The Magical Language of Others
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.

The Magical Language of Others Details

TitleThe Magical Language of Others
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJan 7th, 2020
PublisherTin House Books
ISBN-139781947793385
Rating
GenreNonfiction, Autobiography, Memoir, Contemporary, Biography, History, Biography Memoir, Literature, Asian Literature, Family, Cultural

The Magical Language of Others Review

  • Olive
    January 1, 1970
    The below review originally appeared on Open Letters Review.Nearly every teen girl has probably had their own Home Alone fantasy at least once. As one’s age ticks upward, so does the restlessness for independence, particularly from one’s mother. She’s embarrassing. She’s restrictive. She seems out to make you unhappy. But like Kevin McCallister’s startling realization, it’s only when that figure is truly absent that a child begins to understand the power of a parent’s presence.E.J. Koh didn’t The below review originally appeared on Open Letters Review.Nearly every teen girl has probably had their own Home Alone fantasy at least once. As one’s age ticks upward, so does the restlessness for independence, particularly from one’s mother. She’s embarrassing. She’s restrictive. She seems out to make you unhappy. But like Kevin McCallister’s startling realization, it’s only when that figure is truly absent that a child begins to understand the power of a parent’s presence.E.J. Koh didn’t have much say in the matter when her parents, residents of the United States for a decade, announced they were repatriating to South Korea for a too-good-to-pass-up job opportunity. Sure, our author could have gone with them, but with a life fairly well established in California by age 14, it wasn’t exactly a consideration that stayed too long in her mind. Nor did it seem to be a mandate from her parents, who arranged for her to live with her older brother until she was ready to go off to college.In 2005, her parents had been gone nineteen months when she began receiving handwritten letters from her mother, all in Korean except for a few English words peppered in. These letters supplemented other communication Koh had with her mother, but seem to have added something different. Translated by the author and collected in her new memoir, The Magical Language of Others, they read like an extended, fussing hand, hoping to hold onto that mother-daughter bond across an ocean of distance. Though we find out immediately that the author never wrote her mother back, we know the letters held immense meaning:Once a week, a letter came. I heard her voice, closer than it felt over the phone. I read them in my room, sitting at the desk, standing in the doorway, lying on the bed. I folded the letter and slipped it into its envelope. I placed it on my nightstand. I kept her close. I read a letter once or twice. Moving my lips, I read it again. Each time, I hoped to see something new, a word that I had missed. When I put it away, a panic returned. I took out the same letter and, with no thought to what I had read before, started over. There is no dissection of the letters or of the author’s feelings about the absence of her mother in those critical years of development into womanhood. Indeed, the letters are presented mainly without comment and in between the author’s recollections of those years of physical estrangement. She is not forthright with her feelings, but the selected memories hint at her emotions: an intensive language course in Japan at age seventeen unveils a need for belonging as she bonds with her fellow students; a story of her family background leads to a questioning of identity; finally, her dive into the world of poetry hints at her lingering resentment and feelings of abandonment.There is a whole shadow self lingering behind the words of this book; it only suggests the true pain and longing that the reader can feel in the pit of their stomach. There is no doubt that a second book’s pages could be filled with all that’s left unsaid here. The absence of such words gives this book a quiet, melancholic tone. Wounds kept hidden in this book do not interrupt its smooth, elegant prose, though it is the literary equivalent of sweeping matters under the rug.The void left by the absence of such a discussion leads to the consideration of what the mother-daughter pair may have missed out on during those years. As a teenager, a girl may push her mother away, but relies upon her like an anchor, leaving a trail of guide rope as the girl pushes herself further and further outward into the world. The learning of herself comes in the distancing, while knowing she can always come home. For our author, home could not be her mother because her mother was not at home.Meanwhile, Koh mentions in her introductory passage (which doubles as her translator’s note) that her mother, at times in her letters, dips into the third-person perspective, referring to herself as “Mommy.” As the author notices, “Mommy addresses a child, who remains one in her letters.” She suspects that these moments were her mother’s act of parenting. Perhaps the guilt of leaving behind her children and the loss of the maternal role compelled her mother to put to paper these thoughts and pieces of advice as an attempt to reclaim an identity lost with the move.The harsh reality that the book exposes is that what is gone is truly gone; as is true in family connections and in sleep, there is no making up for what was lost. The mother-daughter clash that the majority of pairs experience, especially in the teenage years, may be brutal, but it hardens the bond between them and cements their love. As both the author and her mother recognize, she largely raised herself in those years and though she did so admirably, the feeling of floating adrift remains with her as an adult. The loss, like the letters, lingers. The Magical Language of Others is a beautiful, sorrowful kind of wandering into the past. It is the kind of recollection that has spikes, the ones that, despite the passing years, still tear at us when we pull them out of the proverbial, or even literal, closet.
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  • Christy
    January 1, 1970
    The Magical Language of Others is a story of memories. Much of this memoir is translated letters that Eun Ji received from her mother after her parents moved off to South Korea. Eun Ji and her brother were left completely alone in California. The mother's letters are littered with guilt about the abandonment, yet she never comes back for her daughter who isn't even an adult yet. They promised two years and then her father continues to sign renewal contracts for many more years. Her mother is The Magical Language of Others is a story of memories. Much of this memoir is translated letters that Eun Ji received from her mother after her parents moved off to South Korea. Eun Ji and her brother were left completely alone in California. The mother's letters are littered with guilt about the abandonment, yet she never comes back for her daughter who isn't even an adult yet. They promised two years and then her father continues to sign renewal contracts for many more years. Her mother is also always seeking love and forgiveness in her letters, and wishing Eun Ji to take care of herself. You see little snippets of her life in school, as a dancer, and a poet...but I was left feeling like I wanted more. The part I enjoyed the most was learning a little about her grandparents' history on both her mother and father's side. I don't really know how to rate this book. I didn't love it or hate it... I just feel indifferent about it. However, It was unique and nicely written.**Book was won in a Goodreads Giveaway - All opinions are my own**
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  • Janet (MommyTheReader)
    January 1, 1970
    This remarkable little book stirred up such heavy emotion within me. You'd quickly realize Koh is a poet, even without reading so in her bio. The way she frames her story, the words she picks, that intimate connection she makes with you in less than 200 pages, the honest biting beauty in all of it, ahhh, I'm still gushing over this book. 5 brilliant stars. This remarkable little book stirred up such heavy emotion within me. You'd quickly realize Koh is a poet, even without reading so in her bio. The way she frames her story, the words she picks, that intimate connection she makes with you in less than 200 pages, the honest biting beauty in all of it, ahhh, I'm still gushing over this book. 5 brilliant stars. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
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  • Andrew
    January 1, 1970
    This autobiography is adjacent to a memory box-- mixed in with Eun Ji's tenderly translated letters from her mother, we see bits and pieces of her life, the mundane and the extraordinary, as she navigates high school and college life a continent away from her parents. E.J. becomes many things-- a driven student, a dancer, a poet. Koh also delves into the history of both her maternal and paternal grandmothers; they too have fascinating stories. Heartfelt and sweet, this beautiful memoir will This autobiography is adjacent to a memory box-- mixed in with Eun Ji's tenderly translated letters from her mother, we see bits and pieces of her life, the mundane and the extraordinary, as she navigates high school and college life a continent away from her parents. E.J. becomes many things-- a driven student, a dancer, a poet. Koh also delves into the history of both her maternal and paternal grandmothers; they too have fascinating stories. Heartfelt and sweet, this beautiful memoir will immerse you in its pages.
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  • Bina Bhakta
    January 1, 1970
    Beautifully written. Definitely will need a few years to process this book Beautifully written. Definitely will need a few years to process this book 😭
  • Lynda
    January 1, 1970
    Many thanks to the publisher (Tin House) for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This book is amazing, and walks a fine line between prose and poetry, telling the stories of women, abandonment, war, death, family relationships and all from the eyes of different generations in different countries. This author has a great future. Cons: there were times in reading this book where I couldn't tell which person/generation we were hearing from, but another reading or two should clarify Many thanks to the publisher (Tin House) for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This book is amazing, and walks a fine line between prose and poetry, telling the stories of women, abandonment, war, death, family relationships and all from the eyes of different generations in different countries. This author has a great future. Cons: there were times in reading this book where I couldn't tell which person/generation we were hearing from, but another reading or two should clarify my misunderstanding.
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  • Audrey
    January 1, 1970
    Beautifully written with unflinching honesty. This memoir encompasses mothers’ love and guilt for their child while that child also learns about her family’s history. E.J.’s pain is so raw it’s sometimes difficult to process. It the memoir is really about the women of this family as they survive their respective hardships and reconcile it with love and forgiveness. I received an arc from the publisher but all opinions are my own.
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  • Katie
    January 1, 1970
    I’m not totally sure what to make of this memoir. It’s about loneliness and forgiveness, but it’s also about generational suffering and abandonment. When Eun Ji’s parents leave her and her brother alone in California to return to South Korea for work, it’s under the guise that they’re “doing it for their children.” Eun Ji’s mother calls her and writes letters about how much she misses her, yet the statements always feel a bit hollow, maybe because we see that Eun Ji is learning to raise herself. I’m not totally sure what to make of this memoir. It’s about loneliness and forgiveness, but it’s also about generational suffering and abandonment. When Eun Ji’s parents leave her and her brother alone in California to return to South Korea for work, it’s under the guise that they’re “doing it for their children.” Eun Ji’s mother calls her and writes letters about how much she misses her, yet the statements always feel a bit hollow, maybe because we see that Eun Ji is learning to raise herself.Later we learn that Eun Ji’s grandmother abandoned her daughter for a time while her grandfather was having an affair. Eun Ji’s mother repeats the same sentiment many of us still hear now that “when you have a daughter you’ll understand.”No child should be without their parents, and we can see how Eun Ji suffers without them. I think that the end of the book was actually the most illuminating for me when Eun Ji’s mother says that all the sacrifices she made were for her children… but then when they’re finally together as a family again, her parents both leave immediately to take care of an issue at their motel. This selfishness is something I wish would have been unraveled a little more throughout the story. I was hoping to see the two women have a conversation about the pain that their separation had caused, some kind of mutual understanding, but that moment never arrived. I think this is a powerful memoir about the “loss” of one’s parents, but I guess I was looking for closer examination of Eun Ji’s feelings.See more of my reviews: Blog // Instagram
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  • Greg Barbee
    January 1, 1970
    Magnanimity. It has been several years since a book compelled me to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning finishing it, and yet E.J. Koh’s extraordinary, magnanimous memoir, The Magical Language of Others, did just that. Eun Ji’s recounting of her relationship with her mother and family over the last 20 or so years exhibits power and grace in poetic (not surprising, given her experience and success as a poet) prose.I particularly enjoyed the description of Eun Ji’s recounting of her Magnanimity. It has been several years since a book compelled me to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning finishing it, and yet E.J. Koh’s extraordinary, magnanimous memoir, The Magical Language of Others, did just that. Eun Ji’s recounting of her relationship with her mother and family over the last 20 or so years exhibits power and grace in poetic (not surprising, given her experience and success as a poet) prose.I particularly enjoyed the description of Eun Ji’s recounting of her experiences persevering, coming of age, and ultimately triumphing. Her journey to forgiveness is a paradigm of magnanimity. Even more riveting, the parallels raised by her description of the lives of her grandmothers brought to mind the incredible writing and stories of Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), Krys Lee (Drifting House) and Crystal Hana Kim (If You Leave Me). I could not offer higher praise.One of Eun Ji’s mother’s letters offers the advice that “[w]hat we see changes according to what we look for.” In The Magical Language of Others, I was looking for a moving story. The book beautifully offers that and then some. It will undoubtedly touch common elements in each reader’s experience, while at the same time providing a poignant context of one woman’s (and one family’s) history, experience, love and compassion.Finally, a note on the audiobook (I so wanted to finish the book to see what became of the Koh family that I purchased it as well): E.J. Koh’s reading of her own memoir is heartbreaking at times, calming at others, and riveting throughout. Highly recommend, and I’m overjoyed that this was my first read of 2020.
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  • Kyra Johnson
    January 1, 1970
    Thank you @tin_house & @thisisejkoh for this gorgeous, unflinchingly honest memoir. The Magical Language of Others details Koh’s personal experiences, her family’s fascinating history, explores the beauty of language and the power of a love shaped by distance. Koh’s father receives a substantial job offer in Korea and both parents leave a fifteen-year-old Koh in the care of her older brother in California. Koh is left on her own at a pivotal and complicated age which has a great impact on Thank you @tin_house & @thisisejkoh for this gorgeous, unflinchingly honest memoir. ⁣⁣The Magical Language of Others details Koh’s personal experiences, her family’s fascinating history, explores the beauty of language and the power of a love shaped by distance. ⁣⁣Koh’s father receives a substantial job offer in Korea and both parents leave a fifteen-year-old Koh in the care of her older brother in California. Koh is left on her own at a pivotal and complicated age which has a great impact on her. Written in Korean, letters from Koh’s mother are scattered between chapters in which she expresses her affection and seeks forgiveness. At the time, Koh didn’t entirely understand the letters but discovered them later and translated them for this memoir. It’s clear that Koh found her calling in poetry because her writing swept me away and overwhelmed me with emotion. This is a must-read so look for it on January 7th, 2020!⁣
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  • Aleya Elkins
    January 1, 1970
    This is absolutely my new favorite book. I cannot recommend it enough. Koh has a unique ability to share entire periods of life through minutely detailed snapshots. I often struggle with books which jump quickly through time as I hate the feeling of missing out, but Koh's words are so perfectly selected that I never had this issue. I was left stunned multiple times by the weight of a short phrase. This book is as stark and steadfast as it is poetic and moving. I've never encountered an author This is absolutely my new favorite book. I cannot recommend it enough. Koh has a unique ability to share entire periods of life through minutely detailed snapshots. I often struggle with books which jump quickly through time as I hate the feeling of missing out, but Koh's words are so perfectly selected that I never had this issue. I was left stunned multiple times by the weight of a short phrase. This book is as stark and steadfast as it is poetic and moving. I've never encountered an author who is able to write with such uncompromising historical accuracy and transparent emotion. I can't wait to read it again.
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  • Shilo
    January 1, 1970
    This book is an exceptional read: part memoir, part history, part generational saga. E.J. Koh moves fluidly from memoirist to historian, from historian to biographer with swift and deft strides that feel expansive even as the text itself is spare. What connects all of these elements is her journey through language beginning first with her mother(s) language, Korean, but grounded firmly in American English. We journey with her to the language of Japanese, another branch of her ancestry, where we This book is an exceptional read: part memoir, part history, part generational saga. E.J. Koh moves fluidly from memoirist to historian, from historian to biographer with swift and deft strides that feel expansive even as the text itself is spare. What connects all of these elements is her journey through language beginning first with her mother(s) language, Korean, but grounded firmly in American English. We journey with her to the language of Japanese, another branch of her ancestry, where we discover that language is more than words; it is movements, attitude, everything that goes unsaid. We discover, not for the first time, but with her, as she understands the language of the body and of men through the language of dance. Finally, we come to poetry, the language of letting go, or reckoning. There is so much in this text that I can not speak to or fathom, but the way in which we excavate our lives and those of who we love to get at the heart and root of grief, trauma, sorrow, and more potently, hope, compassion and love, is a universality that speaks to the many languages we all speak.
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  • Allisyn Ruttle
    January 1, 1970
    I listened to the audiobook, though I wish I’d read the physical copy. The letters in this book have a lot of nuances that are better seen than heard. Giving 4 stars overall - the pace and the transitions from different points in time were inconsistent at times, but I wonder if that would be alleviated had I opted for the paper copy over the audiobook. Overall, insightful portrayal of a mother daughter relationship and the weight that women carry from generations of women before them.
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  • Neeve
    January 1, 1970
    I think this book would resonate very strongly with some people - just not me
  • Stephanie Crowe
    January 1, 1970
    How can I express myself upon reading this most unusual memoir? I experienced a myriad of emotions as I read through the letters that Eun Ji received from her mother who had left her in California at 15 while she and E.J.’s father returned to Korea. Initially I was upset that the mother would abandoned her. Although her letters seemed to speak of love I questioned the sincerity of her words. As E.J. continued her journey to become educated and dedicate herself to poetry, my understanding and How can I express myself upon reading this most unusual memoir? I experienced a myriad of emotions as I read through the letters that Eun Ji received from her mother who had left her in California at 15 while she and E.J.’s father returned to Korea. Initially I was upset that the mother would abandoned her. Although her letters seemed to speak of love I questioned the sincerity of her words. As E.J. continued her journey to become educated and dedicate herself to poetry, my understanding and feelings changed. There is so much emotion shared throughout this memoir from sadness to acceptance and finally to love. There is much to gain by reading this personal story and it spurred many questions about life and letting go that stayed with me long after reading was done.
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  • SundayAtDusk
    January 1, 1970
    “Looking at a person’s life, one could not observe a single memory and claim to know. One must understand each and every memory to glimpse the meaning of a life.”E. J. Koh tells her life story in this memoir using memories. No more. There is really no deep analysis or explanations. The reader must come up with their own thoughts as to why things happened, why things were as they were. This will probably cause some problems with some readers at times, because her parent’s actions when she was a “Looking at a person’s life, one could not observe a single memory and claim to know. One must understand each and every memory to glimpse the meaning of a life.”E. J. Koh tells her life story in this memoir using memories. No more. There is really no deep analysis or explanations. The reader must come up with their own thoughts as to why things happened, why things were as they were. This will probably cause some problems with some readers at times, because her parent’s actions when she was a teenager and young adult will seem mystifying.When Ms. Koh was 15, her parents decided her father would accept a higher paying job in South Korea, with lots of perks, including paying the tuition of their children’s undergraduate studies in the United States. He was already doing quite well in his job in the United States, but this was a very enticing offer. Since they decided the author probably would not adjust well to life in Korea, she ends up moving 93 miles away to Davis, California, to live with her older brother, an unmarried college student. There would be letters and calls and visits, but her parents did not move back to the United States until she was in her 20s.As the author’s mother even acknowledges, Ms. Koh raised herself. Admirably. One can see her mother’s mixed feelings about that matter in the letters she sent from Korea that are published in the memoir. Yet it’s hard not to think she is thoroughly enjoying her life in Korea, without her children; one reason being that she was back with her siblings and other relatives. At times, she sounds like an older sister in what she says to the author in her letters, not like a mother. Is that what she actually wanted to be? An older sister? Or a daughter and not a mother? Or did she simply believe, due to past family hardships and horrors; that her daughter was better off and safer living in the United States, where she was born; while she and her husband were better off living in Korea?While Ms. Koh does not dwell at all in the memoir on her personal problems during the years her parents were away, she does mention eating problems and suicidal thoughts. This situation was reminiscent of something Rollo May once pointed out in one of his books, when discussing teenage girls and their mothers. He said it was not lack of maternal love that caused the most psychological problems, but lies about love. Those who knew for sure their mothers did not love or want them, were better able to reorient themselves and get on with their lives, than those girls who only had suspicions. It seems it would indeed be difficult to believe all the loving words and advice in letters from a mother who seemed to be doing nothing to get back to her daughter, nothing to have her daughter be with her. It is poetry that helps E. J. Koh to reorient herself. It is poetry that gives her life direction and meaning. As she said in one of her first poetry classes, she was doing nothing, absolutely nothing, before she started writing and studying poetry. One guesses being in poetry classes and teaching poetry classes may have started giving her a sense of family, too, of being where she belonged. It’s not that she was estranged from her parents and brother at the end of this memoir, however. Not at all. At the end, the family is back together in the United States. Life goes on with spoken words, like written words, that may or may not be true.(Note: I received a free ARC of this book from Amazon Vine.)
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  • Lauren
    January 1, 1970
    I'm feeling conflicted over what to say about this memoir. The writing is beautiful (I've been familiar with EJ's writing for years, so that's not surprising) and she uses it effectively to capture the memories scattered throughout. What has me conflicted is the overall occurrence that lead to the creation of this emotional memoir.Why did her parents think that it was a good idea to leave their children all alone - one of whom was under 18 at the time - to move back to Korea? Why did they think I'm feeling conflicted over what to say about this memoir. The writing is beautiful (I've been familiar with EJ's writing for years, so that's not surprising) and she uses it effectively to capture the memories scattered throughout. What has me conflicted is the overall occurrence that lead to the creation of this emotional memoir.Why did her parents think that it was a good idea to leave their children all alone - one of whom was under 18 at the time - to move back to Korea? Why did they think it was a good idea to delay their return with two more contract renewals? Her parents, or at least her mother, were aware of the mental anguish and stress they placed upon their children, and so it all just doesn't make sense to me. But I also consider the circumstance they themselves may have been in. If it weren't for the fact that this country makes it so damn difficult for non-white immigrants to succeed in, would they have considered moving back to Korea at all?I consider the big picture, and through such a lens, I think about what the major takeaway is that EJ wanted to convey. She struggled big time, yes, and yet within that same time period, she found solace in poetry and made it an important part of her life. Maybe what she wanted to convey apart from reflections on the women who came before her is to show how she dealt with the circumstance she was given, made the best of it, and how she carries through now that that circumstance has come to an end. Perhaps a better way of putting it is by way of a line from a novel that EJ wrote years ago (which I would recommend if it weren't for the fact that it's pretty much impossible to find now): "Being alone does not make you crazy. It reminds you of who you are."
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  • Lauren
    January 1, 1970
    Eun Ji is fifteen when her parents return to Korea for her father's job, leaving her and her brother alone in California, feeling abandoned by parents who believed they had made the right decision: that providing more for their children with their absence was better than providing less with their presence. Eun Ji's mother writes her letters, telling her about her aunts and uncles, renewed life in South Korea, and how much she misses her—her guilt about leaving never expressed directly but Eun Ji is fifteen when her parents return to Korea for her father's job, leaving her and her brother alone in California, feeling abandoned by parents who believed they had made the right decision: that providing more for their children with their absence was better than providing less with their presence. Eun Ji's mother writes her letters, telling her about her aunts and uncles, renewed life in South Korea, and how much she misses her—her guilt about leaving never expressed directly but shimmering under the surface. Eun Ji reads the letters and hides them, ink streaked from her tears. Years later, she discovers 49 letters in a plastic box. Now a student, dancer, poet, she translates her mother's letters into English..The memoir intertwines her mother's letters with Eun Ji’s own memories from this period and the stories of her mother's mother and mother-in-law. It is the history of the women in her family: her grandmothers Jun and Kumiko, the first lovesick, fighting against the social pressures to passively accept the affairs of her cheating husband, the gossip of her village, and depression; the second a witness to the horrors of the Jeju Island Massacre, the murder of her father, and the resentment toward her own mother. "I'm an accumulation of their lives," Eun Ji tells an older man after a reading. "Whatever I say or do now can give relief to the past—and to them.".A story of mothers and daughters, heritage and language, and the imperfect nature of love, E. J. Koh's memoir is masterfully written, a beautiful and heartrending portrait of a family told through four generations of women. 
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  • Teresa Tomaz
    January 1, 1970
    When I first started reading "The Magical Language of Others", I was not sure of my feelings towards it. I guess I was afraid it would mainly consist of letters. Even though I deeply enjoyed some books with letters ("Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke and "The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh" come to mind), I often prefer a reflective autobiographical style. But I have to say I immediately started loving E. J. Koh's book.What surprised me the most was the mental image that it projected When I first started reading "The Magical Language of Others", I was not sure of my feelings towards it. I guess I was afraid it would mainly consist of letters. Even though I deeply enjoyed some books with letters ("Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke and "The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh" come to mind), I often prefer a reflective autobiographical style. But I have to say I immediately started loving E. J. Koh's book.What surprised me the most was the mental image that it projected in my mind. I felt immersed in E. J. Koh's words, as they if they were powerful waves: waves of grief, waves of rage, waves of sorrow, waves of despair, waves of words. In a way, I thought of "The Magical Language of Others" as a reflection about the eternal human struggle of searching for a sense of belonging: belonging to strangers, to our family, to our loved ones, to the world, to our society's expectations; and ultimately to ourselves. It touched me in many different ways. There are powerful passages and scenes that I will often remember and beautiful words that read like poetry ("Children have no concept that every moment comes to end, but rather feel as though their suffering, at present, will last for an eternity").I am not Korean, American or Japanese. There are some concepts that are deeply related to a certain cultural background, and this is one of the things I loved the most about the book. Cultural backgrounds are like cracks in a ceramic object: they make them unique, but it is difficult for us outsiders to understand its beauty or replicate it. And for me it is a blessing that art allows us to contact with all this."The Magical Language of Others" is a beautiful memoir. A beautiful book.
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  • Preeti
    January 1, 1970
    The moment I started this memoir I was sucked in and wanted to know more about E.J. Koh and her family. They are a South Korean family who had been living in America for many years. Koh's father received a job offer in South Korea so both her parent's decided to go and leave 15 year old Koh and her older brother alone in California. This separation affected Koh deeply. While apart for about 6-7 years Koh's mother wrote her letters to bridge the absence. At the time Koh didn't have a strong grasp The moment I started this memoir I was sucked in and wanted to know more about E.J. Koh and her family. They are a South Korean family who had been living in America for many years. Koh's father received a job offer in South Korea so both her parent's decided to go and leave 15 year old Koh and her older brother alone in California. This separation affected Koh deeply. While apart for about 6-7 years Koh's mother wrote her letters to bridge the absence. At the time Koh didn't have a strong grasp on the Korean language. Koh found the letter's after many years and translated them for this memoir. Koh studied translation and poetry in college.I was curious to know what it does to a teenager to not have parents around during such pivotal moments in their lives. Koh retreated inward and seemed to just drift along, feeling alone for much of her life. We also read very briefly about her eating disorder and suicidal thoughts. The complex emotions are no explored in detail and much is left to the readers interpretation. There is history of the lives of her mother and grandmothers woven into this book so in some ways it didn't feel like a true memoir. But I think understanding these stories helped shape our understanding of the author's life. I loved that Koh found her calling in poetry which served as an anchor for her. The book is very slim at only about 200 pages and I could have easily read many more about the complexity of Koh's life. Overall I was very swept away by this memoir and would love to reread and examine it further. Koh's writing is truly beautiful..."Nobody loves you like your mother. Not your father, not your husband, and not your children. While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life."Thank you to Tin House for the gifted book. This in no way impacts my review. All opinions are my own. 
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  • Tony Mercer
    January 1, 1970
    The Magical Language of Others is a poetic genealogy of a family marred by atrocity, immigrating to the United States and then leaving their children to care for themselves as they finish high school and transition to adulthood. But rather than the story driving the narrative, it is language that fuels the book: letters written by her mother, poetry she has written, words of her companions, and stories of her ancestors. Koh notes, "Korean classroom etiquette places the greatest burden on the The Magical Language of Others is a poetic genealogy of a family marred by atrocity, immigrating to the United States and then leaving their children to care for themselves as they finish high school and transition to adulthood. But rather than the story driving the narrative, it is language that fuels the book: letters written by her mother, poetry she has written, words of her companions, and stories of her ancestors. Koh notes, "Korean classroom etiquette places the greatest burden on the student. If the teacher is cryptic, it is the student's job to understand. American classrooms burden the teacher, who is expected to be clear and specific rather than wise." Her story has no direct answers or quick solutions. The burden is on us as the readers to interpret for ourselves the story as it comes in waves. With her background in poetry and translation, E. J. Koh weaves a tale of absence, disorientation, reckoning, and magnanimity. All of the wandering and meandering of a high school student trying to find her place: attending a Japanese language school in Japan, auditioning for a Kpop group in Seoul, struggling with suicidal thoughts, nearly flunking out of college, finding poetry and a voice, are mixed with the struggles her parents and grandparents went through to survive the Jeju massacre, struggle with extramarital affairs, and avoid the slaughter of Koreans in Japan. She comes to no conclusions, never explaining, "what it's supposed to mean". Instead, she allows the world and the characters in it to be what they are.
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  • Emi Bevacqua
    January 1, 1970
    E.J. Koh is a candid writer with a lyrical bent, and while I feel it is quite gracious and courageous of her to share the 49 letters from her mother, I also feel she introduced a lot of tantalizing or provocative inklings of stuff she's been through but then didn't explain what came of it. And most importantly, I think Koh is much too young to be subtitling this a memoir... unless I misunderstood and it's intended to be about her mother? Regardless of which member of this family it's centered E.J. Koh is a candid writer with a lyrical bent, and while I feel it is quite gracious and courageous of her to share the 49 letters from her mother, I also feel she introduced a lot of tantalizing or provocative inklings of stuff she's been through but then didn't explain what came of it. And most importantly, I think Koh is much too young to be subtitling this a memoir... unless I misunderstood and it's intended to be about her mother? Regardless of which member of this family it's centered on, I love the book for its layers of history and subterfuge that render one particular family member Japanese speaking and the rest Korean, the way that each culture perceives the other differently through generations, and that language and guilt and yearning can all combine to create such a wholly tangible message of love.I did take issue with her continually translating what is clearly spelled out as "Mom" in these letters she's printed out, as "Mommy," i.e., "For her, she is always Mommy". But, maybe that's in Korean, which I don't read. I did identify with so much Japanese and California in this story, and as a mother, THIS: "Nobody loves you like your mother. Not your father, not your husband, and not your children. While your parents are alive, eat as much of their love as you can, so it can sustain you for the rest of your life." This ebook is due out in January 2020, I thank NetGalley for the ARC.
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  • Brittany
    January 1, 1970
    **I received a copy of this book from Tin House in exchange for my honest review. The thoughts, below, are my genuine reaction to this book.**Koh is a poet and you can feel her poetic urgings and longings throughout this moving, multigenerational story. "The water touched low on the cliffs. Kumiko's father watched his daughter, who had surprised the islanders with her irrepressible spirit. Her hair and eyes filled with the light of the sea in front of her. He noticed her looking for the women **I received a copy of this book from Tin House in exchange for my honest review. The thoughts, below, are my genuine reaction to this book.**Koh is a poet and you can feel her poetic urgings and longings throughout this moving, multigenerational story. "The water touched low on the cliffs. Kumiko's father watched his daughter, who had surprised the islanders with her irrepressible spirit. Her hair and eyes filled with the light of the sea in front of her. He noticed her looking for the women who had jumped off the cliffs to their deaths. She scanned the deepest waters until her concern grew into the size of an adult." (p. 108) When I first received a copy of this book, I was stunned by the beautiful cover art and then unsure whether Koh could fully convey the lives of multiple generations of women within a ~200 page story. I was wrong. The skills that allow her to craft finely-honed poems have also allowed her to build rich characters and worlds in which I felt like each character stands strongly and meaningfully. Her characters are bound together painfully and beautifully (as family can often be) and their lives are well-informed by history at large, as well as their own complex, personal histories and struggles.To put it frankly, I loved this book.
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  • Sarah-Hope
    January 1, 1970
    I found The Magical Language of Others a confusing, but rewarding title. The book's odd-numbered chapters offer English translations of letters sent to the author by her mother when the author lived with her brother in the U.S. and her parents returned to Korea because her father had received an exceptional job offer. In the even-numbered chapters, the author narrates different part of her family's history, going back several generations.The confusion and rewards both result because the book is I found The Magical Language of Others a confusing, but rewarding title. The book's odd-numbered chapters offer English translations of letters sent to the author by her mother when the author lived with her brother in the U.S. and her parents returned to Korea because her father had received an exceptional job offer. In the even-numbered chapters, the author narrates different part of her family's history, going back several generations.The confusion and rewards both result because the book is so firmly grounded in culture and history. I am not conversant in this culture or this history, so I have to read by gathering clues, looking for the significance of words or actions that might be obvious to a reader from a background similar to Koh's. I have a general sense of the tensions between Korea and Japan, but the specific historical moments she describes are unfamiliar to me.I liked this book, but it wasn't an easy read, and I left it uncertain how much I had understood of what Koh hoped to communicate.I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss+. The opinions are my own.
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  • Sarah
    January 1, 1970
    I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.What a gorgeous memoir. Poets are such great writers of creative prose because they know lyricism and that to me is everything. Koh is also a translator (she speaks/writes/translates Korean and Japanese) so her sense of language is so nuanced an expansive. Also, it’s really beautiful.This is the story of Koh’s mother writing al enter to her every week during her adolescence and young adulthood, when her I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.What a gorgeous memoir. Poets are such great writers of creative prose because they know lyricism and that to me is everything. Koh is also a translator (she speaks/writes/translates Korean and Japanese) so her sense of language is so nuanced an expansive. Also, it’s really beautiful.This is the story of Koh’s mother writing al enter to her every week during her adolescence and young adulthood, when her parents moved to Korea for work and left Koh and her older brother in California. It’s the story of translating across generations and gaps in understanding and complex emotions and pain and love, and also literally translating between languages with different structures and meanings. It’s about inherited trauma, and inherited resilience. It’s about a dance crew and an eating disorder. It’s about infidelity and toxic masculinity. It’s about hiding and finding power and hiding and grief. It’s about imperfection and forgiveness. And it’s so short! But still it’s about all of these things. This book made me cry and it made my eyes widen. I love it so much and would highly recommend it.
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  • Claire
    January 1, 1970
    After reading this book, I look forward to future works of E.J. Koh - I'm a fan! This book covers mental illness, generational trauma, childhood trauma, Japanese-Korean racial tensions, immigration, and the struggle with cultural assimilation. The author is a Korean American woman born in California by Korean immigrant parents. Due to these circumstances, she is neither fluent in Korean nor of English. Her parents eventually leave Koh and her older brother in California so her father could work After reading this book, I look forward to future works of E.J. Koh - I'm a fan! This book covers mental illness, generational trauma, childhood trauma, Japanese-Korean racial tensions, immigration, and the struggle with cultural assimilation. The author is a Korean American woman born in California by Korean immigrant parents. Due to these circumstances, she is neither fluent in Korean nor of English. Her parents eventually leave Koh and her older brother in California so her father could work at a prestigious job in Korea. During this period, Koh's mother writes her weekly letters which the author will later translate into English that ultimately leads to the creation of this book. Koh's discovery of poetry - of its ability to express the inexpressible; it's ability to transcend everyday sentences - led to her self-discovery. By exploring both her maternal and paternal grandmother's unique lives, understanding her mother's past, and the racial traumas, she realizes she carries on all their legacies both good and bad. I highly recommend this book for those who'd like a better understanding of the Korean culture especially in regards to its history with the Japanese. For third culture kids or people who grew up bilingual. This book has a wide emotional range and is very elegantly written. Be warned though, it's not a happy-go-lucky book!
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  • Rebecca H.
    January 1, 1970
    The Magical Language of Others is beautiful as an object as well as a piece of writing. It tells the story of Koh’s parents’ decision to return to South Korea for work, leaving her as a 15-year-old in the care of her older brother. During their separation, Koh’s mother wrote her letters in Korean, images of which are scattered throughout the book, along with Koh’s own translations. Her separation from her mother was traumatic. She writes of her struggle to come to terms with her parents’ The Magical Language of Others is beautiful as an object as well as a piece of writing. It tells the story of Koh’s parents’ decision to return to South Korea for work, leaving her as a 15-year-old in the care of her older brother. During their separation, Koh’s mother wrote her letters in Korean, images of which are scattered throughout the book, along with Koh’s own translations. Her separation from her mother was traumatic. She writes of her struggle to come to terms with her parents’ decisions and looks back at her grandparents’ stories to examine how personal and national history shapes a family. Koh’s success as a poet shines through in the beauty and delicacy of her prose. This book explores writing and translation as well as a telling a coming-of-age story. It’s a powerful look at family, culture, language, and selfhood.https://bookriot.com/2020/01/08/indie...
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  • Anna
    January 1, 1970
    I was drawn to this book by the premise but also by the beautiful cover art. It was hard to engage with in the beginning and after realizing that the author has a background in poetry, it started to make sense.The strengths of this book are any section where the author talks about the past -- particularly when she describes the history of her grandparents.The weaknesses of the book are that the timeline was wonky and disorienting. Also, any section with dialog (especially dialog with the I was drawn to this book by the premise but also by the beautiful cover art. It was hard to engage with in the beginning and after realizing that the author has a background in poetry, it started to make sense.The strengths of this book are any section where the author talks about the past -- particularly when she describes the history of her grandparents.The weaknesses of the book are that the timeline was wonky and disorienting. Also, any section with dialog (especially dialog with the author's mother) were choppy and difficult to connect with.At the end of the day, I'm not a huge poetry person, so I'm not sure I was the correct audience for the writing style. I also wanted the author to go further with her inner reflections. We got glimpses of how her situation affected her, but for a memoir, I wanted more self-reflection and less exposition. It felt like the poetic prose was her way of coping with the situation, but it was a personal journey that I felt excluded from.
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  • Erin
    January 1, 1970
    This offers a beautiful insight on various women experiences in Japan and Korea. It covers the Separation of North and South Korea, as well as the Japan and Korea conflict. Moreover, it follows the author's experience as a Korean-American and her relationship with her mother. I found all the generational stories absolutely captivating. The author's mom's letters were also so very wholesome and warm. My only issue was the distance the author created once she started speaking of herself. It's This offers a beautiful insight on various women experiences in Japan and Korea. It covers the Separation of North and South Korea, as well as the Japan and Korea conflict. Moreover, it follows the author's experience as a Korean-American and her relationship with her mother. I found all the generational stories absolutely captivating. The author's mom's letters were also so very wholesome and warm. My only issue was the distance the author created once she started speaking of herself. It's extremely jarring to go from a raw account of one of her grandmother's story to a cold, distant one of her own narrative. Nevertheless, her suffering came through in the end. You can tell the author hasn't forgiven her mom quite yet, but wanted the book to perform the act of forgiveness in her stead.
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  • Kristine
    January 1, 1970
    The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late November.So, so meaningful right away from the very first paragraph, these are 49 translated letters from the author's mother in about 90% near-beginner, 2nd level Korean and 10% (key terms) in English amid a sembled biography to fill the spaces in between. While she translates her mother's letters, she recalls living with her brother in California while their parents work in Seoul for about seven years; The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late November.So, so meaningful right away from the very first paragraph, these are 49 translated letters from the author's mother in about 90% near-beginner, 2nd level Korean and 10% (key terms) in English amid a sembled biography to fill the spaces in between. While she translates her mother's letters, she recalls living with her brother in California while their parents work in Seoul for about seven years; feelings of fear, loneliness, and mortality against her mother’s feelings of vanity, mock helplessness, and karmic vindication; and being steered away from joining a Korean dance crew and giving up college in California, but gaining ground and experience in poetry.
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