Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Radical Refusal to Explain Herself

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha at the window of her Berkeley apartment in 1979.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, in 1979.Photograph by James Cha / Courtesy the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive

“Dictee,” the Korean American writer and artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s masterpiece, was published in 1982. Just as it was released, Cha was raped and killed by a security guard. Before I ever encountered her writing, this is what I knew about Cha: she worked with language, video, performance, audio, and objects—and she’d died early. I’d heard other Korean American writers invoke her name as one might a patron saint or ancestor, so it was with great excitement that, a decade ago, I picked up a copy of “Dictee.” Back then, I hadn’t read any Korean American writers preceding Cha; relatively few Korean writers were publishing books in the United States. I was hungry for more ancestors—for additional proof, in other words, that someone like me had existed, which might mean I, a Korean American writer working on a first novel, could also exist as who I hoped to be.

Cha was born in 1951 and emigrated with her family from South Korea to the United States when she was eleven. She grew up in the Bay Area, studied at Berkeley, and attended art school in Paris. When she died, she was immersed in a book, a film, a critique of advertising, and a piece on the representation of hands. Recent months have brought a rising interest in Cha. Her art was featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial. The Whitney held a marathon reading of “Dictee.” The New York Times, as part of its “Overlooked” series of “remarkable people” of the past, published an obituary of Cha in January. In September, “Dictee”—along with a collection of Cha’s writing and art, “Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works”—was reissued by the University of California Press. Cha’s name is known beyond the circles of the Korean American writers, Asian American scholars, experimental-literature enthusiasts, and conceptual artists who have championed her work for decades; with, and despite, this growing recognition of Cha’s achievements, “Dictee” remains bold and challenging—at times forbiddingly so.

Fragmented and formally innovative, “Dictee” draws on Cha’s own life as well as on Greek mythology, Catholic iconography, and Korean history. Parts of it are in untranslated Korean, French, and Chinese. Photos, diagrams, and other images are presented with little or no context. It is not always clear who’s speaking. The first time I tried reading “Dictee,” I kept pausing, rereading, and flipping back. I could follow the French and Korean—and could call on my parents for help with the Chinese—but I was puzzled by the start-and-stop syntax of Cha’s prose. (A characteristic early passage: “It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak.”) My initial, ecstatic sense of ancestor-finding dissipated into confusion, and I put Cha’s book down.

But then I picked it up again, and then put it down, and then picked it up. Confusion gave way to fascination. I realized that the fitful syntax and refusal to explain or contextualize was rendering the experience of having trouble speaking. It’s a difficulty that can be heightened by having one’s language suppressed or displaced. Cha’s parents, both Korean, were raised in Manchuria during Japan’s occupation of Korea and China, and forced to learn and work in Japanese. Cha herself learned English as a second language at eleven, after her family immigrated to the United States. “Dictee” ’s intentionally fractured syntax evokes these experiences of colonization and displacement. Cathy Park Hong, in her 2020 book “Minor Feelings,” says that, when teaching “Dictee,” she instructs students to “approach the book as if they’re learning a new language, so that language is not a direct expression of them but putty in their mouths that they’re shaping into vowels.” What is commonly called “broken” speech, or speech that is not fluent, often provides the underlying music of “Dictee”: “Being broken. Speaking broken. Saying broken. Talk broken. Say broken. Broken speech. Pidgon tongue.”

During Japan’s occupation of Korea, which stretched from 1910 to 1945, the Korean language was violently suppressed, and Koreans were forced to take Japanese names. Many died by suicide rather than submit to a foreign name. Korean culture was stifled; Korean songs and the Korean flag were outlawed. In a 2020 essay that I can’t read without tearing up, Alexander Chee describes how, after the colonizers departed, the country set about relearning how to be Korean. Some Korean people could only speak and write in Japanese; others couldn’t recall the look of the Korean flag. Korea “undertook a vast educational project to undo the one it had suffered through,” Chee says. To be Korean, then, can also be to live with this anxiety about what it is to be Korean. Or, as Cha writes, “The decapitated forms. Worn. Marred, recording a past, of previous forms. The present form face to face reveals the missing, the absent.”

It can be difficult to talk about oppression and suffering, especially when it comes to forms of violence that might sound foreign. “To the other nations who are not witnesses, who are not subject to the same oppressions, they cannot know,” Cha writes. “Unfathomable the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction.” To live in the United States in a marginalized body, and to write from that perspective, is to live with an intense pressure to make one’s history easily intelligible, and I cannot overstate how freeing it felt to someone like me, also a Korean immigrant, to see Cha show, in 1982, that one does not have to bend to this pressure.

Dictee’s frontispiece is a photograph of a few lines in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, on a black background. It will be confusing to anyone who doesn’t read Korean, and will not necessarily reveal its meaning even to those who do:

어머니 보고 싶어
배가 고파요
고향에 가고 싶다

The inscription can be translated as “Mother, I miss you. I’m hungry. I want to go home.” During the Japanese occupation of Korea, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to work in and for the colonizing country. From an essay by L. Hyun Yi Kang in “Writing Self, Writing Nation,” a book of “Dictee” scholarship edited by Elaine H. Kim and Norma Alarcón, I learned that the photograph is often interpreted as depicting the words scrawled on the wall of a coal mine in Japan by a homesick Korean conscript. In other accounts, the photo is said to portray a tunnel built by conscripted Koreans, leading to a new palace for the emperor of Japan.

Regardless of its provenance, what any reader may notice is the indistinct, coarse grain of the image: the photograph appears to have been copied several times, losing definition and clarity along the way, not unlike the loss of detail that comes with trying to pass along any part of a lived history. The past isn’t past; history is with us, but it is also partially lost—and perhaps great understanding has to begin with the knowledge that one can’t quite understand.

From this vantage, the complexities of “Dictee” can seem less like a distancing than an invitation: to linger, to interpret the fragments provided. Cha leaves images uncaptioned. A blurred photo of an anti-colonial protest, with an impassioned crowd looking in a shared direction, might also look like people at a sports event or a parade. The book is divided into sections headed by the names of Greek muses, one of which Cha invents without explanation. In one section, the prose is more clearly read by following recto pages separately from the verso. This disjointedness mirrors my own fractured understanding of my family’s and Korea’s past. As is true for many diasporic Koreans, my family is all but silent about what, exactly, brought us to the United States and almost as reticent about life in Korea before we emigrated. All I have are fragments: an anecdote here, a picture there. It’s a scant, mystifying bricolage. The absence itself is a large presence.

One of the first historical figures invoked by Cha is Yu Guan Soon, a sixteen-year-old revolutionary who, in 1919, formed a resistance group with other students to protest the Japanese occupation. “There is already a nationally organized movement, who do not accept her seriousness, her place as a young woman, and they attempt to dissuade her,” Cha writes. But Yu is “not discouraged” and eventually travels “on foot to 40 towns, organizing the nation’s mass demonstration to begin on March 1, 1919.” An estimated two million people marched—a tenth of Korea’s population of twenty million. Tens of thousands were killed, wounded, or arrested by colonial police. Imprisoned by the Japanese, Yu died while captive, at seventeen years old.

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