The cruel, chain-smoking mother is so often central to the memoir. Consider The Glass Castle, The Liars’ Club, and Running with Scissors, all of which vividly capture growing up with a mom who is absent, drunk, and/or insane. These narratives also suggest that uncaring parents aren’t bad, necessarily, but broken. The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh is a new memoir on this familiar theme, but much of Koh’s story is also about her relationship with language: learning Japanese, writing poetry, and translating her mother’s letters to her from Korean to English.
Koh’s story begins when her parents, Korean immigrants to the United States, move to Seoul when she is fifteen, while Koh remains in California. “They put me up to live with my brother and left the country in a hurry,” Koh writes. “My father flew with a briefcase so he could go to work as soon as he landed.” The siblings regularly receive money from their father, but are left to care for themselves without adult supervision. Her father’s prestigious new job, originally a short-term position, lasts for seven years. In her parents’ absence, Koh becomes increasingly depressed and rebellious. She punches their dog, briefly runs away, and develops an eating disorder. How could her parents be so willfully negligent? Why did her mother move with her father to South Korea, leaving their son and daughter behind? Koh does not dwell on these questions, which is at times frustrating, but the memoir suggests that nothing can be reduced to simple cause and effect. The reader must look for answers just as Koh did, beginning with her mother’s letters. Empathy and forgiveness must begin with understanding.
Unable to write in English, her mother uses basic Korean (“kiddie diction”) in her notes to Koh, who was born in California and was not fluent in Korean. Her mother writes advanced words like “envy” and “graduate” in English. These translations are often erroneous, Koh notes:
Translating is problematic for her, but also a treat. The letters note, at times, the wrong English definition. In one, she means, Promise yourselfand 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.
While many of her mother’s notes are endearing, others seem wildly superficial. She frequently offers platitudes about God and money. “When there is money, there are times of spending, right? That’s living. So there’s nothing to be heartbroken or sad about,” her mother writes. She rationalizes leaving by promising Koh years of wealth for the family. But some letters reveal a mother who appears deeply uncertain and needy:
Eun Ji will help me, won’t you? How could you help me, you ask? Hm—It’s easy and it’s hard, too. Don’t give Mommy heartaches. Soothe her to keep her from anger or shouting. When Mommy has bad thoughts, or acts unfairly, tell me that I shouldn’t do that. How about it? You’ll do it for me, won’t you? Thank you.
Her mother calls herself “Mommy” constantly, at once infantilizing and maternal. “Her third-person is, in part, her mothering,” Koh notes. In these moments, her mother’s vulnerability seems more easily expressed in the third person. In addition to Koh’s translations, the memoir includes images of ten handwritten letters. The images bring the “one-way correspondence” to life. Many of the notes are signed “Mom” and include doodles in the margins.
Because of Koh’s limited proficiency in Korean, reading her mother’s words is a challenge. “I read the letters out loud to hear the sounds. Otherwise, I could not recognize the words and their shapes, filling the page, covering the creases,” she says. Each week, Koh receives a new letter, offering a tangible piece of her mother and a fleeting sense of comfort. She reads each letters repeatedly. “Each time, I hoped to see something new… when I put it away, a panic returned. I took out the same letter and, with no thought to what I had read before, started over,” she says. Koh doesn’t tell her mother how much she misses her. “I’m not a baby anymore,” she insists. Koh also doesn’t tell her mother—or anyone—about her overwhelming depression.
Koh attends college at UC Irvine, where she begins seeing a psychiatrist and finds a much-needed support system. As a junior, she is barely passing courses for her intended major, political science. Koh’s counselor notes that mathematics remains an unfulfilled requirement and suggests a surprising alternative:
“Mathematics. They call it the highest language. It’s the language of God… what replaces the language of God?”
I took a breath. “The language of man?”
“Poetry,” she said.
“What?” I said. “Po-e-try?”
Nodding, Beatrice sat back in her chair.
“Great,” I said, feeling excited. “How do you spell it?”
The poetry course immediately becomes an incredible outlet for her: “It was like a valve opened.” Many of her early poems are about her mother. “What do you call the feeling of abandon and relief that keeps me tethered to you?” she writes in an early poem. Koh’s professors are impressed with her work but offer a critical suggestion. “You don’t have to forgive your mother. I’m not telling you to forgive her,” one professor tells her. “But the poem must forgive her, or the poem must forgive you for not. Otherwise, it’s not a poem.” Raw feeling on the page is not poetry, her professors seem to say. True art requires a certain distance and perspective. “You can say anything you want—with magnanimity,” one professor says.
Koh is also encouraged to translate: “If you want to be a good poet, then write poetry. If you want to be a great poet, then translate,” a professor tells her. A good translator captures a poem’s meaning as well as its style. It is a challenge that Koh does not take lightly. The Magical Language of Others can feel like a fascinating seminar in poetry. Her scenes as a student are among the most memorable in the book, particularly for writers:
“Can you just tell us?” someone asked. “What’s it supposed to mean?”
“Supposed to mean?” Joseph said.
“Yes, the poem.”
Joseph wiped the screen of his watch. He did not resist the passing of time. Let it come, he seemed to say. Let it slow, and be slower still. Let it disappear into the impression of this second. “It’s not meant to be given,” he said. “It’s a difficult grace.”
Koh continues studying creative writing at Columbia, where she earns an MFA in poetry and a degree in Korean and Japanese translation. As a student, she begins translating her mother’s letters and researching her family history. Her paternal grandmother, she learns, survived the Jeju massacre in South Korea and was beaten “often mercilessly” by her husband. Koh’s maternal grandmother, a wealthy opera singer, committed suicide when her mother was a teenager. Her mother’s own abandonment inspires Koh’s empathy; learning about her ancestors instills in her a deep sense of responsibility. “I’m an accumulation of their lives,” she writes. “Whatever I say or do now can give relief to the past—and to them. I don’t believe they’re gone.” The memoir is remarkable for its breadth—spanning four generations—as well as its brevity (it’s just over two hundred pages). Koh, a true poet, is noticeably mindful of her every word.
“One word has references from history, culture, language—your experiences, every part of the world,” one of her professors says. “A single word is a story. When we read a poem, we’re not reading one story. We’re reading every story to find its meaning.” Language, for Koh, is permeable, and translation is more of an art than a science. “If her letters could go to sleep, my translations would be their dreams,” she writes. After years of writing and translating, Koh becomes a teacher of poetry. Koh’s mother attends one of her classes during a week-long poetry retreat in eastern Washington, where she proudly tells the students that she is Koh’s mother. Later, when asked what her daughter does for a living, she replies, “You wouldn’t understand. My daughter teaches people how to let go.”