E.J. Koh was fifteen and living in California when her parents moved to Seoul for her father’s job, leaving her behind in the care of her college-age brother. An intended three-year absence stretched to seven. During that time, Koh’s mother penned letters to her daughter, expressing her hopes for Eun Ji’s future as well as the immense guilt she felt at leaving her. When Koh rediscovered these letters years later, she realized there were forty-nine, which is the number of days, according to Buddhist belief, in which people’s spirits wander the earth before moving on to the afterlife.
Translations of a selection of her mother’s letters form the backbone of Koh’s stunning memoir The Magical Language of Others. Koh’s translations, along with copied images of the original letters, written in Korean with occasional English words, appear throughout the book. Her mother’s letters serve as a counterbalance to the young Eun Ji’s feelings of abandonment and also paint a portrait of a complex and believably fallible parent. Much like Koh’s own writing, these translations hint at the depths of pain both mother and daughter feel at their separation but that neither one is quite able to state directly.
Koh, who is both a poet and translator, writes prose that is simple yet elliptical and all the more resonant for what is left unsaid. About a year after their parents’ departure, her brother’s dog attacks Eun Ji’s pet bird:
I had never seen a bird without bones. She lay flat on my palm like an envelope. When I was twelve, I had asked my mother for a parakeet. For a year, I tied a string to a plastic bag. It caught air, flying behind me like a bird. So little labor could bring so great a reward. I never knew a real bird was warm with tiny eyelashes, blue-gray eyelids. Violence felt wet in my palms.
The death of her pet stands in for all the events of Eun Ji’s adolescence that her mother missed, along with the assumption that this minor tragedy would not have happened if her parents had been there.
Eun Ji grows into a solitary adolescent who smokes cigarettes, binges on junk food, and purges so often she finds “a strip of flesh” in the toilet. Spending a summer in Japan, she decides she won’t order food from a restaurant if she can’t order perfectly in Japanese and survives on convenience store food until she is able to impress the staff at a local ramen joint not just with her language skills but with her attention to Japanese mannerisms. Despite her rapid progress in Japanese, Koh notes that learning a foreign language only gives her another mask to hide behind, leaving her as lonely as before. “Languages,” she writes, “as they open you, can also allow you to close.”
As in many coming-of-age memoirs, Koh looks back to the lives of her family to better understand her place in the world. We learn about her mother’s mother, who fled village life to live alone in Seoul, only to be called back home by her daughter. The parallels between Koh’s mother’s circumstances and the decisions she makes in regard to her own daughter feel both humanly real and almost uncanny, but Koh allows these parallels to speak for themselves. Koh’s paternal grandmother Kumiko was born in Japan but spent most of her childhood on Jeju Island, where she was living with her family during the Massacre of 1948. The chapters detailing Koh’s grandmothers’ lives are harrowing, narrated at a kind of fairy-tale remove, shaped, one assumes, as much by the power of Koh’s sympathetic imagination as by research. These chapters by themselves are outstanding, and the resonances Koh finds between her own experiences and those of her mother and grandmothers seem to lift off the page. These sections also raise the stakes considerably, placing Koh’s story within the larger context of history.
If one of the expectations that we bring to the literary memoir is the excavation of the family past, as mentioned above, the other might well be the writer’s discovery of her own talent. It’s hardly a spoiler to note that this happens in The Magical Language of Others. After the sadness of its early pages, it’s both a pleasure and a relief to read about Eun Ji’s success when she turns her attention first to poetry and then translation. Through writing, Koh learns to wield language not to further isolate herself, but as a way to connect with others. The result is this beautiful, scorching memoir.
The Magical Language of Others
By E. J. Koh
Tin House Books
Published January 7, 2020