A Space for Magnanimity: Talking with E. J. Koh

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Eun Ji Koh was fifteen when her parents moved back to South Korea, leaving Koh and her brother alone in California. Years later, Koh discovered a box full of letters her mother had written over those years. Translating those letters so that readers can hear the Korean in the English was Koh’s way of honoring both languages and seeking to understand four generations of her family’s history through war, distance, and what she has come to recognize as love. These letters appear in Koh’s debut memoir, The Magical Language of Others, which traces the connections between mothers and daughters, cultures and histories, and her own journey to write about them across Korea, Japan, and the US.

Whenever I read anything by E. J. Koh, I feel as though it is suddenly possible to speak of things that have never been spoken of before with disarming intimacy. With clarity born of heartache, Koh demonstrates that the personal is political. Her haunting words manage to send an electric charge through every page. Recently, Koh graciously agreed to speak with my poetry students regarding her collection A Lesser Love. When asked whether writers should include details from their own cultural background that others might not recognize—too often seen as a trade-off between authenticity and a broader readership—she deftly reframed the act of writing as an opportunity to be part of things bigger than us and to make them known. Afterwards, many students told me that hearing from Koh was a singular experience that helped them see themselves as writers. I knew that would happen; that was what her writing had always done for me.

E. J. Koh is the author of A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Poetry Prize (Louisiana State University Press, 2017) and the memoir The Magical Language of Others(Tin House, 2020). Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Prairie Schooner, World Literature Today, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Slate. Recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, the MacDowell Colony, and others, she earned her MFA at Columbia University for Poetry and Literary Translation and is completing her PhD in English Language and Literature at the University of Washington. Her work has been featured in PEN America, The Stranger, and TIME magazine.

I spoke with E. J. regarding The Magical Language of Others, researching amidst colonialist revisions, and the stories a single word can hold.

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The Rumpus: Throughout your memoir, the images are startlingly precise. Were you drawing on anything—your memory, notes, photographs, etc.—to render those experiences so specifically?

E. J. Koh: Memory sounds vague, but there are anchors in my memory that allow me to sink into the depths of a moment that has passed. One anchor is the physical-emotional aspect of my Japanese language education. For instance, pointing to one’s nose to signify oneself with modesty, or chopping one’s hand and waving it back and forth to say “no” with deference. The language has remained in my body. The tonal gestures have become a part of me, and each gesture belongs to a memory when its meaning became suddenly clear. You can wave at somebody in numerous ways. When Touma raised his hand, without spaces between his fingers, I understood we were never going to see each other again. Memory and language then live on in my body and remain present in the everyday as I articulate and understand the world around me.

Rumpus: Maybe it comes from your background in dance; at certain points in The Magical Language of Others you talk about language like it’s a living thing. I’m thinking of how you described writing your first poems: “Some words together made no sense but felt as if they ought to. They should know each other, see each other better.”

Koh: During the book design process, I would go back and forth with my editor because I had written the words to follow the shape of the document on my computer. Then you lay it all out digitally, and the text changes form completely. I was startled the first time I saw it. There are those words that live on the last line of a passage by themselves, called “widows.” The sole word separates from the body of the passage and goes on to the next line as the remainder. The physical form and the relationship between words so moved me that I would edit the passage so there were no words left alone on a line—unless the word must and can endure on its own. Otherwise, I would move the word up a line to join the body of the passage.

You can only imagine the compassion and understanding of both my editor and book designer to go along with my peculiarities. There is one other thing. It’s where the line breaks at the end of the page, not the sentence, but at the end of the line. I put a great deal of attention on those words at the end that must carry the burden of transporting the reader to the next line. It might have come from observing words in space as generational, guiding their movement as choreography. It may be from my poetry and my childhood—a sensitivity to separation and reunion.

Rumpus: In an unusual move for a memoir, you include scenes from incidents that you could not have witnessed firsthand, such as your maternal grandmother Jun’s early life in Daejeon, South Korea and your paternal grandmother Kumiko’s coming of age in Tokyo and Jeju Island. How did you gather the information to write those chapters?

Koh: With violent, colonial histories, those documents and records, even the living witnesses of my family, are lost to me. But their stories became my bedtime stories. The repetition of their stories over generations manifested as physical burdens with symptoms of heart palpitations, sudden dizziness, and so on. I understood when I was younger that a bedtime story may end in tears and desolation.This seemingly untranslatable, generational sorrow is something like han. I’ve followed its invisible traces to translate the single word “han” for years now. To trace han is to let han show me where to begin and where to follow, allowing for discovery and surprise.

But the conflict of written histories and revisionist histories resist one another or are still at war. Then there is the task of placing oral histories, and yes, bedtime stories, alongside them. There are the Korean, English, and Japanese languages to consider. My research was never linear but a spiral. I was led to interview others’ “hanful” histories while studying the arduous work done before me in the research and writings of Don Mee Choi, Bruce Cumings, and Sonia Ryang. I still had to learn how to put the researcher in me aside and return to my work as a daughter. Once, I asked my mother the number of pots she had brought with her on a bus trip. As a researcher, I understood that, due to the space inside the bus, it must have been a small number. As a daughter, I saw the weight to be much larger on her face. This is the invisible trace. It was not the number that I ought to have been looking for but the recollection inside of her. My mother’s recollection is the story she tells herself, as real as any weight, and responsible for her suffering.

Rumpus: I was spellbound by the way you described your choice to translate “ahnyoung” in Korean to both “hi” and “hello,” greetings you characterize as having distinctly different connotations. Could you give a few more examples of how you chose to translate other words into English?

Koh: “Aumma” in Korean can be “mom” or “mommy.” But “aumma” was “mommy” to me. My mother uses the third person throughout her letters. Eun Ji must be happy so Mommy can be happy. “Mommy” shows her mothering. “Mommy” reaches across a distance. “Mommy” also infantilizes a daughter. To my mother, no matter how I aged through the years, I remained fifteen in her letters. “Mommy” is the word that appears the most in the book. “Mommy” has the momentum of desperation—nearly madness. It was my younger self, who uttered the word “mommy” out loud so often to enchant her presence, only furthering her absence. It was all so mystifying, at times, frustrating to put to words, and yet it was something I understood had to be this way.

Rumpus: That reminds me of an anecdote from your book where you recount the time your first poetry teacher in college said, “One word has references from history, culture, language—your own experiences and the rest of the world. A single world is a story. When we read a poem, we’re not reading one story. We’re reading every story at once.”

Koh: I was leaving my first poetry class, walking out of the classroom trailer and down a ramp, when I looked back at the door, and I just got it, or grokked it, understood it so completely that I was changed. I felt incoherent in every language—in the English, Korean, and Japanese. But poetry was different. Poetry never asked me to be correct, practiced, or recognizable. Poetry was never one thing to anybody, and it must have been the only way to speak for and as myself. It was an enormous gift.

Rumpus: You write about having a transformational encounter in a college beginning poetry workshop with James McMichael’s poem “The Artichoke”—a poem about a mother and the cancer that claimed her life. That night, you started writing poems about your own mother. How did that happen? Or rather, what was it that happened inside you?

Koh: The poetry chapters make up a large part of the book. I was not conscious of why it was arranged like that but it had to be. Poetry is the tunnel through which I had to pass through to forgive my mother (as well as myself) for the pain of our separation. My poetry teachers taught me how to look closely, and by doing this, how to care and create a space for magnanimity and forgiveness. In a poem, if I cannot forgive my mother by the turn, then the poem must forgive me for not making it there. James McMichael’s poem was the beginning. That night, I wrote poems about my mother. I could begin the poems and fill them up but could not complete them because I had yet to learn about the magnanimity of the turn. If I had not written so many poems without completing any of them, I may not have been ready to hear the answer.

Rumpus: You use the word “love” more than any other contemporary writer I can think of. Not many would dare. How do you arrive at using the word each time, and what do you intend to convey?

Koh: For a long time, I was taught to keep love out of my poetry. It may be good advice for those who find it hard to do, but it might be bad advice when it comes easy. There was nothing more uncomfortable for me than love—the possibility that I was a beloved child and there was in me love enough to share. Even as a young adult—and I am a slow learner—I did not know how to begin to move toward love. And it was obvious to everyone but me since it affected the way I treated others and my own self. Through discomfort, I had to learn that despite everything, something in me pointed toward love. Today, I love talking about love. If you ask anyone around me, it is all I am ever talking about. My research in trauma? That’s about love. Han? It remarkably has love. When I speak to those who’ve endured historical atrocities, what comes up the most? Love. If you ask me how, there are any number of answers, but the why is love.

Rumpus: I once heard a writer say that we write as one way of answering the questions we’ve been asking our whole lives. What were some questions you kept in mind as you wrote this memoir?

Koh: To take it one step further, it might be true that we are the answer to life’s question posed at the moment of our birth. Instead of looking for an answer, we may be searching for the question that we, each in our own way, can answer. When you shift the perspective this way, you don’t have to be a writer. You don’t even have to write. All that can be asked is for you to be yourself. The memoir begins with my birth, but I go to my mother’s birth, my grandmother’s birth. There is trauma learned from mother to daughter, and there are attempts to thwart that trauma. However, there is an opportunity for me to not only reverse the accumulation of trauma, but undo what was done in the past. Using words, we effectively impact the trajectory of our future (in our revisioning), our present (in our knowing), and in our past (in our undoing). I asked myself if I could do it, and whether or not I believed it, I understood that I must.

Rumpus: Although my parents and I speak English to one another, it’s taken me many years to realize that understanding them means recognizing what they mean to say, even when they don’t say it, even when their words say something else. I thought of this often as I read your mother’s letters that were so short, aching with what they don’t put into words. Were there other places where you felt you were working with something left unspoken, untold?

Koh: My parents greeted me in the Korean, Did you eat?—a phrase to mean Hello or How are you? or I love you or I’m sorry. Did you eat? At home, I spoke to them only in Korean. However, staying with my partner’s family, in an English-speaking household, I was amazed at how they articulated so clearly to one another. There was specificity and length and infinite expressions of desire, relief, frustration. Though my parents and I had few words between us, it was never limiting. Did you eat?—choked by tears, spoken softly, or hurled across a room. My parents and I didn’t speak as often as we danced with our faces, gestures, tone giving into our relationship. My answer, No, I didn’t eat, may mean Help me or Don’t leave me right now or I love you or I’m sorry. For my mother’s letters, it was also her handwriting, her tiny drawings, and the colorful gel pens she used—it was everything—it was all there.

Rumpus: In closing, what advice would you give to someone trying to write about their own life?

Koh: I don’t know if I would give this advice to somebody else, but if I were speaking to my younger self, I might say that the manner, processes, beliefs in which you embark on your research and writing decides what your working life will feel, look, be for you. If you do not know the end or even what direction to go, look at the way you are doing things right this second. When you figure out the way you want to do things, simply doing them that way is its own joy. Try not to write toward what may sharpen or strengthen you, but choose to write what opens and softens you, so you may remain unguarded, whole, and ready.

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Photograph of E. J. Koh by Glaser & Koh.


Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories (Epigram Books), which was a national bestseller in Singapore. Her writing has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, and has been featured in Rattle, Hyphen, The Rupture, and Fairy Tale Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine, where she teaches creative writing. Find her online at ineztan.com. More from this author →