E.J. Koh Explores the Magical Language of Mothers and Daughters in New Book

BY Rochelle Goldstein, December 13, 2019

The Magical Language of Others (Tin House Books), a memoir the Library Journal described as “a poignant transgenerational story of trauma in South Korea, Japan and America” is constructed around a series of letters E.J. Koh ’13 and her mother exchanged during a 7-year separation. When Koh was 15, her parents left her and her brother, 19, in California when they relocated to South Korea because of a lucrative job offer her father received. The ensuing emotional turmoil still reverberates in Koh’s life, which she has dealt with in this memoir as well as in her poetry collection, A Lesser Love (Louisiana State University Press, 2017) which won the Pleiades Press Award. 


As the Library Journal says, “Throughout the work, Koh examines both the destructive and redemptive power of language." In an interview with The Stranger, Koh explains her mother’s distress over the separation was deepened by the belief that mothers are reincarnated as their daughter’s children. As Koh explains, “[We see] ourselves as reincarnations of the past. We’re more than our present, physical selves. We’re like longer forms of these souls.” 


The original letters (including her mother’s funny drawings) appear in the book, alongside the writing. 


Koh’s poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Columbia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, World Literature Today, TriQuarterly, and PEN America.


She has received fellowships from The American Literary Translators Association, The MacDowell Colony, Kundiman, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and Jack Straw Writers Program. Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University in Poetry and Literary Translation in Korean and Japanese. Koh is completing her PhD at the University of Washington for English Language and Literature.