"There is a Korean belief that you are born the parent of the one you hurt most," E.J. Koh writes in her new memoir, The Magical Language of Others. "I was revenge when I was born in 1988 at O'Connor Hospital in San Jose, California."
This is the logic that drives Koh's narrative, a cinematic and multigenerational saga about the hard work of repairing past transgressions through present action so that the future can be, hopefully, maybe—so long as we keep working at it—more joyful.
At 15 years old, Koh and her brother were left in the United States when Koh's father took a lucrative, high-powered job in South Korea, and her mom went with him. The parents moved Koh and her 19-year old brother, along with a husky dog and a parakeet named Mieko, into a small house in Davis, California, where they more or less raised each other. At a recent reading from the memoir, someone approached Koh and quipped, "It's like you wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Korean Genius"—riffing on the title of Dave Eggers's 2000 memoir about a couple of siblings basically raising each other.
Koh's father initially signed a three-year contract with the firm in South Korea, but her parents ended up staying for seven years. They then moved to an apartment on Mercer Island. By then, Koh was in graduate school in New York, studying poetry. The family was ultimately reunited when Koh moved to Mercer Island after getting her MFA, nine years after the first separation.
Koh's attempt to understand how her mother could have left her during such a formative period has been a central struggle in her life. Through the practice of writing poetry (she has published a book of poetry, A Lesser Love, with Pleiades Press), through her work as a translator, and through research into her family's history, she eventually learned that her task wasn't only to understand why her mother would do that, but to forgive her for it, and even to love her for it.
Otherwise, she'd risk passing on that unreconciled trauma, perpetuating a cycle of pain that started in her family long before she or her mother were born.
At a cafe in West Seattle, Koh was swathed in loose linens and radiating the strength and calm happiness of a person who meditates for two hours a day (which she does). She reflected on her Davis years: "Legally maybe that was okay, but it was not okay," she said laughing. But that situation, she added later on, is not uncommon for the children of immigrants.
Though her parents were physically absent during those years, her mother asserted her presence in the form of two-page letters, which she sent to Koh every week. Since Koh only knew Korean by ear at that age, she had to read her mother's letters to herself aloud to understand them, embodying her own mother's voice. She was mothering herself.
Though Koh's mother wrote the letters in Korean for the most part, she used "kiddie diction," since "my Korean was limited when I was a child." For advanced vocabulary, her mother would transcribe "the first English definition in her English dictionary" and note it "in parentheses in place of or next to the original vocabulary," Koh writes.
"The letters note, at times, the wrong English definition. In one, she means Promise yourself and in place of promise, she writes confirm, but misspells it as conform. She says, Promise (conform) yourself. Her error becomes a delight that cuts tension, or stalls grief." Koh's education in close reading stemmed from an urgent need to soak up as much love—as much meaning—from her mother as language allowed.
In the original letters, which Koh scanned and included between the chapters in the book so that you can see her mother's handwriting and all her funny drawings, Koh's mom sounds like your best friend's mom, the one you like hanging out with. She's full of pithy advice, shade, defiance, and goofy mom humor. Her tone—expertly captured in Koh's translations—conveys her intense independent streak.
But between the jokes and mundane details of her life, her mom excoriates herself for leaving her own child.
"When I visit in March, I'll have to discuss what to do next," Koh's mom writes. "Nothing comes easy in life, they say. (Free) things are even rarer. I get what I give, (It's payback for what I did), and if there are hard times, there are also good times. And when there is money, there are times of spending, right? That's living. So they say there's nothing to be heartbroken or sad about. Because that's how (life) has always been."
You can tell she's trying to rationalize away the pain, trying to find some context in which it doesn't hurt to be away from her daughter, and yet also trying to mother and demonstrate strength, which is what she's hoping to give her daughter in this moment. It's wrenching. And throughout the book, there are many other moments like it.
As a reader, I spent just as long drawing out the multiple valences in her mother's letters as I did reading the narrative portions of the book. "Free" and "easy," for instance, are so often paired together in an English phrase. But Koh's mom's distinction between the two shows that she knows how hard it really is to give or to truly receive a gift without some sort of implied reciprocity or unintended consequence.
Another thing that kills me in the above passage: In her actual letter, her mom writes, "It's paid back what I did," which Koh translates as "It's payback for what I did." The possibilities for meaning become more apparent when you learn more about the family history, which stretches back to the Jeju Island massacre of April 3, 1948, where thousands were killed and the majority of the island burned.
Koh's maternal grandmother, who was "prettier than anyone," died "young and tragically" when Koh's mother was just a little girl. "She left me to live without her," her mom says in the book. But she also left a large family behind, and, as the child with the most financial means, Koh's mother felt an intense obligation to mother her siblings the way their mother never could—an attempt to repair the pain her death caused the family.
In the letters, it becomes clear that Koh's mom's pain is compounded by her belief that mothers are reincarnated as their daughter's children.
"We're seeing ourselves as reincarnations of the past," Koh explained. "We're more than our present, physical selves. We're like longer forms of these souls. So things are falling apart, and there's this inherent belief that somewhere in me I have this intelligence to help her, this wisdom to help her, and she needs me to help her. [In these letters, she's saying,] 'I'm not calling on you as Eun Ji. I'm calling on you as your soul, which embodies the life cycle of many generations, to help me because I can't do it. Are you the reincarnation of my mother? And who's the reincarnation of you?'"
"So then it becomes like you're raising your own mother and father," Koh continued. "At very hard times, it's asking me to revert back, like they're saying, 'I miss my mom, I miss my father, can you talk to me, can you help me?'"
The letters are the heartbeat of the book, pulsing between chapters that reveal details of Koh's life that still surprise even her own husband.
Before she was a poet, for instance, Koh was a serious competitive hip-hop dancer for a famous crew in Los Angeles. She nearly entered the world of K-pop girl-group stardom, which would have allowed her to move to Korea and live with her parents, but the industry's intense misogyny and Harvey Weinstein–like power structure convinced her to stay away. And she also studied Japanese in Japan, which is saying something given the violent recent history between those two countries, a history that runs in Koh's own blood. Later on, Koh tells me, she took up mixed martial arts. "So I know how to take a punch, and I know how to get someone closer to me in a way that allows me to escape," she said.
These scenes are so vivid, they read like watching television. And, like any good poet, she uses up everything—every image returns, and every idea chimes with another, so that the book's short 200 pages contain the emotional and philosophical heft of a doorstop.
So it's no wonder that her path to poetry, a practice that gave her the tools to start seeing things from her mother's perspective, ends up dominating these chapters. It's not that poetry allowed her to "work through" her pain, but that the process of writing poetry sent up signals about the work left to do in her life.
"I live through my work—it's not just this sort of imagining," she said. "As the poem comes to an end, my feelings or reservations about this scene or that moment must come to some sort of finality, too. Otherwise, I cannot complete that poem."
Koh doesn't blame her inability to conclude poems on some inherent deficit of meaning in language—indeed, as a translator she knows that words can mean too much—but, rather, on herself. "I never try to change my poems as much as I think about the ways that I ought to change to make this poem happen," she said. This is the process she used to help understand her situation with her family, and it's one she hopes she can impart to readers.
It's also the kind of work she was born to do. Her last name, Koh said, suggests she descends from one of the founding families of the Jeju-do Islands, home of the haenyeo, a hearty class of mermaids, basically—women who dive into the shark-infested ocean to gather food to eat and sell. They hold their breath in the icy waters for more than three minutes, according to Koh's research, as they dig under rocks for octopus and urchin.
Koh sees her own literary practice as an extension of that tradition, a deep dive into the darkest nooks and crannies of her traumas in an attempt to find any nourishment she can bring to the surface. And not just for herself, of course, but for her readers. "It creates a reverse chain reaction... in that it gives others the opportunity to do that themselves."
In the project she's working on now, she's taking her connection to her readers one step further. In 2016, she sent out a tweet saying she wanted to write 1,000 love letters to strangers. The next day, she was inundated with letters from all over the world. So far, she's sent out 83 replies, and, just as her mother did for her, she hopes to send out more each week.
"I just really want to feel less alone, and I really want everyone else to feel less alone," she said. "And I feel like I have the ability to see people, and I have the ability to give myself in this way. That's what I really want to do."