Galley Club: The Magical Language of Others

Tin House Staff

Before the holidays, we invited a gaggle of early readers behind-the-scenes for a sneak peek at poet E. J. Koh’s debut memoir, The Magical Language of Others. Every single bookseller who read an early copy used the word “beautiful” to describe it; Nicole Chung calls it “a testament to how the most complicated, often elusive truths and inheritances can shape us and reverberate across generations” and the San Francisco Chronicle agreed, saying that “Koh’s book is a tremendous gift. … We’re so fortunate to have this literary reckoning from a tremendously talented writer. The Magical Language of Others is a wonder.”

Alongside graphics of readers’ favorite lines from the book, we offered Galley Club members the chance to contribute questions for an exclusive Q&A with E. J. Here is what they had to say:

GC: What is your favorite video game to play with your brother?

EJK: We played Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo—a Tetris-meets-Street-Fighter, gem-matching video game released in the nineties for the Japanese arcade scene. There were strategies that become clear over time—you recognized each character’s unique gems, or watched your opponent’s screen, or planned for the gems that would drop in the next turn. Over a decade later, I walked into my living room in West Seattle to see my brother playing the video game with his wife and my husband. The sounds, the colors were the same. He was sharing the game with the new partners in our lives, who were laughing and shouting as ecstatically as we did then. It used to be that something like a video game, something so small, could bring me to my knees, but it seems I am learning to enjoy the little things again.

GC: Why did you structure the narrative framework this way? Removing clear distinctions between primary source, translation and memory?

EJK: Trauma has no clear distinctions between primary source, translation, language, and memory. My mother’s original letters, records of mothering from a distance, lay bare my translations and bridge the events of my youth. However, with histories rife with violence and war, primary documents and records, alongside the reading of histories (written in separate languages, in different countries) against revisionist histories, and worse, the death of our family’s living witnesses—and their deaths survived only by our bedtime stories—there is no longer a matter of clear distinctions. I was left with an attempt at holding these things as equal to one another, alongside each other, and simultaneously—with what magnanimity I could muster. The greater the aim (one that takes up space), the greater I had to become (to be somebody who takes up space), so I was no longer simply a researcher or storyteller, but I had to understand how to be a daughter of the history, the language, and the memory. And though the narrative appears to have a non-chronological structure, I followed a certain logic to create its own chronology: “The present is the revenge of the past.” The chapters were written in the order you would read them in the book, guided—not by an outline or other means—but by this internal rhythm to know myself through my mother, to understand my mother as a daughter, and so on, for four generations.

GC: Has your idea of a/your own mother changed over time?

EJK: My mother is her own woman—an adventurer—who just left me a text message that she is going on a trip, and she doesn’t know where or when exactly she will be back, but she’s inspired to go and excited to also return to me. Instead of my idea of her changing, it might be that who she is and who she shows me to be, continues to grow into greater, immeasurable, uncontainable, unnameable, unresolvable depths. While I am learning how to untether myself, my mother sets herself free.

GC: As the book progressed and Eun Ji came to understand herself more fully, I felt that the tone and writing style became more poetic. Was this intentional and if so, was this intended to lead us to the ultimate conclusion of you becoming a poet?

EJK: Writing as a fifteen-year-old made me fifteen again. There was this feeling in my chest, described by the Korean phrase, dap dap hae—spoken aloud while pounding one’s heart. This phrase points to a painful frustration, and the accompanying gesture is the desire to open the blocked feeling in one’s heart. The phrase is also used for a sense of suffocation and constriction. I felt stifled from not being able to articulate or communicate what was happening to me. Words like bulimia or depression or suicide can be limiting to express an experience, and yet these are the words one uses to ask for help, words whose existence would have allowed me to understand the universality, the humanness, and the possibility of a way out.

GC: Who do you think you will be reincarnated as? Who would you like to be reincarnated as? 

EJK: This life would be my last reincarnation—if the learning is complete, if the life has experienced its consciousness in me, if what remains is love after having let go of all things, and if all things are ready to let go of me. Otherwise, I may come back as a little blue bird.

And here are our Galley Club members’ recommendations for what to read next:

  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Chemistry by Weike Wang
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, ed. Michele Filgate
  • Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
  • Sing to It by Amy Hempel
  • Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg
  • The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
  • Creature by Amina Cain
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Monsoon Mansion by Cinelle Barnes
  • Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
  • Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay
  • Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
  • Good Woman by Lucille Clifton
  • Joy Enough by Sarah McColl

Thanks to our wonderful Galley Club members for joining us in conversation about The Magical Language of Others. Interested in being part of Galley Club? We’ll announce the next Galley Club for The Last Summer of Ada Bloom on social media soon, with instructions on how to apply!

Graphics by Jakob Vala and Jeremy Cruz, Q&A by Masie Cochran.