A disciplined, engrossing work about learning to love generously and the role language can play in closing one off and opening one to understanding, The Magical Language of Others is an incredible achievement. A translation of memory, words, and feelings that, like all good translations, communicates the essence of the original text while creating something new and beautiful. Recommended By Rhianna W., Powells.com
E. J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others is told with an alchemical blend of clarity and weight that must be the product of her training both as a poet and as a translator. Koh builds a deep, subtle emotional resonance with a surgical delicacy that will resonate long after you finish the last page. Recommended By Keith M., Powells.com
With the mind of a poet E. J. Koh demonstrates true vulnerability in her memoir, telling her story through carefully chosen words. The effect is perfectly expressed prose, which neither indulges in sentiment nor does it challenge the reader to compete or compare lives, as her thoughtfully exposed life is laid bare. Koh’s journey transforming hardship into peace leaves one with a sense of wonder and respect at the dignity and grace of her strength. Recommended By Aubrey W., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
The Magical Language of Others is a powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh's parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother's absence. Her mother writes letters, in Korean, over the years seeking forgiveness and love — letters Eun Ji cannot fully understand until she finds them years later hidden in a box.
As Eun Ji translates the letters, she looks to history — her grandmother Jun's years as a lovesick wife in Daejeon, the horrors her grandmother Kumiko witnessed during the Jeju Island Massacre — and to poetry, as well as her own lived experience to answer questions inside all of us. Where do the stories of our mothers and grandmothers end and ours begin? How do we find words — in Korean, Japanese, English, or any language — to articulate the profound ways that distance can shape love? Eun Ji Koh fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy, and intergenerational trauma, arriving at insights that are essential reading for anyone who has ever had to balance love, longing, heartbreak, and joy.
The Magical Language of Others weaves a profound tale of hard-won selfhood and our deep bonds to family, place, and language, introducing — in Eun Ji Koh — a singular, incandescent voice.
Indisputably brilliant. I read The Magical Language of Others in a single sitting — all the while never wanting it to end. Jeannie Vanasco, Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl
This memoir broke my heart. The tragedies that filled the lives of Koh’s mother and grandmothers are woven into mythic, magic tales in Koh’s hands. Only by Koh’s grace and mastery are we not crushed by the stories within The Magical Language of Others. I could read this book a thousand times over. Sarah Blake, Naamah
"Throughout the work, Koh examines both the destructive and redemptive power of language." Library Journal
"The Magical Language of Others is an exquisite, challenging, and stunning memoir. E. J. Koh intricately melds her personal story with a broader view of Korean history. Through these pages, you are asked to experience one family's heartbreak, trauma, and complex love for each other. This memoir will pierce you." Crystal Hana Kim, If You Leave Me
"A coming-of-age story, a family story, and a meditation on language and translation, with an emotional range to match." Caitlin Horrocks, The Vexations
About the Author
E. J. Koh is the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize (Louisiana State U. Press, 2017). Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today, among others. She is the recipient of The MacDowell Colony and Kundiman fellowships and a 2017 ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship, and was runner-up for the 2018 Prairie Schooner Summer Nonfiction Prize.