A memoir about E. J. Koh’s formative years, The Magical Language of Others is structured around forty-nine letters, all that remain of a one-way correspondence from her mother over the seven years that they lived apart. Functioning as translator and memoirist, Koh revisits these letters as an adult and uses them as scaffolding to answer questions about herself. Along the way, she discovers a heritage of complex, disjointed attachments between her family’s mothers and daughters, where bonds of love are strained by various separations and people claim each other by virtue of their heartache. Koh decodes these unexpected dynamics and discoveries in a memoir that’s sublime.
When Koh was fourteen, her father received a job offer to head the technology department of a company in Seoul. Her parents accepted the three-year contract and relocated, leaving both of their children behind in California. With the company covering college tuition, two flights a year, and all the parents’ living expenses, the separation eventually stretched to seven years: “it was better to pay for your children than to stay with them.”
Although Koh doesn’t adhere to a strict chronology with the letters, she does allow her mother’s distinctive word choices, referents, and errors to stand. As both a translator and a recipient, she finds a depth of emotion, character, and voice in the letters’ limitations, and her shifts from letter to memoir capture the troubles of first love—a child’s for a mother—and the ways that love, like language, opens and closes a person.
When Koh’s mother speaks of her daughter’s work as a poet, she says, “My daughter teaches people how to let go.” In The Magical Language of Others, Koh uses a poet’s deftness to teach herself this lesson.
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