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.