The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir by E. J. Koh


Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award

We will look back at our time apart and laugh together and be sad, but we will have many stories. If you have no suffering, you have no story to tell—isn’t it true?

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““[My grandmother] never asked me to speak but to understand, rather than endure to forgive, and never to sacrifice only to let go.”

Koh’s memoir is a reckoning of her family, of what mothering – and daughtering – looks like in absence that feels more than physical. The majority of the memoir, and the relationship depicted on its pages, exists in what is withheld, and sometimes in the nonverbal language more willingly misunderstood or dismissed where spoken language would rankle. The relationship is closed but not impenetrable, a bud.

In contrast, the letters her mother sent over the years are plain. They say both “nothing” (complaints about the weather, the small fillers masking what she won’t yet say) and “more” than what she says in person (the sadness of her leaving, the apologies). It is in these translations, in the language somewhere between her mother’s hand and her own understanding of them, that a relationship blooms.”


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 loss and destruction 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?

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: A Memoir by E. J. Koh
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