Dear NPR & Maureen Corrigan: What the Frak is Kimchee-scented Kleenex Fiction?

Dear NPR & Maureen Corrigan,

What the frak is “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction”? What does that phrase even mean?

Were you trying to be funny? (Fail.)

Were you trying to let listeners and readers know you “know” Koreans? (Fail.)

Were you trying to be clever and/or charm us with your use of alliteration? (Fail.)

And why, after a week of comments on the NPR website  where you take Kyung-sook Shin’s novel “Please Look After Mom” to task, has there not been a response from NPR or from you, Ms. Corrigan? Surely you would want to explain yourself and this misunderstanding. After all, you are just a critic who didn’t like the book, which you pointed out has sold 1 million copies in the author’s native South Korea and is set to hit the shelves in 22 other countries. Your opinion is just one of a million, and clearly no one at Knopf asked your opinion before claiming the U.S. rights to the translated version so I’m certain you would be sorry if you offended anyone even though that was not your intention. I’m sure of it.

So why not just come out and say it? You could probably cut and paste or adapt a version of the standard non-apology.

Or maybe you or NPR could come clean and and apologize because Ms. Corrigan your review did offend and continues to offend real people – not the fictional characters you clearly did not connect with in the novel. Some of us are actually American readers, by the way, who might even be able to bridge what appears to be a cultural gaping hole in your understanding of Korean/East Asian mother guilt, family values and shame even as you poo-poo the novel as “Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction”.

You offend those of us “ladies” in book clubs all across America (I’m in two of those book clubs of American readers, btw) who read all sorts of books we like and dislike and suggest or read only because it was on the book club list which is our ticket to a fun night out, and not all of us would see the message of this novel as “alien”. (Couldn’t you have phrased that better? Maybe you tried “foreign” but perhaps that was too literal or obvious?) You offend me because throughout your review you allude to your POV as “an American reader” but I am an American reader and I “get” the message and nuances of this book by reading the excerpt. I am not an American woman (whose ethnic and racial heritage I do not know) who was “indoctrinated in resolute messages about ‘boundaries’ and ‘taking responsibility’.”

I am an American reader who learned that taking responsibility meant a deep connectedness between my happiness and my mother’s, but I don’t want to wallow in the cross-cultural self-pity you describe. I am hoping you will understand that I just don’t get what you don’t get. This is a novel that you read in English but was written in Korean by a Korean woman who grew up in rural Korea and then moved to Seoul (!). The words were translated, but I’m not sure you want to do the work to understand the characters and their culture and their point of view or even get a deeper sense of the author’s voice, which is so obviously different than yours. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like “The Tender Bar” that much now that I think about it.

I can gather from your critique you are missing the things that make novels connect with its reader and thus earns its place on a bookshelf or top 100 list. Surely much in the plot and prose has been lost in translation because the words “mom” and “mother” don’t carry the same weight and meaning as the Korean words “uhm-mah”, “uh-muhn-nee” and “uh-muhn-neem”. Three words to describe the relationship between a mother and her child. Three. But you don’t get that because you, Ms. Corrigan, are an American reader as am I, but we read with different eyes, hearts and connections, and I’m trying to understand you.

So, let me ask my question in a different way.

Do you really think Korea’s Kleenex smells like kimchee? Because if you do you’re just silly.

Translation: Jung-mahl mee-chus-suh.


  1. Lauren April 14, 2011


    Listened to the review online this morning – it just got worse as it went on. Thanks for posting your thoughts.

  2. Mr. T April 15, 2011

    I pity the fool! And the fool this time is Corrigan. Why mentioning kimchi’s smell in her so-called literature review? Maureen, there’re better ways to get popular…

  3. Don't Worry April 15, 2011

    I emailed her a piece of my mind and cc’ed it to her G’town U. English Dept. chair, G.U. dean of A&S, G.U. pres, and others outside G.U. who should know of this third-rate, untenured, literary lecturer at G.U. And you know what my ultimate wish would be out of this. 😉

    • Daniel Goldberg April 16, 2011

      To Don’t Worry: So, you’re superior to Corrigan because she’s untenured? And you want to get someone fired for expressing her opinion? Who doesn’t understand whose culture now?

      • Journey Man April 17, 2011

        “Don’t Worry” understands the culture just fine. DW understands that one can freely express their opinion and the offended have the freedom to take action against an irresponsible opinion. As for that “superior” comment…I don’t think DW thinks of him/herself superior to Corrigan. DW’s merely stating that she is not tenure, which means she can be let go.

        Also, your “whose culture” reference assumes that this is not DW’s culture. What does not say about yourself?

    • Kathy Khang April 17, 2011

      DW, have you gotten a response from G’Town? I’m curious.

      For the record, not knowing what the quality of her overall lecturing skills are I’m going to go out on a limb and say that what my ultimate wish out of this is different than yours. 😉 I’d really like NPR and Corrigan to publicly acknowledge the concerns and questions raised by her review, and I would like an apology. What she wrote/read was more cultural commentary than a book review.

      Daniel Goldberg, I don’t see where DW claimed superiority. I’m all for readers engaging one another, but since both of you are new to commenting on my blog I want to give you the benefit of the doubt without the benefit of familiarity. What culture does DW not understand?

      Journey Man, ya. What you just said.

      • Journey Man April 18, 2011

        Kathy, I just finished watching you speak on Sex at Wheaton College. The best I’ve heard anyone to speak on that topic. It was hilariously funny, very engaging, and very true to the Scriptures.

        That particular part on guarding the heart spoke to me.


        • Kathy Khang April 19, 2011

          Thanks, Journey Man. I must confess that I was only able to watch a few minutes of that video because all I could think was, “Is that how I sound? And why do I keep making those weird faces?” Your encouragement is a reminder that I am my worst critic and that does not serve His Kingdom purposes.

          Peace be with you, brother.

  4. Matt Kelley April 20, 2011

    A great response. Thanks for writing it.

  5. Renee August 13, 2011

    I just read that article and found it so distasteful– it was a bit distressing to me that commenting had already closed so I could not offer up my own bit of disapproval.


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