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what if your parents left you at age 15 for another coutnry? THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS by E.J. Koh talks about this, letting go, self-hood, and more

By Leslie Lindsay

Powerful, raw, and elegant memoir about mothers and daughters, legacy, generations, and distance–or perhaps, abandonment. 

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Writing Exercise 

After nearly a decade living in the United States, E.J. Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen year old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California, alone. Overnight, this young girl finds herself adrift in a world without her mother, lacking structure. But over the course of time–and the time keeps increasing as her parents extend their work contract in South Korea–her mother sends letters written in Korean. Eun Ji cannot fully understand these letters until she is much older, once she becomes a translator. 

As an adult, a writer, poet, translator, Eun Ji sifts through these letters in THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (Tin House Books, 2020)–and her past–seeking the tenuous thread that ties them all together, discovering striking similarities between them. 

My heart broke for Eun Ji–my own daughter is fifteen–it’s a tender, vulnerable age, somewhere between being an adult and craving the comfort and structure of a mother. I couldn’t imagine leaving my children at this age (at any age, but it must get easier as those children move into adulthood). 

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

“A beautifully crafted saga, a testament to how the most complicated, often elusive truths and inheritances can shape us and reverberate across generations.”  

-Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know

Here, Eun Ji grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy, and intergenerational trauma, arriving at insights that most definitely make for essential reading for those who have to balance longing, love, heartbreak, and grief. But also, joy. 

THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS is about self-hood, but also the bonds to family, place, generations, and also, perhaps, boldly, language–what is said and what is left un-said.  


Do you have letters from a parent? I have hundreds from my mother. We were estranged due to her virulent struggle with mental illness. For a long while, it was the only way we communicated. In many of these, she is completely unhinged, the letters blooming with frank mental illness, odd symbols, foreign language, and even lipsticked ‘kisses.’ Other times, they were completely cognizant. It provided a litmus test of sorts–just where was my mother in her mental illness? Was she stable, or not?

If you have letters, find them. Can you discern who your parent was if not your parent? What passions and interests fueled their psyche? How are you like them? How are you different? What might you learn about past generations? Not just their genetics, but their legacy? Their behavior? I find that behavior and responses to life events are almost ‘inherited.’ For example, is there a history of leave-taking? Of fatherless daughters? Of mother-daughter estrangement? What do you think attributes to that? 

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Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer

For more information, to connect with E.J. Koh via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS, please see:



I was reminded of several books as I read THE MAGICAL LANGUAGE OF OTHERS…Jeannie Vanasco’s THE GLASS EYE came to mind, as did WRITERS & LOVERS (Lily King) particularly for the writing life connections, but there were similarities between this book and WHAT WE CARRY (Maya Shanbhag Lang) and PIECES OF MY MOTHER (Melissa Cistaro). Also, for some reason, I was reminded of the poetry and work of Laurie Patton (HOUSE CROSSING). 


Eun Ji Koh is the author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others (Tin House Books, 2020) and poetry collection A Lesser Love (Louisiana State University Press, 2017)winner of the Pleiades Editors Prize for Poetry. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Slate, and World Literature Today. Koh is the recipient of The Virginia Faulkner Award and fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, Jack Straw Writers Program, Kundiman, MacDowell Colony, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Vermont Studio Center. Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York for Creative Writing and Literary Translation. She is completing her PhD at the University of Washington in English Language and Literature. She lives in Seattle, WA.


1B6B942E-E2D9-4517-9773-73A6A5162188ABOUT YOUR HOST:

Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) with second, updated edition coming fall of 2020 and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir, about growing up with a mentally ill interior decorator mother and her devolve into psychosis. Leslie’s writing & prose poetry has been published in Pithead ChapelCommon Ground ReviewCleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The WakingBrave Voices Literary MagazineManifest-StationCoffin Bell Journal, and forthcoming in Semicolon Literary Magazine and The Family Narrative Project. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal and shortlisted for the Manhattan Review. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.


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#alwayswithabook #amreading #memoir #literaryfiction #memoir #KoreanAmerican #SouthKorea #family #legacy #mentalhealth #generations 

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[Cover and author image from Tin House books/author’s website and retrieved 10.22.20. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 for more like this #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer]

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