When E.J. Koh was 15, her father got a job in South Korea. Both of her parents, who are Korean, decided to move there and leave Koh and her older brother in California for what was meant to be a short amount of time.
Years later, Koh reunited with her family and discovered letters her mother had been writing to her over those years of absence, in Korean — a language Koh did not fluently speak in her adolescence. This is the jumping-off point for “The Magical Language of Others,” Koh’s first memoir, which this month was awarded a Pacific Northwest Book Award by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA), and which launched in paperback via Tin House Jan. 19.
The memoir is a deft, moving exploration of four generations of women in Koh’s family — a powerful memoir with the sensibility of a poet and a translator. Koh translates across the Japanese, Korean and English languages; across gaps in understanding due to grief and loss; across experiences of trauma and resilience, pain and love, power and forgiveness. Weaving the handwritten Korean letters, the English translations and longer chapters recounting her own story intertwined with those of the women who came before her, Koh (who is now based in Seattle) renders a uniquely beautiful work of literature.
In her acceptance speech for the PNBA, Koh writes, “I am indebted to those who protect our relationship to books and safeguard our sense of humanity, who capture what defines our interconnectedness as human beings. This work belongs to bookstores, booksellers, publishers, representatives, distributors, editors, authors, publicists, librarians, reviewers, producers, coordinators, teachers, and friends and families, representing a unique sensitivity and awe for words and their power.”
The Seattle Times spoke with Koh over the phone about the award, her relationship with “The Magical Language of Others” one year after publication, and her profound connection to the Pacific Northwest.
How has your relationship with “The Magical Language of Others” changed over the past year?
I appreciate the book more. In the beginning, there’s a little bit of doubt with releasing a book. With time, a lot of that uncertainty fades away and it starts feeling like this story is indelible. It’s important. And no one can take that away from the book, including me. I’m hard on my work and very critical of what I write. It takes time for me to leave that position and be someone who just experiences the book like everybody else, and appreciate it.
Can you talk about your connection, personally and as an artist, to the Pacific Northwest?
I moved to Seattle in 2013 to reunite with my family. That was when I found the letters. I reached out to Don Mee Choi, another poet and translator. She’s wonderful. Her poetry collection [“DMZ Colony”] just won the National Book Award. I didn’t know anyone in Seattle. I only knew about her because Columbia [University] hired her to pass my translation thesis. I had never met her.
I came to Seattle. I found the letters. They’re in Korean. I didn’t know anybody. So I emailed Don Mee and said, “I found these letters. I just wanted to talk to you.” And she told me that she lives not very far from me. We met at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It was pouring rain, and she took me up the [Volunteer Park] water tower. It was in that water tower that she read my mother’s letters. I brought them in this folder and she read them. She said that maybe what I need to do now is to translate them. That was before I was thinking of memoir. This was just a book of translation; it’s still a book of translation. The memoir aspect came years later because I spent such a long time with just the letters and being a translator and learning how to approach these letters. Seattle was the place I wrote the memoir, the place that I met my family. It’s the place that I met Don Mee, who’s been a guide for me.
What does it mean to you to win this award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association?
It means a lot because of all the people that it’s coming from. People who work with books, love books, and also are very sensitive to and in awe of the power of words. It means a lot because it’s distinguishing a Korean and Korean American story. This story is a small part of the larger Korean American experience that’s so diverse and can’t be held by just one story. This is just the beginning of the work of showing the Korean and Korean American experience. Those histories are not histories that are acknowledged globally. They have a lot of pain and loss, from loss of reparation throughout generations. To distinguish this particular story, it’s saying something about these histories — that they matter, that they’re important.
This whole book is about languages. It’s about Korean, Japanese, English. It’s also about the language of poetry. It’s about the things that we miss when we’re trying to understand one another. The title, “The Magical Language of Others,” comes from an idea in discourse analysis: that we can never truly understand one another because of all the networks and meanings that belong to anything you say. We can’t ever have a perfect understanding, but it made me want to try. Even the text says something like, “as if by magic,” we human beings still care about each other. We still teach each other. We still love each other. So getting an award from people who read and work with language and stories, that tells me that something about this story was able to cross that divide. It was able to traverse that distance in culture, in geography, in language, in generation. And that feels like an important step.
Do you have any current or future projects that you want to talk about?
The paperback for “The Magical Language of Others” [was released] Tuesday. I also translated a collection of poetry called “The World’s Lightest Motorcycle” by Korean woman poet Yi Won. I’m grateful to translate and help usher in poetry by Korean women into the States. It creates a dialogue between Korean women and Korean American women.