s offense cut deeper; because she’s a professor at Georgetown University and a reviewer for Fresh Air, she should have known better. When we called Corrigan’s comment racist, we did not mean the word in the same way we used it against Wallace’s more garden-variety epithet “ching chong ling long” (or the way we might call Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh racist).
While I do not know Corrigan’s work well, I have faith as one liberal-minded person might have about another, that she is deeply saddened by the charge, and is probably asking herself, even now, “What the hell happened?”
But another voice inside her (which best stay inside her, if she cares about PR), is probably saying, “Geez Louise, why are they so sensitive?”
Let me start by addressing the second question briefly for those readers who are wondering the same thing. Many Asians are trigger-happy with the R-word because while most Americans have been socialized to balk at stereotypes and jokes about minorities in public space, to deem them inappropriate, perhaps even amoral and un-American, somehow, representations of Asians have not received equal protection. (I do not mean, of course, to praise some of the pernicious effects that PC-obsessed culture have on American race-relations as well as on reaching a deeper understanding as a society about race as a historical and social construction.) Much ink has been spilled on the topic of American perception of Asians as permanent aliens.
If you want an example of this, check out this site‘s analysis of a particular episode of The Office (“Benihahna Christmas“), for its supposed “critique” on the “Asians all look alike” stereotype; the attempt falls flat and ends up being more insidiously racist. I think the sense of outrage and betrayal some Office-fans felt after watching that episode is akin to many people’s response to Corrigan’s review. Precisely because we love The Office and its continuously ingenious way of critiquing race in corporate America (particularly through Michael Scott’s “ugly American” character), we felt sufficiently let down by this failing to write a blog post about it.
But there’s another reason why Ms. Corrigan’s review hurt, which gets at the first question.
Consider the offending line, which praises Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids over Shin’s novel:
Smith will get your book club on its feet and pumping its collective fists in the air, rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction.
There’s another alliterative word which must have been on Corrigan’s tongue, which is “kitsch” (maybe “kimchee-scented Kleenex kitsch” would’ve been overkill). While she praises Smith’s work at the expense of Shin’s, you can’t help but notice that there is something cheaply consoling about book club post-feminism of the fist-pumping variety suggested by Ms. Corrigan.
Bodhian1 from Twitter wrote, regarding Corrigan’s review, “NPR 도서평론가 머린 코리건이 ‘엄마를 부탁해’를 김치냄새나는 신파극(kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction)이라고 차가운 평가.” Bodhian1 translates “kimchee-scented” as “kimchee-smelling” which feels more obviously racist (“Your people’s food is smellier than my people’s food). “Scented,” by contrast, actually seems kind of pleasant. It also feels like a fragrance, manufactured to prettify, as something decorative and not essential. In other words, what hurts about “kimchee-scented” is that it hints at the reality of U.S. publishing where ethnicity functions chiefly as a commodity, a brand.
In a twisted way, you might say that Corrigan was being fair. Her tone is punchy, clever and eventually dismissive, but this is how a lot of book reviews are written when responding to domestic publications. (I think a lot of commenters who attacked Corrigan were aware of this and hedged their criticism with, “She is entitled to her opinion, but…”) In a way, it’s possible to view Corrigan’s treatment of Shin’s book as a kind of refreshing antidote to a genre of genteel politeness that greets publications of translations standing for a under-represented culture in U.S. publishing (a trend which applies to representations of hyphenated minorities as well). This kind of treatment can feel dull and fatuous, and sometimes even condescending.
So we have a dilemma. If the reviewer is magnanimous and overly lenient, we risk the air of condescension and no real engagement with the text. If the reviewer is too gloves-off and treats the text like any other domestic publication, as though it were not a translation, it risks begin offensive and intolerant, because our contemporary reviewing machine rewards critical disemboweling, and most reviewers are illiterate about the original text’s own literary tradition. The challenge of any serious reviewer of literary translation will be walking this tightrope. But first, there needs to be a recognition that in today’s U.S. publishing climate so adverse to translation, any literary translation that is released by a prestigious press like Knopf is probably a cause for celebration. This doesn’t mean there is no room for criticism. Even the most fastidiously territorial hyphenate will be (ought to be?) understanding if the reviewer shows some humbleness as well as evidence of having done his/her homework.
I do think there were lines of thinking in Corrigan’s review that might have been productive had they been more diligently pursued.
As an American reader — indoctrinated in resolute messages about “boundaries” and “taking responsibility” — I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve for the breast-beating children. It wasn’t until the end of the novel, when Shin rolled out the Mother of all maternal suffering images — Michaelangelo’s Pieta — that I understood I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction
Here, Corrigan shows a degree of skepticism about her own values of “boundaries” and “taking responsibility” (which is implied by the very usage of the word “indoctrinated”), but instead of questioning her own assumptions about what constitutes the aesthetics of “serious literary fiction” — which many domestic critics will tell you, is just another kind of genre fiction — she reinforces the wall between East and West, when the spirit of encountering a translation should be to make cultural and national boundaries porous. In other words, it does not occur to Corrigan that Shin might have something to teach her about being a woman in America; to Corrigan, Shin is simply behind — culturally, historically and aesthetically.