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  • Manali Dhole

A #hyphenatedAsians POV: Author E. J. Koh

E.J. Koh is author of the memoir "The Magical Language of Others" (Tin House Books, 2020), winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award and Longlist for the PEN Open Book Award; and the poetry collection "A Lesser Love" (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry. Koh is also the recipient of the Virginia Faulkner Award and fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, Jack Straw Writers Program, Kundiman, MacDowell, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Vermont Studio Center. She is the editor of "Pleiades: Poetry by Korean American Women." Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York for Creative Writing and Literary Translation. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington in Seattle for English Language and Literature, and Korean and Korean American literature, history, and film. Visit her site to learn more.


Eun Ji Koh’s journey began when she was 15, and her parents moved back to South Korea, leaving Koh and her brother alone in California to raise themselves. While Koh and her parents lived apart, her mother stayed in touch by sending handwritten letters in Korean.


Koh has written absolute masterpieces like "The Magical Language of Others" and "A Lesser Love." In every book, she has managed to put together words in such a way as to take the reader back in time to the place she describes, and readers are able to experience every little detail in a very delicate and intricate manner. Her way of writing touches the reader’s heart, allowing them to deeply and specifically feel emotions and connections. Koh has also continued to translate and write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction works, which helped her achieve various honors in her field.


Diving deeper into her works; Koh, in "A Lesser Love" describes heaven as signifying home, and war as signifying her past, how it impacted her, and its ties to her grandmother and great grandfather; thereby, shedding light on her childhood. In her debut memoir, "The Magical Language of Others," she translates letters that she discovered years later, that were written by her mother over the course of several years and traces the connections between mothers and daughters, cultures and histories, and her own journey to write about them across Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Through her books, Koh has always conveyed many deep and diverse messages. In my interview with her for TUA, she shared her challenges, emotions, and advice for writers out there.


When you started out as a writer, what would you say helped you stay inspired despite all the challenges/obstacles?

Looking back, a part of me believed I didn’t have to be anybody to have something worthwhile to say. That kind of thinking when I was younger helped me through some difficult times.


Is there any process that you follow while putting together a book?

It’s not the same for every book. I plan mostly not to plan, but sometimes I can make outlines if there’s something I feel needs another look. If there’s a problem that sticks around, I tend to “sit back” and observe the things I read or experience in my life. There is a sense the pieces will come to me, but if I go after them, they’ll run away.


You have received numerous honors up until now. However, at which moment would you say you felt like you had achieved what you set out to do.

My family complains about how I ask them questions. Because I ask a lot of questions, and when I’m given an answer, I have to re-word the answer and say it back until I’ve understood them as clearly as possible. I feel satisfaction and relief when I can grasp something I couldn’t before.


What do you want your readers to learn from your books. Is there any specific message or emotion that you are trying to convey?

My answer will probably change, but right now, I’d like to hold as many things as I can at one time. Rage and grief—with forgiveness and love. We are constantly separating and coming together.


What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into becoming a writer?

One advice I might give is to feel secure in uncertainty. Certainty is helpful, but it can also be limiting. But uncertainty, though it can be tough to write through, brings with it unlimited possibilities. To feel secure in uncertainty is to savor the surprises and experience magic.

 

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