“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.” *
And so concluded Maureen Corrigan’s review of novelist Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look After Mom,” for WHYY’s Fresh Air. It drew some perceptive criticism, to which Fresh Air producer Danny Miller responded:
One angry letter posed the question: “Would NPR allow a reviewer to make references to “fried chicken and watermelon” when reviewing the work of an African American author?” Fried chicken and watermelon are images that have been used for over a century to stereotype African Americans. In fact those foods were often used as props in illustrations and movie scenes that were intended to show “Negroes” as lazy and dumb. If there is any similar negative connotation to kimchee, we were unaware of it. If Maureen had referred to gumbo-scented, curry-scented, or chicken soup-scented Kleenex fiction, I don’t think it would have been interpreted as defamation.
Wait, my mistake, it would have been both right and more interesting to deal with the strongest critics, but Miller didn’t. Instead, he just cherry-picked those he could easily dismiss, recruiting them into a proxy battle for the title of Most-Oppressed. This defense, and that’s what it is, suggests only the hysterical, ignorant and unsubtle could take offense. It doesn’t work, and not only because a link between kimchi and body odor is the reflexive expression of anti-Korean bigotry.
The kimchi line is a wreck. Within or without context, “kimchee-scented Kleenex” reads like a strong pejorative. It is half figurative and half literal, a supposedly clever substitute for a simple descriptor – Korean – that suggests either Koreans leave the odor of kimchi on everything they touch, or that there’s some gochu-scented tissue that soothes with the power of capsaicin. This is not a literal reading of the line, but scrutiny of how the figure within is supposed to work. It doesn’t.
A commenter on the Ask a Korean post linked above is right, I think, about Corrigan’s intentions:
It seems to me that kimchi references are a crutch many Westerners use to show off that they know something about Korean culture, not realizing that in doing so they reveal more about how _little_ they know.
This kind of shorthand is endemic to hackwork, amateur and professional, where it serves to affect a knowing air precisely where the writer is anything but knowledgeable. A passing reference to Pusan, picked from a map, is allowed to let the reader believe the writer knows the place. A sprinkling of foreign phrases suggests linguistic worldliness where there is none. The writer signals knowledge, without brushing near any risk of failure. Along with that is an essential notion of ethnicity that is sometimes indistinguishable from outright bigotry. It’s there from Corrigan’s first line:
“Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!”
Yes. Mama mia.
The rest is similarly disastrous, a wondering Corrigan trying to figure out what is wrong with these Koreans that they could like this book. (I wonder: is there an ethnic explanation for the Twilight phenomenon?) She comes close to saying something interesting about her reading experience, but trips herself on the way.
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.
There’s that tic again: a Korean soap opera, specificity from someone who clearly couldn’t explain the distinction, unless it was something about kimchi.
There’s a scene in Bong Joonho’s protean monster movie “The Host” when the family of a young girl carried off by the river-dwelling creature has a good, long, violent cry at a shelter. The scene — its length, the swells of emotion the actors are allowed, the camera’s lingering on tear-jerking details — can be awkward for American audiences expecting an action film. It’s what we call melodrama, as Manohla Dargis did in a very positive review of the film. (No critique of Dargis implied.)
So, what is it about our bottomless appetite for irony? Is it defensive? A weakness, perhaps, rather than an unambiguous sophistication of sensibility? Is there a cultural difference to explore? There is a concept, in Korea, of a feeling called Han, and thought of as an almost uniquely national trait. There’s even a Wikipedia entry.
“The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.”
An unresolved resentment against injustices suffered. Hmmmm….
*What’s with NPR’s romanizations? Anyone?