The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir by E.J. Koh (Tin House Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Asian-American literature is finally having its moment in the United States. In the past four years, books such as Min Jin Lee’s, Pachinko and Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We Are Briefly Beautiful have made their way to the New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year lists and have been nominated for a variety of prestigious awards.
As readers, Americans are hungry for new voices in Asian-American literature. While Amy Tan and Haruki Murakami have been the exception rather than the trend, there has been very little representation of voices in contemporary literature. However, authors like E.J. Koh are finally changing things.
E.J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others is a unique debut memoir. Koh uses translated letters from her mother to creatively weave together feelings of love, loss, and longing for her culture and her relationship with her mother.
After seventeen years of living in the United States, Koh’s parents agree that her father should accept a position at an electronics company in Seoul, South Korea. Koh, who is only fifteen at the time, is left in California to live with her brother, and inevitably feels abandoned. She writes, “They would have to live apart from their children, but only for three years. It was better to pay for your children than to stay with them. That was how it had always been” (11).
From the beginning, the cultural expectations of Koh are shown not only through her writing but through the letters her mother sends her while they are separated. While these letters are written in Hangul, Koh has translated them herself for the memoir and has included a scanned copy of the original to go along with her translation. They appear every other chapter and do not necessarily connect with the future subject matter.
Koh’s mother gives her daughter updates on her new life in Seoul and reminds her often to stay happy and think good thoughts despite the distance between them. These letters help to provide the reader with a deeper understanding of Koh’s relationship with her mother. They also increase the feeling of loneliness and isolation that follows Koh throughout her life as she struggles to find out who she really is. She writes in the introduction, “The letters transport my mother to wherever I reside, so they may, in her place, become a constant dispensation of love” (xi).
By Chapter Six, Koh begins to braid her own personal narrative with that of her family. She focuses on the history of the maternal figures in her life and how they connect to her Korean culture and language. The section that I found most fascinating was Koh’s exploration of her grandmother’s life. In this section, the reader is transported to Jeju Island, South Korea in the 1930s and 40s. “An island with a plentitude of rocks, wind, and women,” Koh writes (104). Her grandmother, Kumiko, who is also struggling with identity, survives the Jeju Island Massacre of April 3rd, 1948. Koh’s background in poetry is very clear in this chapter. Her use of language allows the reader to feel the fear and pain Kumiko experienced. Koh’s appreciation for her grandmother and her family history is obvious.
While beautifully written, Koh’s memoir did have moments that felt jarring and left me feeling confused. Although I felt that all the scenes fit the overall theme of the memoir, some managed to remove me from the dream-like trance that she builds beautifully within the pages of the story. They left me feeling confused and I found myself rereading sections to make sure I was clear on what was happening.
Overall, Koh’s memoir is one that will not be easily forgotten. It is a heartbreaking story of discovery that left me wanting more. Koh uses her mastery of language to transport us through history and leaves the reader on a bittersweet note that gives us hope.
Buy this book: Tin House