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The Magical Language of Others

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  154 ratings  ·  46 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 203 pages
Published January 7th 2020 by Tin House Books
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Jenifer Greenwell I agree - I can read the back of a book as well as anyone. I can also read the Goodreads / Publisher's blurbs about the book. I try and post why I…moreI agree - I can read the back of a book as well as anyone. I can also read the Goodreads / Publisher's blurbs about the book. I try and post why I like a book - short and sweet.(less)

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Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
The below review originally appeared on Open Letters Review.

Nearly every teen girl has probably had their own Home Alone fantasy at least once. As one’s age ticks upward, so does the restlessness for independence, particularly from one’s mother. She’s embarrassing. She’s restrictive. She seems out to make you unhappy. But like Kevin McCallister’s startling realization, it’s only when that figure is truly absent that a child begins to understand the power of a parent’s presence.

E.J. Koh didn’t
The Magical Language of Others is a story of memories. Much of this memoir is translated letters that Eun Ji received from her mother after her parents moved off to South Korea. Eun Ji and her brother were left completely alone in California. The mother's letters are littered with guilt about the abandonment, yet she never comes back for her daughter who isn't even an adult yet. They promised two years and then her father continues to sign renewal contracts for many more years. Her mother is ...more
Janet (MommyTheReader)
Dec 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: love-the-cover, arc
This remarkable little book stirred up such heavy emotion within me. You'd quickly realize Koh is a poet, even without reading so in her bio. The way she frames her story, the words she picks, that intimate connection she makes with you in less than 200 pages, the honest biting beauty in all of it, ahhh, I'm still gushing over this book. 5 brilliant stars. ...more
Oct 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This autobiography is adjacent to a memory box-- mixed in with Eun Ji's tenderly translated letters from her mother, we see bits and pieces of her life, the mundane and the extraordinary, as she navigates high school and college life a continent away from her parents. E.J. becomes many things-- a driven student, a dancer, a poet. Koh also delves into the history of both her maternal and paternal grandmothers; they too have fascinating stories. Heartfelt and sweet, this beautiful memoir will ...more
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Many thanks to the publisher (Tin House) for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

This book is amazing, and walks a fine line between prose and poetry, telling the stories of women, abandonment, war, death, family relationships and all from the eyes of different generations in different countries. This author has a great future.

Cons: there were times in reading this book where I couldn't tell which person/generation we were hearing from, but another reading or two should clarify
Oct 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
Beautifully written with unflinching honesty. This memoir encompasses mothers’ love and guilt for their child while that child also learns about her family’s history. E.J.’s pain is so raw it’s sometimes difficult to process. It the memoir is really about the women of this family as they survive their respective hardships and reconcile it with love and forgiveness.

I received an arc from the publisher but all opinions are my own.
Greg Barbee
Jan 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Magnanimity. It has been several years since a book compelled me to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning finishing it, and yet E.J. Koh’s extraordinary, magnanimous memoir, The Magical Language of Others, did just that. Eun Ji’s recounting of her relationship with her mother and family over the last 20 or so years exhibits power and grace in poetic (not surprising, given her experience and success as a poet) prose.

I particularly enjoyed the description of Eun Ji’s recounting of her
Kyra Johnson
Dec 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: review-copies
Thank you @tin_house & @thisisejkoh for this gorgeous, unflinchingly honest memoir.

The Magical Language of Others details Koh’s personal experiences, her family’s fascinating history, explores the beauty of language and the power of a love shaped by distance.

Koh’s father receives a substantial job offer in Korea and both parents leave a fifteen-year-old Koh in the care of her older brother in California. Koh is left on her own at a pivotal and complicated age which has a great impact on
Dec 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is an exceptional read: part memoir, part history, part generational saga. E.J. Koh moves fluidly from memoirist to historian, from historian to biographer with swift and deft strides that feel expansive even as the text itself is spare. What connects all of these elements is her journey through language beginning first with her mother(s) language, Korean, but grounded firmly in American English. We journey with her to the language of Japanese, another branch of her ancestry, where we ...more
Aleya Elkins
Jan 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is absolutely my new favorite book. I cannot recommend it enough. Koh has a unique ability to share entire periods of life through minutely detailed snapshots. I often struggle with books which jump quickly through time as I hate the feeling of missing out, but Koh's words are so perfectly selected that I never had this issue. I was left stunned multiple times by the weight of a short phrase. This book is as stark and steadfast as it is poetic and moving. I've never encountered an author ...more
Stephanie Crowe
Oct 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
How can I express myself upon reading this most unusual memoir? I experienced a myriad of emotions as I read through the letters that Eun Ji received from her mother who had left her in California at 15 while she and E.J.’s father returned to Korea. Initially I was upset that the mother would abandoned her. Although her letters seemed to speak of love I questioned the sincerity of her words. As E.J. continued her journey to become educated and dedicate herself to poetry, my understanding and ...more
“Looking at a person’s life, one could not observe a single memory and claim to know. One must understand each and every memory to glimpse the meaning of a life.”

E. J. Koh tells her life story in this memoir using memories. No more. There is really no deep analysis or explanations. The reader must come up with their own thoughts as to why things happened, why things were as they were. This will probably cause some problems with some readers at times, because her parent’s actions when she was a
Jan 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
E.J. Koh converts language into a mixed-media experience. In this work she employs primary source material, 49 letters by her mother, written in Korean, sent from Korea to the various places she lives during Koh’s coming of age.

Koh immerses her readers in the experience of language, how and when translation delivers and falls away from meaning due to limited availability of actual words. She shows readers how when words don’t exist in one of the three languages she can communicate in how meaning
Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'm feeling conflicted over what to say about this memoir. The writing is beautiful (I've been familiar with EJ's writing for years, so that's not surprising) and she uses it effectively to capture the memories scattered throughout. What has me conflicted is the overall occurrence that lead to the creation of this emotional memoir.

Why did her parents think that it was a good idea to leave their children all alone - one of whom was under 18 at the time - to move back to Korea? Why did they think
Dec 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Eun Ji is fifteen when her parents return to Korea for her father's job, leaving her and her brother alone in California, feeling abandoned by parents who believed they had made the right decision: that providing more for their children with their absence was better than providing less with their presence. Eun Ji's mother writes her letters, telling her about her aunts and uncles, renewed life in South Korea, and how much she misses her—her guilt about leaving never expressed directly but ...more
Teresa Tomaz
Jan 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
When I first started reading "The Magical Language of Others", I was not sure of my feelings towards it. I guess I was afraid it would mainly consist of letters. Even though I deeply enjoyed some books with letters ("Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke and "The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh" come to mind), I often prefer a reflective autobiographical style. But I have to say I immediately started loving E. J. Koh's book.

What surprised me the most was the mental image that it projected
Dec 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: my-books, memoir, 2020
The moment I started this memoir I was sucked in and wanted to know more about E.J. Koh and her family. They are a South Korean family who had been living in America for many years. Koh's father received a job offer in South Korea so both her parent's decided to go and leave 15 year old Koh and her older brother alone in California. This separation affected Koh deeply. While apart for about 6-7 years Koh's mother wrote her letters to bridge the absence. At the time Koh didn't have a strong grasp ...more
Tony Mercer
Jan 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: korea
The Magical Language of Others is a poetic genealogy of a family marred by atrocity, immigrating to the United States and then leaving their children to care for themselves as they finish high school and transition to adulthood. But rather than the story driving the narrative, it is language that fuels the book: letters written by her mother, poetry she has written, words of her companions, and stories of her ancestors. Koh notes, "Korean classroom etiquette places the greatest burden on the ...more
Emi Bevacqua
Dec 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
E.J. Koh is a candid writer with a lyrical bent, and while I feel it is quite gracious and courageous of her to share the 49 letters from her mother, I also feel she introduced a lot of tantalizing or provocative inklings of stuff she's been through but then didn't explain what came of it. And most importantly, I think Koh is much too young to be subtitling this a memoir... unless I misunderstood and it's intended to be about her mother? Regardless of which member of this family it's centered ...more
Dec 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 31, 2019 rated it liked it
I found The Magical Language of Others a confusing, but rewarding title. The book's odd-numbered chapters offer English translations of letters sent to the author by her mother when the author lived with her brother in the U.S. and her parents returned to Korea because her father had received an exceptional job offer. In the even-numbered chapters, the author narrates different part of her family's history, going back several generations.

The confusion and rewards both result because the book is
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.

What a gorgeous memoir. Poets are such great writers of creative prose because they know lyricism and that to me is everything. Koh is also a translator (she speaks/writes/translates Korean and Japanese) so her sense of language is so nuanced an expansive. Also, it’s really beautiful.

This is the story of Koh’s mother writing al enter to her every week during her adolescence and young adulthood, when her
Rebecca H.
The Magical Language of Others is beautiful as an object as well as a piece of writing. It tells the story of Koh’s parents’ decision to return to South Korea for work, leaving her as a 15-year-old in the care of her older brother. During their separation, Koh’s mother wrote her letters in Korean, images of which are scattered throughout the book, along with Koh’s own translations. Her separation from her mother was traumatic. She writes of her struggle to come to terms with her parents’ ...more
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: amazon-reviewed
The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late November.

So, so meaningful right away from the very first paragraph, these are 49 translated letters from the author's mother in about 90% near-beginner, 2nd level Korean and 10% (key terms) in English amid a sembled biography to fill the spaces in between. While she translates her mother's letters, she recalls living with her brother in California while their parents work in Seoul for about seven years;
Maddie Elise
Jan 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
If you're looking for a plot driven memoir with a painstakingly clear message, covering a specific topic like all other 21st century memoirs apparently have to be, then this is not what you will find. Instead, what we have, and what I find much more engaging is a poet who has written a memoir, stringing together memories, translated letters, and the past of her family blossoming into a meditation on her own trauma, and the mysterious path to healing. It is painful. It is never graphic, but still ...more
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the writing style and some of the passages/letter translations made me smile. I wonder how much of the translation of the letters captures the intent of the author's mother, vs. how she herself interprets and hears her mother's voice. To me, it seemed more the latter. It makes me want to know how to read and speak other languages, to learn about how meaning and thoughts and feelings are expressed and felt in each language - and how it translates over - what's lost, what's added.
Jan 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
"They say a person has so unique a set of meanings we ought to be incapable of understanding each other, yet we speak and teach as if by magic."

This deals with how much pain and how much love can go together in families. Its greatest gift may be the understanding it brings to the purpose and the way of poetry.
Jan 06, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: giveaways
I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads Giveaway

The Magical Language Of Others was a simple easy read. While the story of E.J. Kohs life was different and interesting, I gave it 3 stars because it didn’t pull me in enough, maybe it was because there wasn’t much time spent on the different events she told of?
Jan 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

This was beautifully written. There was no real story to it, but the letters were interesting to read, and the originals written in Korean, and sometimes Japanese, were very pretty to see. It was an enjoyable read.
Jan 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"You know my grandmothers," I said, and pointed at my nose, a habit I had picked up when I lived in Japan. "I'm an accumulation of their lives. Whatever I say or do now can give relief to the past -- and to them. I don't believe they're every gone." (189)
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Author of poetry collection A LESSER LOVE, winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), and memoir THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (Tin House, 2020). Koh's poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, and World Literature Today.

Koh accepted fellowships from the
“The present is the revenge of the past.” 0 likes
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