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The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir By E. J. Koh Cover Image

The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir (Paperback)

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Staff Reviews

Aggie's January 2020 Non-Fiction Pick

— From This is Why I Read - Aggie’s Monthly Picks

Great Reads

“A beautifully written memoir of history, culture, past, and present — this might be one of the best books I’ve read all year and a close second to Pachinko, one of my all-time favorites. The letters from a mother read from her daughter’s perspective really give you a sense of the complexity of family relationships, and how certain events mold the consequences of what’s to come. Just beautiful!”
— Desirae Wilkerson, Paper Boat Booksellers, Seattle, WA


Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir

Named One of the Best Books by Asian American Writers by Oprah Daily

Longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award

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.

About the Author

E. J. Koh is the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize, and co-translator of Yi Won’s The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, forthcoming from Zephyr Press. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today, among others. She earned her MFA in Literary Translation and Creative Writing from Columbia University, and is completing the PhD program at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is a recipient of MacDowell and Kundiman fellowships.

Praise For…

Koh’s book is a tremendous gift. . . . A wonder.
— The San Francisco Chronicle

A moving portrait of abandonment, forgiveness, and the strength of maternal love.

Poignant…. Koh writes beautifully of the sacrifices made for love and of the intergenerational tensions between a mother and daughter. 
— Oprah Daily

— Alexander Chee, author of How To Write An Autobiographical Novel

A beautifully crafted saga.
— Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know

Indisputably brilliant.
— Jeannie Vanasco, author of Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl

Exquisite. . . . This memoir will pierce you.
— Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me

Koh remarkably and beautifully translates the language of mothers as the language of survivors.
— Don Mee Choi, author of DMZ Colony

I could read this book a thousand times over.
— Sarah Blake, author of Naamah

A lyrical and profound personal excavation.
— Buzzfeed, Most Anticipated Book of the Year

— Literary Hub

Powerful. . . . Koh’s success as a poet shines through in the beauty and delicacy of her prose.
— Book Riot

A cinematic and multigenerational saga.
— The Stranger

Magnificent. . . . This is a memoir that needs to be read more than once.
— International Examiner

A haunting, gorgeous narrative that is lonely but lushly told. . . . Brilliant.
— The Star Tribune

A beautiful, scorching memoir.
— Chicago Review of Books

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.
— The Seattle Times

Powerful…. [Koh] fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy and intergenerational trauma.
— Net-A-Porter

A masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.
— Shelf Awareness, Starred Review

A coming-of-age story, a family story, and a meditation on language and translation, with an emotional range to match.
— Caitlin Horrocks, author of The Vexations

Give yourself over to her narrative territory and the resetting of the borders of lineage, language, and lives lost.
— Shawn Wong, author of American Knees

It’s really beautiful. . . . A compassionate, vulnerable, sad, and loving book about mother-daughter relationships. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it.
— Amanda Toronto, WORD Bookstore, as heard on Minneapolis Public Radio

— Book Riot