In her memoir The Magical Language of Others (2020), E. J. Koh explores the repercussions of her parents’ decision to return to Korea, leaving E. J. and her older brother in the US when she was 15 years old. Koh, a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Washington, spoke with Perspectives editor Nancy Joseph about the memoir. See related feature story.
Can you explain your parents’ decision to return to Korea, leaving you in the US at a young age?
In Korea, it’s better to pay for your family than to be with them. If you asked my mother and father now if they would go back and change their decision, I don’t think they would. And I think why scenes in the book can be so devastating is that my expectations of what a family should be were very different from theirs. I was born and raised in the US and had a Western idea of what a family ought to be. Everything around me, the schools and neighborhoods and parent-teacher meetings and holidays, reminded me that I was supposed to be with my mother and father.
Did writing the book help you forgive your parents, or had you already forgiven them?
I’m still forgiving — it’s ongoing. I don't think that's something I accomplished by the end of the book. It's something that I could finally approach. An earlier version of the book was angry. When I talked about forgiveness it was rhetorical; I wasn’t doing the hard work of forgiving. So I had to go back and rewrite it and go through many revisions. To understand forgiveness on a deeper level, I needed to become a different person than the person I was when I started writing this book. And being a book of discovery, anybody reading it can go through those changes with me.
Your portrayal of your family is unflinching and often not flattering. Were you concerned how they might respond?
We had done such awful things to each other that the idea of writing this memoir seemed so small compared to what we had done to each other already. All of this seemed like a family secret or burden, and once I exposed it, with vulnerability, then it was no longer just ours to carry. When the rest of the world shared that history with us, we all felt it wasn't as heavy as it was before.
You share the stories of your grandmothers, which are fascinating and moving. I am curious about your decision to include those stories.
With the way the chapters are ordered, in the first chapter I'm saying that to know me, you have to know my mother. And then at the end of that chapter, if you want to know my mother, you have to know her mother — which is why the very next chapter is my grandmother’s story. Where we go with the memoir is always toward trying to understand somebody and their decisions. I’m trying to understand my mother not just as my mother. I want to see her as somebody’s daughter. My mother was a young woman who was orphaned very early on and left with the responsibility of her siblings, and in many ways is still a daughter waiting for her mother. That's really important to consider when taking her in.
I began to see that my separation from my mother was something that had happened before, when my mother was separated from her mother Jun who left her behind to go to Seoul. It happened in other ways, with my paternal grandmother and her mother. These are ongoing events that happen in the lives of the women in my family. So when we get to the end of the memoir, this action of letting go is important. It didn't take my lifespan to get here, it took the lifespans of many lives to get to a place where I have the chance to do something different. In this way, the book connects with my work in the UW PhD program, because my dissertation research is about intergenerational trauma throughout Korean and Korean American literature, history, and film.
All of this seemed like a family secret or burden, and once I exposed it, with vulnerability, then it was no longer just ours to carry.
After studying translation at Columbia University while pursuing an MFA in creative writing, you translated 49 letters (some included in the book) that your mother sent you during your years apart. Can you talk about this very personal translation project?
When I was younger, I read the Korean in my mother’s letters out loud. I had to hear my mother’s words to understand them. Years later, as a translator, I was able to not just read the words but also read between the lines.
Translation is also political. As a translator, the goal is a "seamless" translation — one that reads as if it were written in the translated language. I realized that I was erasing the Korean language out of my translation, using English. Languages have histories. Korean and English have their own history. And so if you read my translations of my mother's letters, they appear to be a little off, the rhythm a little strange, and there are odd constructions. Those are influences from the Korean that I wanted to come through — to remain.
Although this book is very personal for you, is there something you hope people outside your family or your community will gain from reading it?
When I was a young girl, if I had read a book like this, it would have changed my life. I would have had some idea of what to do and where to go. I would have had the ability to have a bigger dream for myself, a possibility in what I could do or might be capable of doing. That includes my relationship with myself and the world. The lesson that comes through is something you would teach a small child, but it took many years for me to remember what my grandmother taught me. She never asked me to speak but to understand, rather than endure to forgive, and never to sacrifice, only to let go.
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Read Two Perspectives on the Korean American Experience for more.