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“The present is the revenge of the past,” is how E.J. Koh opens her memoir, “The Magical Language of Others,” which was published last month. “There is a Korean belief that you are born the parent of the one you hurt most.”

The Magical Language of Others, by E.J. Koh.
214 pages
TIN HOUSE BOOKS, Nonfiction.

This is heavy stuff from a young woman writing about her own family, but then Koh has a lot to digest in her story of intergenerational trauma and growing up in America without parents. By the time the book ends on a note of forgiveness, her lyrical prose has taken the reader from the horrors of her own suicidal thoughts in adolescence to her grandmother surviving the Jeju Island massacre in South Korea.

Never bleak or uncomfortably exhibitionist, “The Magical Language of Others” succeeds entertainingly in what good memoirs do: Help us understand different journeys in the vast sea that we all float on. As memoir writing continues to grow in popularity, the challenge remains for authors to strike universal chords with experiences that are, at heart, intensely personal.

How did Koh, as a Korean-American at a relatively young age, know that her life story could merit a memoir? And how did she avoid the curse of the memoirist, the danger of self-absorption?

“Unlike an autobiography, I feel that a memoir can be captured by a handful of years, by its brevity and its incompleteness,” says Koh, who has published a collection of poetry and is completing her doctorate at the University of Washington.

“The experiences of my childhood may be unique, but the emotions are universal. I always knew, whether or not I could articulate it at the time of writing, that I must complete the book. Whether or not I believed I could do it, I told myself that I had to.”

When Koh was 15, her father was offered a lucrative job in Seoul and her parents returned to their home country. Upending stereotypes of Asian self-sacrifice, her parents abandoned their teenage daughter and son — “better to pay for your children than to stay with them” — to enjoy more comfortable lives in Seoul, all “confident with tall backs from splendored living.” Alone and adrift for the next seven years, Koh and her brother had to raise each other through their formative years.

Battling depression and muddling through school in a daze, Koh received regular letters from her mother, dispatches from a foreign country that were written in childlike Korean (“mommy has it so good”). Through the sense of guilt that emerges through these missives, Koh eventually moves toward reconciliation.

Such a deep dive into family relations takes courage, and some readers may wonder how much Koh worried about reactions both from her family and the Korean-American community; a bad motivation for writing a memoir is the desire to vent or get even with those you believe have wronged you. Channeling her own pain, how did Koh manage to be so painfully honest without falling into the trap of settling old scores with her parents?

“What fascinates me about a memoir is how it can gather moments across generations, and hold them together side by side,” says Koh, whose mother plans to attend one of her public readings.

“This larger view of a family history can avoid venting, because of the awareness of each daughter’s trauma taught by their mother’s trauma. We see my mother not only in her role as a mother, but as who she was as a daughter herself. How she longed for her mother and continues longing for her to this day.”

It is the story of grandmother Kumiko that adds historical perspective to the memoir. Born to Korean parents in 1923 in Tokyo, Kumiko learned later about her ethnicity. After the Great Kanto Earthquake, when false rumors blamed Koreans for arson and Japanese mobs killed 6,000 of them, the family tried desperately to pass as Japanese, at pains to erase their Korean accent.

Later the family moved to Jeju Island, only to get caught up in another massacre in spring 1948. As the government suppressed a communist-linked insurgency — “the country sliced down the middle like a walnut cake,” writes Koh — grandmother Kumiko witnessed bloodshed that pit Koreans against Koreans, her own father killed cruelly in a stoning.

Along with learning this family history, it was the study of poetry that allowed Koh to process the past, to learn magnanimity and how to forgive. With its evocative prose and personal and historical honesty, “The Magical Language of Others” may help extend this forgiveness to healing beyond her own family, into a larger societal realm.

“Magnanimity doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel hurt,” says Koh. “It means that these feelings can exist alongside the feelings of others. Poetry has taught me how to hold seemingly disparate ideas simultaneously. It’s an important lesson in expanding the space in your heart, making room for coexistence and compassion.”

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