Though she was teaching at Hugo House and she’d finished an MFA in poetry and translation at Columbia University, E.J. Koh wasn’t sure she wanted to continue writing. “I was going through a really deep sense of depression,” she told me. “And I think I had taken writing to such an extent that it was no longer helping me with anything.” So she quit for six months.
Then late at night in 2016 she went on Twitter: “I’m writing a thousand love letters. Tell me about yourself, add a question/struggle & your mailing address.” The requests poured in from South Korea, the UK, Canada, “even someone who’s just across the street from me.”
Koh has since published a collection of poetry, A Lesser Love, and today she releases a memoir, The Magical Language of Others. Tonight, at Elliott Bay Book Company, she’ll hold a release party, talking with The Stranger’s Rich Smith. In the book, between chapters telling of her growing up, she translates letters that her mother sent her from Korea when Koh was young. Yet until recently, she hadn’t realized the parallels, both in form—Koh’s love letters (she’s done 103 so far) run about two pages, the same as her mother’s—and intent: Late in the book a teacher tells her, “You can say anything you want—with magnanimity." That feels, by the time you reach it, like a guiding statement. This is a book, in part, about words as an offering.
The Magical Language of Others is only about 200 spare pages, but never feels slight. It skips through Koh’s life. She did not speak until around age five. When she was 15, her parents moved back to South Korea for work, leaving her in California with her older brother to raise her, which devastated her. The letters her mother sent her were from overseas, when Koh’s Korean was nascent enough that she had to read the letters aloud to understand them. Until this book, she had not responded. She went to Japan and studied Japanese, refusing to eat in a restaurant until she could order properly. “If I could not learn a language,” she writes, “why bother with a complete meal?” She competed as part of a hip-hop dance group in L.A. She stumbled from that into poetry as a form of therapy, then to translation.
But it reaches beyond those borders, detailing how her grandmother was caught between Japanese and Korean identity and how she had to flee the Jeju Island massacre in 1948. Koh explores the ways that the “present is the revenge of the past,” how pain echoes between generations and how this can manifest in languages. She spoke English and her father learned it. His mother spoke Japanese, while Koh's mother spoke Korean. “They sort of hated each other,” she says of her grandmother and mom, for reasons that she later discovered were rooted in violence between the two countries. At the University of Washington, she’s now working on her PhD, looking at the “untranslatability of certain words that represent either trauma or love.” Translation is political, she says, containing the history of the languages you're working with.
Growing up with that clear understanding of the power and pain of language—an instrument of animosity—seems a fine way to forge a writer of intensity. See how Koh deals with her own birth: “The crown of my head split a fissure, and when my shoulders passed through, I nearly killed her. Broad, swathed in muscle and green veins, I was hairless except for the faint whiskers of eyebrows.” But a teacher tells her late in the book, “If you want to be a good poet, write poetry. If you want to be a great poet, then translate.”
The Magical Language of Others shows Koh working a language that moves beyond the violence of the past, toward a generosity, in part through the translation of her mother’s words, which become her own. “To my limits, I do not see my translations as complete,” she writes in her introductory note. “If her letters could go to sleep, my translations would be their dreams.”
E.J. Koh with Rich Smith
Jan 7, Elliott Bay Book Company, Free