“Kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” means I love you

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.

18 thoughts on ““Kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” means I love you

  1. Pingback: Impressive Performance of NPR « msbehave

  2. I followed you from your comment on Corrigan’s NPR book review. I appreciate your thoughtful commentary on the issue and I am very glad that I discovered this gem of a literary blog. I’ve always been fascinated with the art of translation and have been a firm believer in the cross-cultural appeal of the Korean literature. I will come back to check back on your fabulous blog, so please do post more stuff!


  3. Pingback: Interview with ‘Mom’ translator/kimchee-scented Kleenex

  4. While I do agree with you on that Corrigan’s review had by no mean any intention to insult Korean culture, it still is unfortunate that she happened to choose such a dangerous phrase to describe the book. Also, when did American culture get on such a high horse?! Shin’s book is a book written by a Korean, written in Korea, and written FOR Koreans. Yet Corrigan criticizes it because, let’s be honest, it isn’t American enough. Maybe she feels that the character’s relatively passive attitude doesn’t help woman’s cause or something. But as a literature professor, is it not her job, no, her duty to evaluate a work for its own merit? I am not saying that Please Look After Mom should win a Nobel Prize for literature. The book has a strong Korean cultural overtone because it is for Korea. Period. She can’t come out and call it Kimchi-scented kleenex fiction because she doesn’t feel that it was not written for American women. Because it wasn’t! Nobody said it was! Corrigan also told her readers to pick up Just Kids instead of thi sone. It is one thing to suggest an additional book to have the readers compare the two books, but she just came out and said DON’T READ THIS ONE, INSTEAD READ SOMETHING MORE AMERICAN. For such an educated person, she seems to be deeply soaked in nationalism, the very thing with which she accused Please Look After Mom to be stained.


  5. Maureen Corrigan is a typical feminazi and a bigot who got no business lecturing to culturally diverse students at Georgetwon University where she’s been employed as an untenured lecturer, for 17 years. She’s a living proof that, despite the politically correct propaganda regarding America as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, colorblind society, in reality, it still fails to live up to this lofty claim by the European-Americans who still hold on to power and wealth through their white privilege. Sure, it may be – and that’s *may* be – the most nondiscriminating country on Earth. But, that doesn’t mena that it still has a long ways to go to truly realize its goal of being nonracist, nondiscriminating society. Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, I let her, her superiors, civic organizations, and others know of her despiccable conduct, for which I sincerely hope that she’d be penalized or punished.


  6. I just finished reading Just Kids and browsed P.L.A.M. Maureen Corrigan is correct not politically but aesthetically. She also dissed that dreadful novel about the North Korean Spy. I thumbed it open and read three pages and dropped it.

    Somehow, people have to come to terms that Korean culture tends to the melodrama and literary types — regardless of race– will have difficulty in praising novels that come of it as a real good read.

    I teach AP literature in Seoul and my students have a strong sense on the difference between Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and a band like Arcade Fire as compared to Kr. Pop music/novels.

    I rationalize it all as , Hey, do what your good at and thin is in.
    I think it is a tough hall to get Kr. Lit taken seriously in the west. I mean just read something from that dude who is going on about Kr. Lit in the K. Herald. My God I don’t think he can understand any book review that comes out in the NYT.

    But I am a willing to bet that there will be a new (and very small) cache of Kr. Writers sooner than later. I teach some and you can see some pretty strong Korean Student Writing in English on the web Mag I founded: The Three Wise Monkeys. Click the student writing tab. And if there is any strong literary book on the presses from the peninsula now or coming soon. Let 3WM know we would be happy to honestly plug something worth it.


    • i can’t say i agree with you, i think there are a lot of wonderful korean writers, especially books by monks, that are just beautiful beyond words. i think the problem is that no one is translating the works that are worth translating, books by korean writers from centuries ago, surpass that of most western writers (seriously shakespeare? it’s nothing compared to a ton of korean writers and poets in the 16th to 17th cent) i think it’s silly to make remarks that generalize korean literature, especially when no one in even korea has read all the literature in korea. maybe the korean books that are on the bestsellers list are the ones that are a bit melodramatic like american’s Twilight or new moon, but seriously, i don’t think maureen corrigan even analyzed the book well.

      the book PLAM is really not my cup of tea, but i can appreciate it, i can even relate to it, i can tell that the author wrote from experience, even the passage Maureen quoted and stated to be melodramatic is actually true of korean culture, especially those who are trying to escape asian culture and move into a western civilization like myself; americans and asians alike are taught to think of our heritage to be shameful and silly to think that western civilization and culture is more advanced and “correct,” even lowly shakespeare.
      and Maureen corrigan is seriously illiterate, if she thinks the book is “anti-city, anti-modernist, anti-feminist.” if anything it is ANTI-WESTERN IMPERIALISM. how is a book that is about appreciating the sacrifices of a mother, of a woman who was strong enough to raise 5 kids on her own including her husband, anti feminist? the mother in the story is the strongest feminist character there is! she stronger than any man, she takes care of her self and those she love. of course the daughter feels guilty, she should, she thinks that her asian roots are simple and dull, and she’s too hoity toity, riding a plane and not taking the time to explain to her simple mom what is going on with her.
      it’s a story about appreciating our mothers, for those that take care of us, those we take for granted everyday, until they aren’t there any more, just like our korean heritage that disappears every day as koreans, all asians become more and more westernized, we take our past and our traditions for granted, and we must be able to find a good balance. i can completely relate to PLAM and while few critics cannot, there are one million readers who can, american and asian


  7. @Charles
    You write, “But as a literature professor, is it not her job, no, her duty to evaluate a work for its own merit?” I felt the same frustration. If you check out Corrigan’s response to Kim Young-ha’s “Your Republic is Calling You,” she takes the “this isn’t my cup of tea” approach but if you’re into postmodern hijinks (she mentions Paul Auster), she concedes that you might like the book after all. This is precisely the problem I want to bring up — a trend, which by no means, is exclusive to Corrigan — i.e. the problem of thinking about literary preference as something as arbitrary as flavor of candy, styles of shirts, or…scents of Kleenex. Beneath the cultural insensitivity, there’s a deeper, wholesale jadedness about literary encounters.
    But I may disagree with you on this next point — that Shin’s novel was for Koreans — this may or may not be true, from the author’s point of view, but I think that kind of compartmentalization has its own dangers. Who are Koreans? Who is included or excluded from the category? What if you’re a Korean, born and bred, and absolutely hated the book? (And agreed with Corrigan?) Whenever the issue of “audience” comes up, I’ve always gone to poet Myung-mi Kim’s answer regarding the question, something to the extent that every act of writing is a faith in the possibility of conversations *between* audiences. And certainly this can happen across racial and national and cultural boundaries. While folks have highlighted the figure of “Mom” in the story (with its attendant anti-feminist and orientalist pitfalls) there are other interesting thematic threads in the novel — like city/countryside, transnational mobility (Chi-hon’s younger sister’s case, who has an American-born son, who is being raised in a context different from our traditional understanding of immigration) — that Corrigan seemed to have been too lazy to pick up on.


    • I think it comes down to, basically, the presumtion that if a work comes from the West, then it must be superior, whereas if it comes from elsewhere, then it must be inferior. Of course, very few Westerners would say something to that effect bluntly, but it shows up in how they promote Western things and ideas while downplaying, dismissing or ignoring the rest. It shows in their actions, even if denied in words. And actions speak loudly than words, as we all too well know!


  8. it’s an embarrassment to NPR
    it’s not like this is the first time they let this happen. please make some noise, i cannot believe npr is doing nothing, they should apologize or fire maureen corrigan and make sure this never happens again, i am writing npr.

    I wrote Media Action Network for Asian Americans


    and NPR


    write to either PROGRAMS FRESH AIR

    If we don’t do something about this review they will just keeping pumping out these racist remarks and not think twice about it ever again. We can’t just let these remarks go unnoticed, especially when they were on NPR which is for all Americans, how can they make such hurtful racial comments?


  9. Pingback: The unstoppable “Please Look After Mother” | London Korean Links

  10. I’m perhaps tainted by my months in Honolulu (ethnic jokes are a local specialty) but I would not equate ignorance with racism. I am baffled by the strange bedfellows in the comments section of the review itself — excitement over proposed defunding of NPR combined with outrage over how Koreans are being disrespected (unlike other American minorities). Actually, now that I type this, I am also mystified by the conflation of Korean with Korean American.


    • Do you really believe that Americans of other ethnicities, particularly the European-American majority, distinguish Korean-Americans from Koreans and vice versa? I don’t, based on my own experience and observations of decades in America since my childhood. And if they do, it’s only very superficial.


      • most don’t, but most koreans don’t recognize korean-american identity as a separate identity either. it’s a problem.


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