When E.J. Koh’s parents returned to South Korea for work during her youth, Koh remained in California with her brother. This description, however, simplifies the complexity of their situation, muting other truths that were present: how she did not ask them to stay, how her mother asked if she would be okay, how Koh merely repeated her brother’s words, “I’m not a baby anymore.” And underneath his response, copied by her, the words left unspoken but lingered on indefinitely.
Throughout their extended years of separation, Koh’s mother wrote letters to her in Korean, and the rediscovery of those letters in Koh’s adult years serve as the foundation for her debut memoir, The Magical Language of Others (Tin House, 2020). She translates her mother’s letters into English for the first time, and her own stories of family, language, and the search for belonging become the writing in the margins that ultimately comprise a life.
In her translation note at the outset, Koh notes that her mother used the Korean greeting, Ahnyoung, which translates to either Hi or Hello. Koh alternates between both, noting that Hi “transports energy without expecting reciprocacy” while Hello “boomerangs for a response,” a question that awaits a reply. Like this greeting, Koh measures language throughout her formative years as a dialectic between generations of women in her family reaching out to one another for a response, if not in words, then in living.
“I’m an accumulation of their lives,” Koh recounts. “Whatever I say or do now can give relief to the past—and to them.” She tells of how language shaped her grandmothers, like Jun, who left her husband Lee because of infidelity but was called back by what his words signaled at without saying: “Through the cave of his mouth, there were the glistening eyes of their two sons and two daughters, calling her.”
Just as language can reach across time and space, Koh also speaks into the ways that languages, “as they open you, can also allow you to close.” Koh’s college counselor deploys the word “we” to suggest that the urgency to finish her degree is an equal effort between the two of them. She holds back tears from her mother, “never having asked her to take me with her.” Suicidal thoughts become a negotiation of the “difference between having a life and being a life,” how you could let go of the first while the other remains.
In each of these moments, Koh never settles for easy descriptors like trauma or grief, instead seeking to re-mystify language as a route to examine what remains unspoken—or unsayable. When a man tells her, after a reading, that her parents abandoned her, she considers how he is mitigating his own understanding of parenthood as a father of two daughters. When her great-grandfather is murdered on Jeju Island during the political uprising between opposing forces (and backed by the U.S.), a woman tells Kumiko, Koh’s grandmother, that many islanders stoned him along with the police to prove their own innocence. But Koh asks, “What was supposed to be understood?” Seeking to give relief to her ancestors, if not the past, Koh observes how such imposing questions are reduced by history into simplified names that collapse complicated truths: “Though they did not know it, the days that Kumiko and her mother spent hiding on the mountain were given a name. Such were the questions raised by the Jeju Island Massacre of April 3, 1948.”
In reckoning with her mother’s letters and their lives together and apart, intermingled with the lives of her family, friends, and teachers, Koh’s re-mystification of language drives at demystifying not what we mean, but how we mean: “They say a person has so unique a set of meanings we ought to be incapable of understanding each other, yet we speak and teach as if by magic.” With Koh’s poetic sensibilities, she arranges letters, words, and stories so that they might make a kind of sense as a fragmented whole. In this way, universal truths dull against specific accountings, and definitive answers dim in light of unshakeable questions.
Reading The Magical Language of Others, I was reminded—as we must always be—that language is both stranger and friend, both familial and mystical. Thus, E.J. Koh’s memoir greeted me warmly and signaled for a response.