E.J. Koh’s memoir The Magical Language of Others floats stunningly through the abandonment she experienced as a teenager. When she was fifteen, her parents returned home to South Korea for a more lucrative job opportunity, leaving her behind in the United States with her college-going brother.
While away, her mother began writing her letters in “kiddie” diction to accommodate Koh’s then-limited Korean. Some of the letters—reproduced in full in the book—came with small drawings. They offer a part epistolary insight into the family’s dynamics and the incredibly lucid sound of Koh’s mother’s voice. Koh never responded to these missives. In her translator’s note, she writes: “The thought of writing her was unbearable. Korean was a language far from me. I never suspected I would come to it in the end.”
Koh ventures beyond her own past to that of her ancestors caught in family dramatics and political tragedies of Korean history including the 1948 Jeju Island Massacre. Interspersed, amongst others things, are Koh’s own adventures of culture and language in Japan and her coming to poetry.
I spoke to E.J. Koh about the translation-poetry-memoir remix, living while excavating the troubled past(s), and writing difficult love letters.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: You’ve obviously been considering your family your whole life. I am wondering about the moment you decided to embark on this memoir. It seems you’ve written about your family in your poetry collection A Lesser Love, but this is a full disrobing in prose, is it not?
E.J. Koh: Originally, the memoir was a book of translations of my mother’s forty-nine letters. It opened with a translator’s note—a summary of the memoir you’ve read—except it was two pages. I’m grateful that nothing happened the way I had planned. It was obvious to me, at one low moment, the two-page translator’s note must become two hundred pages. I was held back by my own insistence on what I know rather than leaping toward the thing I cannot quite understand. For a person who has a lot of fears, the latter takes enormous courage. Through the years, I was learning and still am learning, how to turn fear into curiosity. I could not leave the reader after two pages, then hope that my mother’s letters might be read with the compassion of what I have learned about our histories, our lives. Today, if you look at the page count of the memoir, it’s almost exactly two-hundred pages.
JRR: You’ve certainly put a lot out there. How have your immediate family responded to the book?
EJK: In (Hayao) Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, there’s a young girl Chihiro, who is a fumbling, scared child but goes on to do things that she felt she was never capable of doing: she works at a bathhouse, appeases the Gods, rescues her friend from a curse, and returns her family to the human world. In the end, Chihiro goes back home with her parents. Meanwhile, her parents, who have not been aware of these things, still see her as a young girl, and yet there is something comforting in how Chihiro has changed—she knows what she is capable of—yet she remains the same to her family. Maybe I savor the nostalgia of this movie I had watched so often while my parents were gone. I must have thought I would like to be brave one day. But in the end, this memoir and its adventure, all of it comes second to the dailiness of my parents’ singular concerns: “Have you eaten?” “Are you resting?” “When can you come home?” A lot has changed in me, and a lot is the same in me with them. My research in intergenerational trauma shows me that words, stories—they heal across time among the living and the dead. It is a remarkable thing. My family, however, wishes for my wellbeing whether or not I take on such responsibilities.
JRR: In the book, you tell a workshop classmate about your grandmothers: “Whatever I say or do now can give relief to the past—and to them.” How do you think Jun and Kumiko would review your completed memoir?
EJK: On the road, people from my past, maybe our mothers were friends at the Korean Catholic Church in San Jose, but they would come up to me after a reading and say: Sugo haetsuh (수고했어). This translates into: Good job. But it suggests that I must have been carrying a burden—that these days were not easy. They’re not words of praise as much as they are words of consolation. It’s how we say good job to each other in the Korean. To give something good, you must’ve lost something good. The phrase sugo haetsuh holds those dualities without resisting the other. More than I love you or thank you, somehow, sugo haetsuh can shake me to tears. It’s what I imagine Jun and Kumiko would say to me.
JRR: How did you live while you composed the memoir? The excavation not just of your personal history but the trajectories of the mothers in your story is very brutal (and beautiful, but definitely brutal) to read. How did you hold on to yourself and the present while doing it?
EJK: I overheard my brother talking to somebody who had asked a similar question about the breadth of the memoir, and he said, nodding, “But it’s not everything.” The memoir feels like a lot, but I’d agree that it’s not everything. The memoir is a single, knife-like shard of a larger piece of our family and history. It doesn’t follow how my father’s side of the family continued to escape persecution—the militarization in South Korea in the everyday and the experience of compulsory military service. Or my high school days in Davis, in my history class, when I had interrupted the teacher and absurdly and violently threatened to kill a boy to stop him from bullying me about my small eyes, and then was sent to the principal’s office.
There are worse things, and things, not so bad in the memoir. But my work is in studying the language we use for trauma—the language that stays in our families as it travels through generation after generation. I’m often asked the question, how do I live at all? When can I find any time to be happy? You might be surprised to hear this—how wonderfully serene I feel most of the time. It wasn’t like that at first. Though it seems like I read and write about the saddest things and speak to those with the saddest stories, the thing we always come back to is love. When I am studying about trauma, I am also studying about love—about care in the everyday, forgiveness and letting go, and these things give me a sense of life. Even for the most brutal chapters in the memoir, there are edges of light—certain love and care. If I only see brutality, then it feels impossible. Seeing beyond it, then everything feels like it must be done.
JRR: You write: “In the letters, I heard her voice, closer than it felt over the phone.” Your mother is so alive in her letters and little drawings. Would you talk about this a little? Do you write real letters to anyone yourself? Do you ever get any?
EKJ: There were two ways to reach my mother—through a phone mounted on the kitchen wall or reading her letter in the mailbox outside. Through the phone, I must have felt as though I were performing as her daughter: “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I love you, and I miss you.” Whereas, through her letters, she could reach me on the inside—in the place that was hurting and alone. Today, I write love letters to strangers every week. It’s the one thing I feel that I am able to give to somebody else. When asked by others if they can write back to me, I ask them to challenge themselves by writing it to somebody else. Maybe it is the hardest person to write a love letter to. Maybe they need it the most from you.
JRR: So very much to ask about language and translation! But I’ll keep it to one question about the part in your book that especially moved me:
At once the road became vivid and Kumiko recognized her father:
(Road) (Father) (Road)
I suppose we’re always reading ourselves into other people’s books. Last week, I saw a dead corpse on a highway. It looked so casual, covered up. It took me back to when I was very young and I witnessed my father’s death on a beach.
You use of your mother’s translation’s parentheses for the first time in a long time (in the course of the book) felt so significant in the stopping of time that happens when you see such things. Could you talk a little about these particular parentheses and how you shaped this extremely intense scene and revelation of what happened to your grandmother’s dad?
EJK: I am noticing that I don’t switch gears from poetry, translation, and prose. This may change in the future. But when I move on to something new, the mode I’m in is still multi-modal. Poetry, translation, prose are simultaneous events in my work. Over time, the genres have become less significant to me. But they remain significant to those that accept and choose the genre of my work by its most obvious qualities—to metabolize it into literature, or as they say, “Literature with a capital ‘L.’” The way rigidity resembles death, fluidity resembles life. Plants are this way. Our bodies are this way. Then too, our minds, our creations.
The stoning of my great-grandfather in the Jeju Island Massacre was visually and spatially translated using parentheses: (Road) (Father) (Road). The poetry is in the two words and how each word changes in its relationship with and proximity to each other—a sort of transubstantiation. There is a road. There is a father. The father becomes the road. They stoned him over days, and we feel it in the poetry of these words. The prose is the event. There is a narrative, rather than a singular moment, that erupts in a sequence. He had come down from the mountain to see if his neighbors and friends were safe, but he was captured in a demonstration for the islanders, then stoned over days until he became the road. Though it’s an oversimplification of the shape and process, these things are happening simultaneously and across intersections. Yet it cannot be complex enough to say what sort of heartbreak it was to my grandmother and still is to our family.