The Magical Language of Others

Mothers and daughters, they are a complicated lot, aren’t they? They are the best of friends, harshest of critics, closest of confidantes, keeper of each other’s secrets and much, much more. It is one of the most beautiful familial bonds that evolve at each stage of the relationship. My own relationship with my mother is a strong, albeit a crazy one. She is the only person in this whole world who can go from comforting me to inadvertently pushing my buttons and sending me over the edge, within a matter of seconds. But not a day goes by when I don’t speak to her. And what about my own relationship with my 4 year old daughter? Even crazier! So, when I came across this non – fiction by E J Koh involving grandmothers and mothers and daughters, I for one was most excited to read it. And although it was entirely different from what I had in mind, I felt so blessed, for it was one of the most powerful and touching memoirs I have ever read.

Eun Ji Koh was only 15 years old, a confusing and frightening age to be, especially for young girls transitioning from girlhood to womanhood, when her parents decide to move from US to Korea for a work opportunity, leaving Eun Ji in the care of her older brother in California. Although the initial plan was to be away only for 2 years, her parents end up extending their contract, time after time, causing a void in Eun Ji’s life, pushing her to depression. During this time, the mother writes Eun Ji letters, sometimes short, sometimes detailed, in addition to their weekly phone calls. Each one of the letter is littered with guilt of being a physically and emotionally absent mother. In her letters Eun Ji’s mom talks about her present life in Korea, her past experiences as a child, her journey as a young woman, the incidents faced by her mother and grandmother and her dreams and hopes for a different future for her daughter.

Using these letters as a backdrop, Eun Ji Koh explores the complexities and evolution of her relationship with her mother. It’s raw, honest, heart – wrenching and above all, beautifully written! E J Koh truly has a way with words. It moves the soul and stirs up such powerful emotions within the reader. What I loved best about this memoir is how Eun Ji Koh doesn’t offer any explanations. She doesn’t criticize or defend her mother nor justify her own feelings of abandonment and emptiness. She states the events as it is, absolutely bereft of any judgement. So much of it is left to the reader’s interpretation. We can choose to attack the mom, who leaves behind her children in the guise of ‘wanting to provide them with the best of everything’ or sympathize with her after learning about the many traumatic events she herself had to undergo as a child.

As a mother myself, I can never bring myself to make such decisions. But I can imagine how torn Eun Ji’s mother would have been to have made that choice, leaving her daughter to fend for herself in a faraway land, not being able to guide her through the vicissitudes of life and wanting to be in two places at once. It pained me to see the mother try to make amends many years later, but sometimes when the damage has already been done, some relationships can never go back to what it used to be. In the end though, a mother is a mother and nothing and no one in this world can ever replace her.

In the world of memoirs, books such as these are hard to come by. When most people choose to highlight only the best details of their lives, a searingly honest narrative such as this is truly a refreshing change. ‘The Magical Language Of Others’ is one of the best books I have read this year and I’m going to need a really long time to get over this.

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