The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir (Paperback)

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Staff Reviews

Not to judge a book by its cover, but how pretty is this one? That said, I recommended it as my 2020 holiday pick even though the hardcover didn't feature this gorgeous illustration. Koh's reflections on language(s) and their relationships to different selves and roles really make this memoir a stand-out. Even-- and perhaps especially-- if you don't gravitate toward nonfiction, this is a MUST-read to see how entire stories come from everyday thoughts and experiences. Our copies have signed bookplates!

— From Jae

This memoir cuts deep into the inherited wounds of the past, and how they cast themselves into the lives of those in the present. By sharing her story, her mothers and her grandmothers, E.J. Koh creates a space for their voices and selves to heal. Capturing the complexities of family bonds across time and trauma, Koh’s mother's letters give the haunting tragedies a touch of tenderness that pulls and eases at a pierced heart. E.J. Koh brilliantly illustrates the beauty of language and the magic of being able to communicate and understand one another in various forms. Translations rule! Translations are sacred.

— From Beatriz

Great Reads

“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


Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir

Named One of the Best Books by Asian American Writers by Oprah Daily

Longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award

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 loss and destruction 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?

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.

About the Author

E. J. Koh is the author of The Magical Language of Others, which won a Washington State Book Award, Pacific Northwest Book Award, and Association for Asian American Studies Book Award, and was longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award. Koh is also the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love, a Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry winner. Koh’s work has appeared in AGNI, the Atlantic, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, Slate, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University and her PhD at the University of Washington, and has received National Endowment for the Arts and MacDowell fellowships. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

Praise For…

Koh’s book is a tremendous gift. . . . A wonder.
— The San Francisco Chronicle

A moving portrait of abandonment, forgiveness, and the strength of maternal love.

Poignant…. Koh writes beautifully of the sacrifices made for love and of the intergenerational tensions between a mother and daughter. 
— Oprah Daily

— Alexander Chee, author of How To Write An Autobiographical Novel

A beautifully crafted saga.
— Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know

Indisputably brilliant.
— Jeannie Vanasco, author of Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was a Girl

Exquisite. . . . This memoir will pierce you.
— Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me

Koh remarkably and beautifully translates the language of mothers as the language of survivors.
— Don Mee Choi, author of DMZ Colony

I could read this book a thousand times over.
— Sarah Blake, author of Naamah

A lyrical and profound personal excavation.
— Buzzfeed, Most Anticipated Book of the Year

— Literary Hub

Powerful. . . . Koh’s success as a poet shines through in the beauty and delicacy of her prose.
— Book Riot

A cinematic and multigenerational saga.
— The Stranger

Magnificent. . . . This is a memoir that needs to be read more than once.
— International Examiner

A haunting, gorgeous narrative that is lonely but lushly told. . . . Brilliant.
— The Star Tribune

A beautiful, scorching memoir.
— Chicago Review of Books

Weaving the handwritten Korean letters, the English translations and longer chapters recounting her own story intertwined with those of the women who came before her, Koh (who is now based in Seattle) renders a uniquely beautiful work of literature.
— The Seattle Times

Powerful…. [Koh] fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy and intergenerational trauma.
— Net-A-Porter

A masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.
— Shelf Awareness, Starred Review

A coming-of-age story, a family story, and a meditation on language and translation, with an emotional range to match.
— Caitlin Horrocks, author of The Vexations

Give yourself over to her narrative territory and the resetting of the borders of lineage, language, and lives lost.
— Shawn Wong, author of American Knees

It’s really beautiful. . . . A compassionate, vulnerable, sad, and loving book about mother-daughter relationships. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it.
— Amanda Toronto, WORD Bookstore, as heard on Minneapolis Public Radio

— Book Riot

Product Details
ISBN: 9781951142278
ISBN-10: 1951142276
Publisher: Tin House Books
Publication Date: January 19th, 2021
Pages: 224
Language: English