E.J. Koh’s memoir, “The Magical Language of Others,” is a haunting, gorgeous narrative that is lonely but lushly told. A coming-of-age story, it brings us through scenes that read like elegant fairy tales, where shark-tooth-patterned coats, envelopes of money, pearl earrings and other objects become charged with the intensity of the mother-daughter relationship.
Born in San Jose, Calif., in 1993, Koh was sent at age 15 to live with her older brother in Davis, Calif., when her father received a job offer in Seoul on a lucrative three-year contract. He and Koh’s mother moved back to South Korea to a life that included “two luxury cars, a condo in a skyscraper, shopping sprees at the company-owned department store, new friends like themselves” because “it was better to pay for your children than to stay with them.”
When Koh wakes up the first day without her parents, she “looked for her [mother] in every room. When I could not find her, I felt as if I would die. In the kitchen, on the refrigerator, there was a paper note with her number. Her handwriting was evenly spaced the way she might arrange herself standing in a crowd.” Koh’s poeticism shines throughout the memoir with startling images that anchor the human characters to the world almost like dolls in a dollhouse.
The “magical language of others” is more than the language of Koh’s mother in letters written to her daughter, in which she regales her daughter with conversations with her father and others, and gives her advice such as, “Promise (confirm) and say it to yourself (myself) constantly. If anyone asks for help, be (willing to) reach out your hand. If anyone needs guidance, you do so earnestly (honesty).”
Koh’s mother writes in “kiddie diction” because Koh’s Korean at the time was not as advanced as it became later, when she became an award-winning translator, and the italicized words are the words her mother included from her English dictionary.
These multiple linguistic currents — adult Korean, “kiddie” Korean, dictionary English — are later joined by Japanese, which both Koh’s mother and the young-adult Koh are learning (her mother while in Korea, Koh while in Japan).
In the remaining two-thirds of the memoir, we go back in time to pick up the thread of Koh’s paternal grandmother, Kumiko, who was born in 1923 into a Korean family in Japan who had to pretend to be Japanese for survival. Kumiko — a beautiful, affluent and heartbroken woman — also abandons her children for a time, and her adulterous husband begs her to return. Koh tells us that “through the cave of his mouth, there were the glistening eyes of their two sons and two daughters, calling her.”
Throughout this brilliant memoir, Koh offers brief meditations on the magic of language as a kind of fortress of solitude. “As I learned Japanese, roamed around Ueno … I learned to isolate myself through language — from English to Korean to Japanese. It was so effective it was frightening, as if I could guard against others like a spy. … Languages, as they open you, can also allow you to close.”
Sun Yung Shin is a Minneapolis-based writer and poet.
The Magical Language of Others
By: E.J. Koh.
Publisher: Tin House, 203 pages, $22.95.