“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?” Continue reading

Mama mia, NPR!

It’s pretty clear that Maureen Corrigan is not a big fan of family narratives, or “sob sister melodramas,” as she calls Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해, trans. by Kim Chi-young), but her review on NPR’s Fresh Air, “‘Please Look After Mom’: A Guilt Trip To The Big City” conflated her distaste for a type of narrative into a condescending, Orientalist, us vs. them dismissal of a culture she doesn’t seem to know much about. And that’s not to mention her simplistic reduction of a feeling of obligation towards one’s mother to a broad stereotype of “ethnicity” in her first sentence: “Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!”

Lest I seem too sentimental, antifeminist (stridently not), or hysterically nationalist in my objection to this review of a Korean author (although not a Korean citizen, and definitely with a big hyphen between the Korean and American parts), let me clarify that I have long harbored a skepticism of the American publishing industry’s love for “mom-daughter-sob sob-now I’ve found my roots and understand myself” especially of the ethnic variety. I was not surprised that this is the Korean novel that is getting so much advance praise and attention; it joins a long list of Asian American fiction that deals with similar themes, only now straight from the source and with a good translation!

The three most recently lauded translations of Korean fiction can be reduced to three categories: cold, dystopian Asian present (Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You with major bonus(!) for including shadowy North Korea which, incidentally, Corrigan also hated); revenge and food fantasies (Jo Kyung-Ran’s Tongue); and family drama centering on strong but devastating/ed mothers (this one). A million bonus points if the works can be compared to Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, or any other known Japanese author. (I should also note that all three works were translated by the same person, Kim Chi-young, who has done Korean literature a great service with her translations.)

Keeping my own skepticism in mind, and adding that I like all three authors I mention above but have my own reservations about this particular work (which I haven’t finished reading yet), here goes…

Continue reading