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'We cannot fail so big as war': A writer's lesson from examining the Korean War

E.J. Koh's novel covers war and generations.
Adam K. Glaser
Tin House
E.J. Koh's novel covers war and generations.

In just over 200 pages, E.J. Koh spans decades to tell the individual stories of lives impacted by the Korean War.

Who is she? E.J. Koh is an author, poet and translator of Korean literature.

What's going on? In The Liberators, her debut novel, Koh delves into the pain and history of families forced to immigrate from Korea after the war split the nation in two.

  • For Koh, zooming in on the characters' individual stories was a means to accurately portray the endless impact of the conflict.
  • "We get to really see how every individual makes a choice — makes a different choice, maybe about how to, or whether they should, erase the troubling origins of the war, or reconcile with the urge to do so in the face of inherited grief and violence and pain. And so we come to a really human level of understanding these choices."

<em>The Liberators</em> is Koh's debut novel.
/ Tin House
Tin House
The Liberators is Koh's debut novel.

What is she saying? Koh sat down with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro to discuss the thinking behind the many perspectives in her book, and how the writing process impacted her own perception of her family history.

On including characters that process their grief and trauma in a variety of ways:

For another perspective on family and migration, listen to Consider This on how violence in Sudan forced one mother to make a difficult choice.

On reckoning with her own lineage:

On the importance of hope, in remembering pain and forging new paths forward:

So, what now?

  • Here's an excerpt from Koh's acknowledgements about her deepest hope for the world:
  • "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."
  • The Liberators is available now. 

Learn more:

The interview with E.J. Koh was conducted by Ari Shapiro, produced by Kat Lonsdorf and edited by Courtney Dorning. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.