This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh.
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. — Keith M.
Toward the end of this remarkable memoir and translation project by poet E. J. Koh, she recounts how a fellow resident at a writer’s retreat — “the old man” — chases her out of a reading to vent about her parents’ behavior. Although the man’s questions aggravate Koh, he gives voice to the reader’s concerns and frustrations. Neither Koh nor her mother, through Koh’s careful translations of her letters, offer a rational justification for why Koh's parents abandoned her as a young teen when there was no pressing financial or humanitarian reason to do so. Koh’s candid descriptions of the psychological and physical toll of abandonment are sometimes hard to reconcile with the aloofness of her prose, and her mother’s guilt is difficult to swallow, often embedded in childlike descriptions of “play.” For 200 pages Koh lays bare the heart of her family, but is careful to guard what makes its tick. The result is like exploring a house through its windows.
As maddening as this can be for a reader expecting righteous anger, Koh’s restraint is evidence of a Herculean magnanimity, a trait her college mentor demanded of her: "'The poems you wrote before are unforgiving,’ Joy told me. “'You don’t have to forgive your mother. I’m not telling you to forgive her. But the poem must forgive her, or the poem must forgive you for not. Otherwise, it’s not a poem.'” Koh takes this advice to heart in The Magical Language of Others
, using her translations of her mother’s letters to allow her mother to speak for herself, revealing her own history of motherlessness and depression. Cognizant of the power inherent in reinterpreting and re-presenting lived experience as text, Koh includes photocopies of the original letters, but allows her choice in how to position the letters within the book, as well as their condition (wrinkled, tearstained, unmarred), to complicate her narrative.
Koh’s empathy extends to her grandmothers, in harrowing passages about their experiences during WWII and the Korean War. These sections provide additional history of parental loss, damage, and mental illness that contextualize her mother’s decision-making process and Koh’s personal struggles with self-harm and attachment. At its heart, The Magical Language of Others
is a sort of reverse coming-of-age story, in which the child comes into her own by relinquishing the self to join a fraught ancestral collective; “You know my grandmothers,” she replies to the old man, “I’m an accumulation of their lives. Whatever I say or do now can give relief to the past — and to them.”
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.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here