Poet, Translator, and UC Irvine Alumna E.J. Koh Bridges Cultural Boundaries in New Memoir

Photograph by Adam Glaser

Koh’s new memoir “The Magical Language of Others” recounts her struggles growing up separated from her parents, who returned to their native South Korea for work. It’s also a bracing family saga chronicling her ancestors’ hardships in war-torn Korea. Anchoring the narrative are her mother’s letters of love and encouragement written during their nine years apart. Koh, 31, is a graduate student at the University of Washington and lives in Seattle.

Koh was 15 when her father took a job in Seoul; she moved from the family home in the San Jose area to live with her older brother in Davis. “I think it’s a very American idea to stay close to your immediate family and to be entirely responsible for them. I was born and raised here, so that’s what I expected. I wanted to have Thanksgiving and dinners together because that’s what a family meant. And for my parents, it did not mean that. I was grappling with that.”

She considers it an accomplishment that she graduated from high school. “I had been in a place where I was not going to too many classes at all. The fact that I was able to finish must have been because of the grace of a lot of teachers understanding that I was in a troubled situation. Once I graduated, I think I needed to leave Northern California to start fresh. By then, I was already quite interested in hip-hop and dancing and looking for others who looked like me, who loved to move, who loved to perform. What a dance crew offers is a very close-knit, loyal family, and I think I went to Irvine looking for that. Irvine has such a vibrant dance community.”

The author of an award-winning poetry collection, “A Lesser Love” (2017), Koh wrote her first poems at UC Irvine. “I couldn’t grasp what poetry was until my teacher was very honest with me and said, ‘There’s something here that’s missing: magnanimity.’ That stayed with me. It became an obsession, to learn how it feels to be magnanimous. When you grow up in a place where you’re not used to caring for yourself, let alone caring for other people, it’s hard to know how it feels to be magnanimous.”

“When I worked on the first and second chapters, which are about when I was 14 and 15, I would spend the day feeling like I was 14 and 15. It drove my husband crazy. I had to shift into that girl, and she was not a beautiful girl on the inside. But when I was that age, I thought I was the only person in the world going through this. Any experience I had felt singular. That seems to be currently the urge I write against. The experiences might be unique, but they’re certainly not singular. And the emotions we get out of the experiences are universal. Someone else knows what it’s like to dislike yourself and feel lonely.”

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