|"Kimchee-scented Kleenex Fiction"|
When the novel, Please Look After Mom, an emotionally charged story about seemingly outdated unconditional love and sacrifice of motherhood against the backdrop of narcissistic modern society, by Korean author, Kyung-Sook Shin, made a sensation in America, as well as in Korea earlier, it did so enough to reach the #21 spot on the hardcover fiction category of the New York Times Best Sellers list, only five days after its English version, published by Knopf, officially went on sale in the U.S. on April 5 until April 9, when the list for April 24, 2011, publication was completed.1
However, its "unofficial" initial copies released prior to April 5 by Knopf had already been selected by Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Oprah for their recommended reading lists.2
Notable among the rave reviews by many literary critics and readers of Shin's novel is that by the Pulitzer Prize-winner, Geraldine Brooks, who wrote:
“Here is a wonderful, original new voice, by turns plangent and piquant. Please Look After Mom takes us on a dual journey, to the unfamiliar corners of a foreign culture and into the shadowy recesses of the heart. In spare, exquisite prose, Kyung-sook Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.”2
Unfortunately, its phenomenal sales and rave reviews notwithstanding, Shin's novel was, nevertheless, subjected to a scathing, culturally insensitive criticism by the resident book reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air and a professor of English at Georgetown University, Maureen Corrigan, who is also well known for her ultra-feminist values and specializes in critiquing literary works about empowerment of women.3 On the same day of the novel's official U.S. sales, Corrigan aired her critique that described it derisively as "guilt trip", "anti-city", "anti-modernist", and "anti-feminist", among others.4 Her strong contempt for the novel and resentment towards its popularity is evidenced by her comment,
“If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into "manipulative sob sister melodrama," Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen. I'm mystified as to why this guilt-laden morality tale has become such a sensation in Korea and why a literary house like Knopf would embrace it. (Although, as women are the biggest audience for literary fiction, Please Look After Mom must be anticipated to be a book club hit in this country.) But, why wallow in cross-cultural self-pity, ladies?"4
Corrigan ended her review with now infamous label, "the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction", that has instantly been incorporated into the titles of articles on her review, by major news media, blogs, and forums in Korea and elsewhere.
It goes without saying that neither Maureen Corrigan nor anyone else is obligated to write a favorable review of Shin's novel. Whether the main theme of Shin's novel is traditional Asian values versus modern American values, as Corrigan implies, is still left up to much perspectives and serious debates among its readers, both in and outside of academia. But, in an age when globalism and multiculturalism has become the norm with the aid of digital revolution, it is particularly disturbing to see that she, as a long-time professor at a major, urban university, with students and employees from broad ethnic and cultural backgrounds, located in the capital of arguably the most ethnically and culturally diverse nation on Earth, has, nevertheless, resorted to such culturally insensitive and slighting style to criticize a work by an Asian writer which she apparently views as antithetical to her own social beliefs and values. Would Corrigan dared to describe the novel as a "watermelon-scented Kleenex fiction" if the author was African or African-American, or as a "bean-scented Kleenex fiction" if the author was a Latina? If not, have Asians become the new, politically acceptable, ethnic group to be stereotyped or picked on? Does her behavior reflect a growing uneasiness or fear towards Chinese and other Asians by the European-Americans, due to the increasing loss of economic, political, and cultural powers by the U.S. to Asia? Or, is it simply as a result of ethnocentric bigotry by at least some Westerners that has always been there, but only thinly veiled under superficial political correctness? Maybe one should not over-react, but, rather, whenever something happens, in supposedly colorblind America, that has a negative racial or ethnic overtone particularly against the disadvantaged or marginalized minorities in America, that one should simply dismiss it as just another "isolated" incident and assure himself or herself that racial relations are much better than as it appears on the surface. And, as such, must one, then, dismiss Corrigan's review as yet another isolated incident, as well, and simply move on?
Tags: korea | globalism | multiculturalism | racial relations | bigotry | culturally insensitive | Asian-Americans | Asians | Knopf | Discover New Great Writers | Barnes & Noble | Oprah’s Book Club | Amazon Best Books of the Month | Georgetown University | New York Times Best Sellers | Fresh Air | NPR | Kyung-Sook Shin | Korean author | Korean novel | Please Look After Mom