“I want to know why this feels right,” E.J. Koh comments on a piece of mine, an essay I submitted to my Tin House workshop in the spring of 2022. She’s referring to a scene I wrote where I lie down in the middle of the road during a manic episode. I’m seven months pregnant during the online, week-long workshop. None of the participants can see my belly outside of the Zoom’s rectangular frame. We’re on Portland time, so mid-workshop each night, I pop an anti-nausea pill off-screen and continue on with the critiques.
That’s the thing about workshops, everyone shows up to the workshop at a different space in their lives. And yet we all lay our lives aside in order to fully dedicate ourselves to each other’s work. I don’t think it was simply the pregnancy hormones firing like crazy that made me feel connected to each and every writer in our nonfiction workshop. I think it had a lot to do with E.J., our fearless guide.
“…I hope you can continue to write into those moments, those places that reveal in ways we can’t imagine.”
And this is exactly what E.J. Koh does in her debut novel The Liberators (Tin House, 2023). She writes into the spaces most don’t dare to tread. She writes into discomfort, into pain, into honesty. The Liberators is a story of generational trauma that spans time, place, voice, and is written in gorgeous, seamlessly woven lyrical prose. The novel’s concepts traverse the division of people, of relationships, of family; how we lose and grieve, how we move through war and love.
Something I admire greatly about E.J. Koh is how in that Tin House workshop, she felt like a participant, like one of us. She didn’t metaphorically stand at the front of the room and talk at us writers, but instead she sat among us and created a cohesive bond that we all felt on our separate screens. There was physically much distance between us, but she made us all feel emotionally and energetically connected.
I had the absolute honor of speaking to E.J. about her debut novel as well as her workshop pedagogy and how teaching informs her art and vice versa.
Brittany Ackerman: I love that we begin with the story of Yohan encountering language. Language is the foundation of this book, and for me, one of the most pleasing aspects of your writing was how so many of your sentences are flourished with delightful similes and metaphors. I wonder what your first experience with language was– with words, with sentences, with story.
E.J. Koh: In my poetry class in college, 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.
BA: Time in this book almost feels like setting, whereas place in this story feels like character. What I mean is that time is staccato, short and sparse, allowing for the dialogue and description and exposition to carry the reader. Time briefly shimmers on the page in a way I haven’t quite seen before. Can you speak more toward how you utilize time in this book?
EJK: What a wonder of a question. When I consider my relationship to time, I seem to only ever be arriving, or constantly leaving—even if I want to remain, keep, or linger, time teaches me to let go. Time behaves, as you said, like the wind in the book. The wind returns, passes through, leaves behind—it cannot be held, it cannot stay, and it comes always from a farther past.
BA: I recently went into a rabbit hole on the internet about transcendental art that led me to re-reading write-ups for the Korean film Burning, released in 2018. It’s an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, “Barn Burning,” from The Elephant Vanishes. If you haven’t seen it, you must.
In one scene, a character dances with the North Korean border in the distance; in another, a character pantomimes peeling and eating a tangerine and says, “you don’t have to imagine that there’s a tangerine, you just have to forget that there isn’t one.” Perspective is continually in flux, prisms of light reflecting different angles with each turn.
I found this reminiscent of how in The Liberators you flip perspective so seamlessly. Do you feel that your knack for this element of craft is with the aim for transcendentalism in your art, i.e. uniting all of creation, showcasing the power of insight over logic in order to portray the deepest truths of humanity?
EJK: In my poem “American Han,” I quote Steven Yeun’s character in The Burning, when he says, “There’s a stone in your heart. The stone is making you suffer. That’s why you can’t fully enjoy things… You have to remove it.” 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.
BA: Turning to the topic of workshops —our nonfiction workshop for Tin House felt so generous and open, like there was nothing at its center draining its energy but rather an endless well of energy at its core. Any ideas on how you achieved this magic trick? What do you believe to be the role of a workshop guide?
EJK: In some ways, my work as a guide is to firmly hold my belief in each person and in the workshop as a whole. This is a way of being together that I’d come to only after many years of teaching. Teaching can be a way to reveal to a person what they already know to be true, which is that each of us can get to the place we want to go.
BA: Why do you think writers go to workshops? What are we looking for and what should we be hoping to gain? Did you take The Liberators to workshop, or who are your first readers and what kind of feedback are you seeking with those initial stages?
EJK: Just as I say that writing is not the thing, it’s the thing that gets you to the real thing, which is human connection—the workshop is another thing which actually gets you to reciprocity of care, loving perception, and humanity. The first draft of the novel I shared with my librarian, and they let me know, at that stage, how even the wrong turns are the right turns. As a reader and writer, I look for ways like this to liberate.
BA: At the end of your Acknowledgements, you say: “My deepest hope is to understand that even if we fail, we cannot fail so big as war, and as sure as the sun rises and the world rotates, we as humans have a chance to try again.”
This mirrors Insuk’s sentiment: “I said she must not struggle against hope, that we must not become miserable or disappointed, no matter the circumstances, because the sun still shone upon the wreckage and the water, and upon everyone and everywhere in the world” .
As writers, how can we keep this hope alive?
EJK: Testimony has a liberating function in human society—for the speaker and the listener. There is hope in understanding that our deepest fears, our suffering and grief, can be shared—and that it is a human act. We can ask ourselves whether to erase our troubling origins or reconcile with the urge to do so in the face of human history.
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.