Maureen Corrigan, a well-respected book critic for Fresh Air and lecturer at Georgetown University, offended some listeners with her April 5 review.
She reviewed Kyung-sok Shin's book, Please Look After Mom. Shin is a South Korean author. Corrigan's review left some listeners upset and a few even claimed Corrigan's words were "racist."
Corrigan recommended singer Patti Smith's award-winning memoir, Just Kids, over Shin's book. On air, Corrigan advised listeners to read Smith's new effort, "rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of (Shin's) kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction." (This was a reference to the fragrant national dish in Korea).
The words "kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction" ignited strong criticism, spurring listeners to post over 60 comments on the NPR community website. It should be noted that Fresh Air is produced by WHYY in Philadelphia, not directly by NPR.
Joon Park challenged Corrigan: "Next time you issue a book review written by Carlos Fuentes, be sure to use the term 'Burrito scented Kleenex'....Toni Morrison what else but 'fried chicken scented Kleenex." What about Maxine Hong Kingston 'sweet and sour pork scented Kleenex'?"
Wesley Kan wrote: "Just because Shin Kyung-Sook does not buy into Maureen Corrigan's politically correct militant feminism does not give Ms. Corrigan the right to resort to blatant racism."
Danny Miller, a co-executive senior producer for Fresh Air at WHYY, disagreed.
"I must admit I was surprised at the reaction," said Miller in an email. "It didn't occur to me that this phrase would be deeply offensive to some listeners, and I'm certain that was not the intention.... To repeat, no offense was intended."
Miller continued, "The review was not an attack on Korean culture. It was a negative review of a novel that – despite its popularity – Maureen thought was a melodramatic."
While most comments were negative, one person agreed with Corrigan basic assessment of the book.
"I heard this review on air and thought that Maureen's quip of 'kimchee-scented Kleenex' was offensive," wrote Scott MacMullen. "But as for her review of the book and the writing, I think she nailed it. It is right out the pages of any Korean soap opera/TV drama right down to the orphanage." MacMullen continued by adding that this is a popular genre in Korea.
"Listener reaction to Corrigan's phrasing should be a reminder to the Fresh Air folks to think more about stereotypes and how they might be unwittingly perpetuated," said NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard. "While I'm sure they didn't intend to offend, the use of 'kimchee-scented kleenex' does play into a stereotype about Koreans."
Intern, NPR Ombudsman's office
FRESH AIR FULL REPLY from Danny Miller:
"I must admit I was surprised at the reaction to Maureen's review of "Please Look After Mom." Many of the complaints focused on the phrase "kimchee scented Kleenex fiction" which Maureen used to describe the novel. It didn't occur to me that this phrase would be deeply offensive to some listeners, and I'm certain that was not the intention. But I appreciate the feedback. Not anticipating that some listeners would be so offended is, by definition, a form of cultural insensitivity. If we made a miss-step in that regard, we are sorry. To repeat, no offense was intended.
That said, the review was not an attack on Korean culture. It was a negative review of a novel that – despite its popularity – Maureen thought was a melodramatic "guilt laden morality tale... a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction."
"Racist" is an easy word to toss around when it comes to cultural misunderstandings, but it is just plain wrong to hurl this label at Maureen or her review. 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.
We are very proud to have Maureen on our staff. She makes enormous contributions to Fresh Air, and her reviews are among the most popular segments on NPR."