A Truly Poetic Memoir: The Magical Language of Others, by E.J. Koh

I typically try to focus my reviews in on a particular component of a given book that stood out to me. But with E.J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others, I don’t even know where to start. I want to talk about the portrayal of motherhood between generations. I want to talk about the poetic voice Koh creates even in her prose. I want to talk about the significance of place and space in these memoirs, the treatment of time, and the exploration of language and translation. And so much more. So I guess you could say that this book, for me, was complex and intriguing and, I might add, all-around brilliant.

But this post would be much too long (and probably spoil most of the book) if I touched on all those things, so I’ll focus on the topic that has been on my mind most, and that is the way Koh structured this book. I couldn’t help but wonder if her background in both poetry and translation influenced the narrative’s organization. And what I mean is that, while much of the memoir follows a linear progression in which we follow along with Koh’s coming-of-age story, she intersperses scenes or stories from her own life with scenes or stories from her mother’s life, her grandmothers’ lives, and even earlier or later scenes from her (Koh’s) own life. At times, these breaks are clean and stories from different lives are separated into separate chapters. But other times there is no preface to the sudden appearance of an adjacent, non-linear scene. For example, midway through a chapter about Koh’s summer abroad in Japan, she pauses to meditate on the similarities between her face and her mother’s. She then returns to her narrative about Japan, only to pause once again to describe a fight she and her brother once had in Davis, California. But while one might expect these changes to be jarring, they are executed so gracefully that the impact is, for lack of a less-cheesy term: poetic.

Wherever Koh breaks the linearity of her narrative, she juxtaposes two scenes in such a way that they complicate and/or illuminate the meaning of both. More than that, they complicate and illuminate the threads that weave throughout all the lives touched on through her memoir. Threads of family, love, and motherhood. Of distance, silence, and language. There is really so much to love about this book, that I think every reader is likely to take away something unique and relevant for them.

If you’ve read Koh’s memoir, leave me a comment to let me know what you liked (or didn’t!) and why. Let’s talk books!

Links to more about The Magical Language of Others:
Tin House: The Magical Language Of Others
For a synopsis, visit Kirkus Reviews
Get the book.

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