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Q&A with E. J. Koh - The Liberators

By Lucy Parry

We are excited to welcome E. J. Koh to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release The Liberators released on the 7th of November 2023.

At the height of the military dictatorship in South Korea, Insuk and Sungho are arranged to be married. The couple soon moves to San Jose, California, with an infant and Sungho’s overbearing mother-in-law. Adrift in a new country, Insuk grieves the loss of her past and her divided homeland, finding herself drawn into an illicit relationship that sets into motion a dramatic saga and echoes for generations to come. From the Gwangju Massacre to the 1988 Olympics, flashbacks to Korean repatriation after Japanese surrender, and the Sewol ferry accident, E. J. Koh’s exquisitely drawn portraits and symphonic testimony from guards, prisoners, perpetrators, and liberators spans continents and four generations of two Korean families forever changed by fateful past decisions made in love and war. Extraordinarily beautiful and deeply moving, The Liberators is an elegantly wrought family saga of memory, trauma, and empathy, and a stunning testament to the consequences and fortunes of inheritance.

In what ways did your MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation help you to begin your writing career?

In my poetry class, my teacher said to me, “You’re good at starting a poem, but you have trouble at the end of the poem—the turn.” My teacher said my poems were missing magnanimity. I’d never heard of the word before. When I asked what it meant, they said, “It means you have to forgive your mother by the end of the poem, or the poem has to forgive you for not. Otherwise, it’s not a poem.” Looking for the turn comes not only in my poems but in the turn of a sentence, an image, a chapter, a character within The Liberators.

Another teacher said to me, “If you want to be a good poet, then write poems. If you want to be great poet, then translate.” A few years later, I found my mother’s forty-nine letters, which I began to translate for The Magical Language of Others.

Your first book, The Magical Language of Others, is a memoir. How did you find pivoting to fiction writing for The Liberators?

In some ways, my memoir and novel were written at the same time. For my doctoral work, I was studying intergenerational trauma across Korean American literature, history, and film. So, as I was researching, I was also writing my memoir, a script for a TV show, and drafting my novel. My poetry, memoir, translation, and research are only ever arriving on the page.

You included multiple perspectives on Korean reunification. Was it important for you to show such a wide variety of opinions on what is still a contentious issue?

There is a responsibility to underscore the human lineage of destruction and restoration, suffering and reconciliation—a braid which comes from the perspectives of the victims and the perpetrators, the prisoners and the liberators.

Language is one of the prominent themes in The Liberators. Do you think being trilingual gives you a better understanding of the barriers and opportunities that language provides us?

Poet and translator Don Mee Choi taught me how translation bridges histories and creates pathways toward unsettled, unsafe truths. For Choi, languages connect histories of imperialism and colonialism and militarism. To cross powerfully from Korean to English is to revisit war, wound, and deformation of the Korean peninsula. To bridge histories of the peninsula to the Korean diaspora.

Why did you use the trope of the nightmare mother-in-law?

Magnanimity is the spider’s web hanging between my memoir The Magical Language of Others and my novel The Liberators. In the memoir, I look for magnanimity in the distant relationship I share with my mother through letters. But the novel recalls my mother’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Kumiko.

After my mother’s parents died tragically, she married my father and followed him, with his mother, to the US. My mother lived in the prison of their apartment. Kumiko made her feel unloved, and my mother cared for her over decades.

But on Kumiko’s death bed, my mother asked whether she was sorry for all those years—for all the things that happened between them. Though Kumiko couldn’t speak, her head jolted up and down. In a way, they’d lost their homes and were two daughters looking for their mother. It was the first time my mother and Kumiko entered a room together, not as a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, but as sisters.

When I define magnanimity, it means to hold grief and anger alongside the possibility of forgiveness and love. It teaches not to let go of hope—shows that what we feel in our darkest moments can be shared. It returns each of us to the child learning to hold every part of ourselves for the first time.

Will you write more fiction books?

Years ago, I had decided to give up on writing, but I put out a call online—I would write 1000 love letters to strangers. The next day I found requests in my inbox from all over the world. Today I’ve sent over 600 love letters to strangers. For me, what I longed for through words was not writing itself but human connection.

I will continue to write love letters to strangers.

E. J. Koh is the author of The Magical Language of Others, which won a Washington State Book Award, Pacific Northwest Book Award, and Association for Asian American Studies Book Award, and was longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award. Koh is also the author of the poetry collection A Lesser Love, a Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry winner. Koh’s work has appeared in AGNI, the Atlantic, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, Slate, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. Koh earned her MFA at Columbia University and her PhD at the University of Washington, and has received National Endowment for the Arts and MacDowell fellowships. She lives in Seattle, Washington.


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