Review by Shoshana Akabas
When E. J. Koh was 15, her parents returned to South Korea for a lucrative work opportunity, leaving Koh and her older brother behind in California. The job placement was supposed to be temporary, but Koh’s parents remained in South Korea for seven years. Now, as an adult, Koh has crafted a stunning memoir in which she delves into the pain of being apart from her parents and examines what longing and separation have meant for her family.
The Magical Language of Others (Tin House, 1/7/20) alternates between Koh’s translations of the Korean letters written to her by her mother during their period of separation and Koh’s narrative chapters, which recount her childhood and her family history, and explore the ways that language, hunger, hidden identities, and intergenerational trauma link the women in her family.
The letters that serve as the backbone of the book come across as odd to an outside reader – especially at first – which establishes that this relationship will never be fully understood by the reader; indeed, the author, herself, is still working through the meaning of the letters and that period of separation from her mother. Each time the reader becomes wrapped up in the narrative story, the letters remind the reader in no uncertain terms: these people are real. They are complicated. Each letter is a harsh entry back into reality, into the life of a 15-year-old and her mother, as they tried to make sense of the distance between them.
In earlier drafts, the book comprised only the 49 translated letters from her mother, but the narrative chapters Koh added, in which she digs deeper into her family history, work in beautiful symbiosis with the letters. Much like Koh’s poetry, her prose has remarkable clarity and precision. The book is slim but is packed with scenes that reflect on how we hide and reveal identity through language, the value of work, physical and emotional hunger, and the ways in which we create pain for others to assuage. In one memorable scene, Koh’s mother (as a child) cuts holes in her socks so they need to be mended, in order to generate an excuse to visit her own mother who left the family and lives separately. Understanding that Koh’s mother felt abandoned as a child gives meaning to the advice Koh’s mother gives her: “While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life.”
Despite covering several generations, the memoir doesn’t feel scattered, since each chapter is laser-focused. Koh describes her memoir as “a single, knife-like shard of a larger piece of our family and history.” Indeed, like a core sample of the earth that shows different geological layers over time, the reader gets to see a slice of her family in different generations and trace the same themes throughout. The influence of language on identity, for example, can be seen in all the womens’ stories. As Koh writes, “Languages, as they open you, can also allow you to close.” For her great-grandparents, the ability to project a certain identity through language was life-saving during the Kanto Massacre. Meanwhile, for Koh, the study of translation provides her with a better understanding of language, and ultimately, her facility with words allows her to be forgiving.
The most remarkable aspect of this memoir is Koh’s ability to write about trauma graciously. Rather than focusing on the outcome of these painful events, which could lead to judgement, Koh reaches back to find the source, which instead fosters understanding. In an interview with Electric Literature, Koh explains, “Though it seems like I read and write about the saddest things and speak to those with the saddest stories, the thing we always come back to is love. When I am studying about trauma, I am also studying about love—about care in the everyday, forgiveness and letting go… Even for the most brutal chapters in the memoir, there are edges of light—certain love and care.”
Koh is able to take fragments and scenes from the lives of the women in her family and weave an intergenerational story that is at once cutting and uplifting, concise and expansive, astute and non-judgemental. Pain and healing live together on the page. As Koh’s mother told her on the day they first parted, “We will look back at our time apart and laugh together and be sad, but we will have many stories. If you have no suffering, you have no story to tell – isn’t it true?”