... [a] profound literary memoir of intergenerational wounds ... formally daring, making full use of various parallelisms to create a rhythm between past and present ... The letters, as Koh explains it, are in 'kiddie diction,' lending a fascinating verisimilitude to Koh’s adult narration of what happened to her, her mother and her grandmothers ... We’re so fortunate to have this literary reckoning from a tremendously talented writer. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others is a wonder: a challenging and deep meditation on how wounds of the past and present inform our relationship with those outside of us, which is to say, everyone.
E.J. Koh’s memoir, The Magical Language of Others, is a haunting, gorgeous narrative that is lonely but lushly told. A coming-of-age story, it brings us through scenes that read like elegant fairy tales ... Koh’s poeticism shines throughout the memoir with startling images that anchor the human characters to the world almost like dolls in a dollhouse ... Throughout this brilliant memoir, Koh offers brief meditations on the magic of language as a kind of fortress of solitude.
[A] stunning memoir ... Koh, who is both a poet and translator, writes prose that is simple yet elliptical and all the more resonant for what is left unsaid ... The parallels between Koh’s mother’s circumstances and the decisions she makes in regard to her own daughter feel both humanly real and almost uncanny, but Koh allows these parallels to speak for themselves ... it’s both a pleasure and a relief to read about Eun Ji’s success when she turns her attention first to poetry and then translation ... Koh learns to wield language not to further isolate herself, but as a way to connect with others. The result is this beautiful, scorching memoir.
... sublime ... Although Koh doesn’t adhere to a strict chronology with the letters, she does allow her mother’s distinctive word choices, referents, and errors to stand. As both a translator and a recipient, she finds a depth of emotion, character, and voice in the letters’ limitations, and her shifts from letter to memoir capture the troubles of first love—a child’s for a mother—and the ways that love, like language, opens and closes a person ... When Koh’s mother speaks of her daughter’s work as a poet, she says, 'My daughter teaches people how to let go.' In The Magical Language of Others, Koh uses a poet’s deftness to teach herself this lesson.
An engaging, literary take on language and its role in the diaspora of a scattered family, The Magical Language of Others speaks from—and to—the heart ... Throughout this slim memoir, fraught with differences in culture, custom and, most of all, language, runs a thread of familial love and pain, a back-and-forth that, given Koh’s eloquence, needs no translation.
Koh captures their pasts, and her own, with the lack of straightforwardness memory evinces as sentiments echo across generations: daughters will someday have daughters just like themselves; one day, a daughter will be her mother’s mother. Both creative tribute and personal reckoning, this is a finely wrought, linguistically rich, provocative memoir.
... [the letters] read like an extended, fussing hand, hoping to hold onto that mother-daughter bond across an ocean of distance ... There is no dissection of the letters or of the author’s feelings about the absence of her mother in those critical years of development into womanhood. Indeed, the letters are presented mainly without comment and in between the author’s recollections of those years of physical estrangement. She is not forthright with her feelings, but the selected memories hint at her emotions ... There is a whole shadow self lingering behind the words of this book; it only suggests the true pain and longing that the reader can feel in the pit of their stomach. There is no doubt that a second book’s pages could be filled with all that’s left unsaid here. The absence of such words gives this book a quiet, melancholic tone. Wounds kept hidden in this book do not interrupt its smooth, elegant prose, though it is the literary equivalent of sweeping matters under the rug ... a beautiful, sorrowful kind of wandering into the past. It is the kind of recollection that has spikes, the ones that, despite the passing years, still tear at us when we pull them out of the proverbial, or even literal, closet.
Koh takes her readers on a wonderfully written, if sobering, journey through the history of the women of her family and her own journey to being the author of this memoir ... Each story is a patchwork of isolated devotion, and over time Koh sews them delicately together to create a quilted spread of familial feminine pain. But Koh does not pity herself or her family. In fact, she is economical enough with her prose to waste little time reflecting on the grand scheme of raw deals the women of her family have faced, but rather reckons these events in an empathetic but ultimately detached tone. Koh’s writing does not err on the side of the histrionic, and therein lies her genius; she leaves space for the reader to feel all those feelings on her behalf. The effect is a quiet and brief memoir that immediately pulls you in and leaves your heart wrenched by imagined grief and love.
The author includes her translations of some of her mother’s letters as well as the originals. Her bewilderment regarding her mother’s decision is deeply evident, as are her gradual perceptions about how the move affected her mother ... Intimate, subtle insights about a unique mother-daughter relationship.