Book Reviews

The Magical Language of Others by E J Koh

The Magical Language of Others is a memoir by E J Koh that spans multiple generations and explores the complexities of transgressions that mothers and daughters commit, hard-won selfhood and the deeply painful but loving bonds one has to family, places, and memories.

Published: 2020 | Hardcover: 203 pages | Genre: Memoir

A powerful and aching memoir of pain, abandonment, loss, love, guilt and forgiveness, The Magical Language of Others is an exploration of the deeply complex relationship between mothers and daughters. Told through a series of 49 letters from a mother to her daughter, over the seven years they lived away from each other, this memoir is both emotionally intense and poetically heart-rending. 

When she was fifteen, Eun Ji Koh’s parents left her and her brother in California and took up a lucrative job offer in South Korea. As the head of the technology department of a company in Seoul, her father was given the kind of opportunity he wouldn’t have in America. Koh’s mother and father decided to shift to Seoul without their children. They justified their move as a chance for their family to lead a better life and for making up the time they had lost by being away from their own siblings back in South Korea. 

What was initially a three-year contract extended to seven years. For Koh, this separation from her mother in her formative years as a teenager, became a horrific struggle. Koh tried in vain to understand how her mother could have left her like this. 

To make up for the time they were spending apart, Koh’s mother would write a letter to her every week. She wrote in “kiddie” Korean interspersed with English definitions she found from a dictionary, as Koh’s Korean at the time was rudimentary. Since Koh only understood Korean by the ear, she read her mother’s letters aloud. But what she sought, more than the meaning of words, was for affection, warmth, and love of her mother through the distance that separated them. Those two-page letters had everything in them – advice, goofy humor, updates on what her mother was up to with her sisters and extended relations. But in between those lines was a mother’s guilt for abandoning her children who didn’t come back to be with them and chose to stay with her husband instead. 

 It might be true that one’s suffering and the suffering one has caused are the same

For Koh this meant days spent languishing in melancholy and sadness – she stopped attending school, spent freezing nights in a park, and cried her heart out over her mom’s letters. Eating disorders followed. Thoughts of self-harm followed. 

Koh’s search for meaning and identity took her to places. In Korea, she almost entered the world of K-pop as a hip hop dancer only to give up the idea when her father discovered the misogyny and the exploitation rampant in the industry. She went to Japan to study Japanese and discovered the violent history that runs through the memories of Koreans and Japanese. 

As an adult, when Koh revisits the letters her mother wrote to her from South Korea, she begins to discover the true meaning of the words. The letters become more than a means of communication – through them, Koh discovers her own ancestral heritage, the attachments between her grandmother and her mother, and her own feelings that had been compounded by separation. She tell us of her maternal grandmother Jun’s life in Daejeon. Jun’s daughter (Koh’s mother) experienced a similar abandonment as Koh – Jun left her husband and children to seek independence for herself after years of living as a lovesick wife. We learn of the horrors of Koh’s paternal grandmother Kumiko, who was a witness to the Jeju Island Massacre and had to reconcile her Japanese past with her own Korean heritage. 

 The present is the revenge of the past.

Writing with immense emotion and unflinching honesty, Koh shows us through her own experience and the stories of her mother and both grandmothers, the effect that parents can have on their children when they are physically separated . But the pain of mothers who distance themselves from their children is also evident. 

 There is a Korean belief that you are born the parent of the one you hurt most.

In her letters, Koh’s mother tries to rationalize her pain by looking for reasons why being away in South Korea is the best move for her children. Away from the letters, which Koh shares with her readers in their original form, Koh’s own pain is evident as she narrates the events while cruising through high school and college. Koh traces the journey she undertook when she turned to creative writing and poetry – a medium that helped her give a language to her feelings and which eventually led her to translate her mother’s letters that resulted in this book. 

The Magical Language of Others is a gut-wrenching read – it is history, it is a memoir, is a multi-generational saga. Koh finds that language allows her to open up as a person. But will language – English, Korean, Japanese, or any one for that matter – allow her to understand the ways in which love is shaped? Can she let go of the past trauma or will she continue to perpetuate and pass on the cycle of pain that has been coming down to her from generations?

 Writing a poem, I came out of absolute darkness. Hundreds of poems I wrote about my mother and grandmother, desperate to write down those who only ever appeared in my head. I hoped for a future with poems and to be alone with them. My mother left voicemails saying she wanted to hear my voice. My roommate knocked on my door, laughing nervously, checking that I was not a dead body. But it was the opposite. At my desk, I felt grateful and alive.

Poetry helped Koh understand she needed to forgive her mother. When asked what her daughter does, her mother said, “My daughter teaches people how to let go.” In a way, being a poet taught Koh to let go. 

As a translator, Koh shows us the depth of a mother’s emotions ranging from anguish to guilt to narcissism. As a recipient of the letters, Koh shows us the complexities of a child’s love for their parent – the ways in which we love them, feel betrayed by them and have to forgive them. 

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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