Most Influential, Arts: E.J. Koh
The talented Seattle writer E.J. Koh is carving her own niche in the literary world
By Rachel Gallaher February 27, 2023
E.J. Koh is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential
If the writing profession were anything like a game of bingo, Seattleite E.J. Koh would be nearing a fully stamped row, if not an all-board blackout. At 34, she’s already racked up several impressive literary accolades, published a book of poetry and a memoir, worked as a translator on a number of texts, served as the librettist for a forthcoming opera and will release her debut novel in the second half of 2023.
While it’s not unheard of for writers to travel between genres, it’s more common that they pick a form — poetry, fiction, journalism — and make it their trademark. Not Koh. For her, the art of literary traveling is second nature. Although she’s most known as a poet, Koh slips seamlessly between categories, using her words to take her readers to different places — California, South Korea, New York, Japan, Seattle — and to explore deep emotions associated with her unconventional adolescence, the generational trauma passed through her family, and the fractured relationship between her and her mother.
In her debut poetry collection, “A Lesser Love” [Louisiana State U. Press, 2017], Koh’s poem “Confession” ends with the stanza: “I started to tell stories because / my parents lived so far away.” What feels like a pedestrian sentiment [it’s not uncommon to live a significant distance from one’s parents] comes into sharp focus through the text of “The Magical Language of Others” [Tin House Books, 2020], Koh’s gorgeously haunting multi-award-wining memoir. The title received a 2021 Washington State Book Award, a 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award, a 2022 Association of Asian American Studies Book Award and it was a long-list finalist for the PEN Open Book Award.
In it, Koh reveals that when she was just 15 years old, her father accepted a high-paying job in South Korea — and her mother moved with him. Instead of taking Koh along, they shuffled her to Davis, Calif., to live with her 19-year-old brother and continue her education in the United States. The siblings resided in a small house with a dog and a parakeet while Koh finished high school. Tensions ebbed and flowed as the two shared an existence wrapped up in resentment and angst over the fact that they had to raise themselves and each other.
Koh’s father initially signed a three-year contract, but various extensions kept her parents in South Korea for seven years. During this time, Koh’s mother wrote weekly letters in Korean — notes the teenager had to translate with her limited knowledge of the language. It’s these letters, which are scanned and included [along with an English translation] in between the book’s chapters, which are the heart of the memoir and also the cornerstone of one of Koh’s biggest struggles in life: to understand why her mom left her when Koh was still a child. In part, it’s what led her to embrace writing, which serves as a journey to self-discovery, a means to process trauma and a way to feel less alone in the world.
Koh’s words are like a heartbeat as well. Her sparse verses pulse with straightforward phrases [“I’m not sad anymore,” “Street lamps kick on and I’m the last to head home,” “I am common, they say, a commoner] but a deeper, almost mystical undercurrent [mention of ghosts, wars, soldiers and myths] runs between the lines.
Koh is interested in history — both her own, and history in a larger sense. She writes about her family — her parents’ immigration to the United States, her mother’s pain as a result of her own mother’s death when she was just a little girl, her great-grandfather’s murder during the Jeju Island Massacre in 1948 — tracing threads of love, loss, isolation, abandonment and pain back and forth between her and those who came before her.
It’s a heartbreaking saga that ends in the eventual reunification of the family and a found sense of purpose for Koh, who uses writing like a life raft, navigating the choppy waters of memory while trying to keep from drowning in the past. To write about oneself is an act of courage that requires vulnerability, and Koh presents her story with grace and humor.
But Koh doesn’t just work with her own words — she is also a translator of Korean literature. It would be easy to point to the adolescent translation of her mother’s letters as the impetus for this practice, but the more one learns about Koh, the more one understands her deep love for language and all of its inner workings. There’s a reason that her debut books have garnered so much praise. Koh isn’t just a writer. She’s a literary artist who knows how to capture, and connect with, an audience. She takes care with words and has a deep reverence for their power and potential.
“Translation is such an intimate practice,” Koh says. “Translators have to know how to care, how to love the way you want to be loved because this is what they do with languages. And languages can be so fickle with each other. They have histories and they fight as hard as people have fought. Translators can hold them all in their arms. So being a translator informs a way of seeing that goes into my words but also my relationships. How wonderful it is to love in the way someone asks to be loved.”
Like many writers and academics, Koh isn’t one to sit back once a project is finished and often has multiple overlapping endeavors underway. Recently, she has been experimenting with a new-to-her form of writing, serving as the librettist on the operatic adaptation of Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film, “The Handmaiden,” which will debut soon.
Next year, Koh — a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington in English Literature studying Korean American literature, history and film — will also release her first novel, “The Liberators,” which she says she started thinking about in 2020. Although she hasn’t revealed anything about the plot, she notes that readers of “The Magical Language of Others” will recognize the characters in this new work.
“They are shadows of those who have been a part of my life,” she says. “I thought about the characters every day since I started. To know that one day I can talk to someone about them, that I can listen to someone tell me back the story, it won’t ever stop being something magical to me.”