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I'll be honest: I picked up this book for its exquisite cover. But I stayed for its writing. E.J. Koh shapes language with delicate precision, like folding a paper crane. She carefully constructs memories in vivid and heartbreaking detail, investigating her family history from multiple angles.Threaded throughout the memoir are old, rediscovered letters from Koh's mother, translated from Korean to English -- letters written as a lifeline between mother and daughter or an atonement after abandonment, as Koh's mother returned to Korea and left her teenage daughter behind in America. A beautiful meditation on love, understanding, and distance.— From Stephanie's Picks
“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
A tale of deep bonds to family, place, language—of hard-won selfhood told by a singular, incandescent voice.
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 horrors 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? Eun Ji Koh fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy, and intergenerational trauma, arriving at insights that are essential reading for anyone who has ever had to balance love, longing, heartbreak, and joy.
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.