The Stakes of Dictee

An introduction to a famously difficult work

Ken Chen

James Cha, Cha’s hands on her typewriter, 1979. Courtesy the University of California, Berkeley Art

when I was in college, Dictee was the most infamous book I hadn’t read. Multilingual, feral, refusing to explain itself, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book whis­pered its secrets only to the initiated. When I opened the cover, I saw Greek Muses, calligraphy, photographs of saints and execu­tions, and, most terrifying of all, prepositions. Even for its acolytes, Dictee remains an elusive oracle. One well-known poet wrote that she taught the book by having her students write down everything they did not understand.

Contrary to popular belief, reading Dictee is possible. Having since become a committed member of the cult, I wanted to write a simple introduction to this most impossible of tomes. The key is to not be intimidated by the book’s impenetrability but to notice instead how you can always feel its emotional urgency even when you don’t understand it, a cool heat glowing like plasma construct­ing a scar. Cha’s baroque references—whether to Korean history, Greek poetry, Christian theology, or Daoism—were not intellec­tual games. They were tools to help her answer a question whose stakes were highly personal. The animating problem of Dictee, and the central trauma of Cha’s life, came from being severed from her home as a child refugee.

Born in Busan during the Korean War, Cha migrated to Hawaii and then San Francisco as an adolescent. She escaped a conflict in which the United States dropped more bombs than during all of World War II, but what she lost was incalculable. “The content of my work has been the realization of the imprint, the inscription etched from the experience of leaving, the experience of America,” she wrote in a National Endowment for the Arts application. Though a recent New York Times obituary characterizes her work as exploring Asian American identity, Dictee was ignored for almost a decade by most Asian American Studies scholars, whose social realist preferences fostered an allergy to Cha’s esoterica. And Cha had little investment in America. She saw herself as losing a home­land, rather than gaining a new one. Her central question was not the substance of her identity but the problem of not possessing one. Rather than reading Dictee as a riddle to be solved, we must look for its pleasures, the foremost of which is love.

The book is significantly more fulfilling when approached not as a novel, memoir, or poem but as a ritual. Dictee is an exorcism, a very literal attempt to reverse the flow of time, to go back before the coming of war and exile. The key to Cha’s fragmentation is its temporal nature. Time stopped the moment she left Korea. Each new day did not suggest a continuation of the life she was meant to live but another temporal unit duplicating that which had just passed. Telescoping further from a motherland persisting only in memory, Cha wrote that she felt her body disappearing limb by limb. She found a form to represent this dislocation when she attended film classes at Berkeley, where one of her professors, Bertrand Augst, used an Athena projector to arrest an individual frame of a film—a technique Cha would use in her own films, as well, to create Dictee’s frenzied slowness.

Her creative engine ran on the gasoline of semiotics, a linguistic system that examined how words, sounds, and images stand in for larger cultural norms, values, and ideas. Consider René Magritte’s famous painting The Treachery of Images, which taught viewers that one can paint a pipe and describe it, but neither the result­ing image nor the text would be very satisfying to smoke. While a more conventional writer might naively believe they can describe reality, Cha sutured together her art in the crevasse between the world and a language too deficient to depict it. As a teenager, she scribbled down her teachers’ dictée, or dictation, in her Catholic school’s French classes—a process of taking language itself and representing it. This method of learning French gives Dictee its title, but when Cha mimics it in the book, she inserts translations, additions, and mischievous linguistic pranks. The book’s narration is performed by a woman skilled at dramatic recitations, a diseuse, but when she tries to speak, what comes out are “noise, groan, bits torn from words.” Both the dictée and diseuse imply that Dictee is always failing to replicate some missing source, as if originality and representation were each impossible.

Such necromantic imagery makes it easy to read the book as an eerie harbinger of its author’s death.

Cha declared she “would vow to muteness” and write as if words were “inconceivable.” This opened up possibilities for lin­guistic sabotage. She could appropriate text in dead quotation, bang it into wonky syncopations, and vivisect words from their grammatical organs. Her faltering silences suggest a loyalty to the migrant’s estrangement from English raised to an ethical principle. Exiled from her mother tongue and writing in a neocolonial lingua franca, she wrote as if the condition of language is failure. “I have the documents,” she writes of receiving her passport. “Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photo­graph.” Cha also writes about coming to America in her astonish­ing 1978 text, “photo-essay.” Full of anticipation of this country’s storied abundance, she instead discovers that America’s riches con­sist only of countless commodities, which she depicts with photo­graphs of rows of female mannequin heads and romance novels. These mass-produced objects could never fully represent what it meant to be a woman or experience desire, and America itself served as a paltry substitute for the country she had lost.

Cha emerged from the thrilling experimental film and litera­ture scene of the 1960s and 1970s, where artists were creating an alienating poetry by shattering how they represented the world. Samuel Beckett reduced a play to an actress’s lips projected on a screen, Marguerite Duras severed her characters’ visuals from their dialogue tracks, and Alain Resnais whacked his films with an aggressive editing technique that broke normal chronology. Many of these heady, left-wing assaults on narrative came in the after­math of the 1968 mass protests in France, really a global insurgency that sought to rupture and overturn the preexisting order. When Cha transferred to the University of California at Berkeley as an undergraduate in 1969, students from the Third World Liberation Front rallied against the corporate university and occupied the campus. Despite being teargassed, they managed to force the uni­versity to create departments devoted to People of Color.

Dictee is a rare book that straddles these two seemingly unrelated domains of post-structuralist art and ethnic studies. In our cultural hierarchy, we typically think of the former as cerebral, inorganic, and deracialized and the latter as pure anthropological testimony—the white mind versus the racialized body. The book’s paradoxical recep­tion suggests its puzzling ability to elude the racial categories that seek to ensnare it. The way that Dictee can be read in these opposing worlds perhaps corresponds to the strange sensation one gets while reading it, as if the book were written by a mind and a body, but not the self that usually exists in between. Having apprenticed in the arts of disembodiment (semiotics, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism), Cha deployed them to describe an experience inextricably rooted in the body, the journey of Third World women. As she quotes Sappho in her epigraph to Dictee, “May I write words more naked than flesh.”

Her body contained its own map; her blood could serve as ink. Semiotics also let her describe structures of power, like the way the Japanese banned the public use of the Korean language, and some­thing far more personal: the way a migrant can represent a nation from which they remain forever exiled.

A 1981 broadside announcing the first publication of Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha from Tanam Press. Courtesy the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

While devotees of semiotics and ethnic studies offered drastically different takes on Dictee, they shared a secular materialist viewpoint and often seemed embarrassed by the book’s transcendental yearn­ings. But Cha’s idiosyncratic theology—which combined the pas­sion of Christendom’s women saints, Daoist meditative movement, and Korean shamanic rituals—is central to Dictee. The problem with being human is that we’re stuck in a process of representation. Like the dictée’s and the diseuse’s words, we are fallen language, Xeroxes made “in His Own Copy, In His Own Counterfeit Presentment.” The book begins by depicting the Catholic mass—a hint at how one may heal the gap between signifier and signified. Christ may be wafer and wine, but he’s also body and blood, word and flesh, a set of objects that magically incarnate an absent god. Exiled from her own Eden, Cha became an avant-garde spiritualist who understood migration as a postlapsarian fall, someone who—to translate Cha’s brilliantly synthetic phrase—fell from the clouds of naturalization. Heaven, God, the void: these ideas offered Cha a vocabulary to name that sumptuous origin from which the émigré feels indelibly outcast, and let her translate her exile into metaphysical terms. If she could rewind language, she could write like God, who in her account can speak “without alphabets” and “without meaning.” Describing her project as “looking for the roots of language before it is born on the tip of the tongue,” Cha saw her spiritual challenge as escaping the prison of representation and repetition and returning to a holy unity of time. Until then, the only consolation was memory. “i have no other occupation, than to remember,” wrote Cha. She compared life in America to drinking from Lethe, the underworld river whose waters make the dead forget their past.

Such necromantic imagery makes it easy to read the book as an eerie harbinger of its author’s death. On November 5, 1982, a week after Dictee’s publication, Cha was raped and murdered at the age of thirty-one. Just as she mourned those who came before her in Dictee, her readers might be compelled to grieve for Cha and desig­nate her the unwitting final martyr in her book of saints. Yet read­ing Dictee as a fatal prophecy fixes its narrative around something she hadn’t yet experienced and undermines the glorious, fractured, sublimating theology she built upon her vanished kingdom. Being seduced by the charisma of Cha’s death also risks misdiagnosing what death means in her work: a grief for her homelessness, which could be solved by extinguishing the self.

each of dictee’s nine inner sections are headed with the name of a Greek Muse, and many of them reimagine women as the protag­onist of otherwise patriarchal narratives. The first chapter, titled “Clio – History,” recounts the story of Yu Gwansun, a sixteen-year-old woman who fought Japan’s takeover of Korea and was executed in 1919 when the Japanese crushed Korea’s independence move­ment, took over the country, and later banned its language. Dictee then recounts how Cha’s mother experienced Japanese colonialism. As a child, Cha’s mother fled Korea with her family, landing in Manchuria, which the Japanese also soon annexed—an exile large enough for the muse of epics. As a young woman, Cha’s mother whispers her illicit mother tongue and sings of the “Bong Sun flower,” which represents Korea. She can do nothing but wait. This is the sublime slowness of God whittling time down to a single frame and the political longing of one waiting for a better world. Cha recasts her mother’s illness into a saint’s suffering and portrays Yu’s execution as martyrdom—a holy sacrifice that, like Dictee’s photo of crucified peasants, halts the dead in time.

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The end of World War II marked the end of Japanese occupa­tion, but South Korea found itself controlled by a succession of U.S.-backed dictatorships. Cha’s exile began in 1962, when her family migrated to Hawaii to escape the violence instigated by strongman Syngman Rhee, whom she quotes early in the book. Her exile ended in 1979, when as an adult she experienced a breakdown after reading about the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee and decided that for the first time since coming to America, she would return to Korea. She went twice in short succession, the second time with her brother to make a feature film, White Dust from Mongolia, which was unfin­ished when she died. In the film, she intended to explore the life of a girl without a past, an amnesiac stalking the person who might have existed had she stayed. “Here I am finally, childhood gone,” Cha wrote in a postcard from Korea to her friend Yong Soon Min, “apparently I am forced to experience as adult.” Cha’s exile wasn’t from a place but from a destination to which no one can travel, the time prior to leaving. The Korea she found was radically different.

Cha arrived in the chaotic aftermath of Park’s death, as students and citizens rose up against the dictatorship. Many were massacred by the de facto dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, during a 1980 revolt called the Gwangju Uprising. (Cha’s film storyboards show an American G.I. spraying a woman with DDT: the Korean War was not a civil war, she writes, but a conflict arising from the intrusion of new imperialist forces masquerading as liberators.) She and her brother were hassled by policemen, who saw their cameras and suspected they were North Korean spies. In a chapter dedicated to Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, Dictee describes the tragedy of Korea. Dictee, so far a book of enigmas and gnomic passages, now erupts in action sequences. Cha runs with the activists. She sees the white of tear gas. Blood, no longer a kinship metaphor, stains the pavement. Rather than memorializing some historical legend, she describes the woman protestor on the street. Korea, already partitioned between North and South, is now split between dicta­torship and democracy: “SHE opposes Her.” What follows is the most overtly political utterance of the book: “Arrest the machine that purports to employ democracy but rather causes the successive refraction of her none other than her own.” The chapter’s desperate sorcery expresses the desire that She and Her can refer to the same thing—a cryptic spell for Korea to become whole.

While Cha is a sculptor of fragments, Dictee is also about seeking unity, wholeness, or what one could call divine love. The chapter for the Muse of lyric poetry, Erato, presents us with two Christian martyrs, Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc. The former, who died at twenty-four, appears in a photograph dressed as Joan of Arc; the latter is represented by actress Renée Falconetti in a still from Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. In other words, Cha rather mischievously portrays the two not merely as the saints they are but as actors, as if even the holiest among us are still infected with the inauthenticity of representation. What these women saints felt toward God, and what scandalized the more orthodox Church fathers, was desire. As Saint Thérèse wrote, in a line Cha quotes, “To satisfy me I need all.” When women mys­tics communed with God’s love, they transcended themselves and entered the absolute—a feeling Cha recognized, describing in her MFA thesis an “overwhelming sensation” resembling “salvation from the struggle of being human.” Many female saints were des­olated after rapture, and one senses this metaphysical withdrawal in Cha’s poem “18, avril: “i am not a saint too much water wallow swallow 제비.”

While Cha was a student at Berkeley, she worked in many mediums, including video and performance. These photographs document A Ble Wail from 1975, performed at Worth Ryder Gallery. Cha constructed a space with mirrors, candles, and curtains made of cheesecloth, through which she moved wearing a white robe and over twenty meters of black and red cloth. In the accompanying text, she wrote, “In this piece, I want to be the dream of the audience.” Photo: Trip Callaghan. Courtesy the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

These Christian martyrs may seem disconnected at first glance from Yu Gwansun and Cha’s mother, but they show how to love something that’s not there. Korea haunted her, but Cha could accompany her lacuna, perhaps even befriend it. In “photo-essay,” she mentions Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, a book about embracing one’s voids; the piece also features Cha’s own photo­graphs of church pews and classrooms without anyone in them, a portrait of vacancies. You can transmute an ocean into a halo, you can see your emptiness as a subtracted utopia. One’s yearning can represent not just emptiness but desire. Eros lets you merge with the emptiness, Brown writes, unlike analytical thinking or even ordinary love, both of which divide the self. The “Erato” chapter tells the story of a woman whose husband is unfaithful, a split the book models in its layout. Rather than reading one page and mov­ing to the next, this chapter must be read by looking at verso and recto pages simultaneously. This binocular form of reading also reimagines the page as a cinematic screen.

The “Melpomene,” “Erato,” and “Thalia” chapters all feature a person “watching” what unfolds in a theater, as if the book were a film, but what made Cha’s conception of film so unorth­odox was how she forsook the screen and the other components of cinema. In 1980, she edited an essay collection, Apparatus, that included the leading lights of the experimental film world and featured an essay by the Marxist Jean-Louis Baudry, who argued that cinema comprises not only visual narrative but also projec­tors, screens, seats, and theater workers, all of which exert a film’s ideological control upon a passive audience. As Cha writes in one of Dictee’s theater scenes, “The submission is complete.” How could one make cinema that would render the filmmaker-viewer relationship more intimate and egalitarian? In her performances, Cha danced in the projector’s beam and manipulated the screen— both forms of Brechtian alienation but also attempts to make film porous enough for the watcher to participate, to democratize it from theater into ritual. “i want to be the dream of the audience,” she wrote. This romantic, meditative line may have been inspired, scholar Jonathan Stalling argues, by Zhuangzi’s famous dream that he became a butterfly. This dream, perhaps the most famous in the history of philosophy, gave the Daoist philosopher an onto­logical shock. Was he a human dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being the funniest philosopher of all time? The answer is both—for “in the dream, no differentiation takes place,” Cha wrote. Not unlike the women saints merging with God, the dreamer can wash into another person—an effect that Dictee simulates with waves of rain and mist passing over the reader like breaths. Cha adopts another literary form to bring the reader closer to the author: the letter. In Dictee, we read a probable found letter by a Mr. Small to a woman named Laura Claxton. He tells her that her own letter to a Mr. Reardon cannot be received, since he has moved—a snafu Cha identifies with Thalia, the Muse of comedy. None of these people are probably alive (the letter is dated 1915), but they persist in language. “She says to herself if she were able to write she could continue to live.

Was death just another separation to be overcome? The book enters the underworld in a chapter dedicated to “Elitere,” an invented Muse whose name references literature (littéraire) and the earth (la terre). Cha created an artist book called Earth, which referenced the Chinese character kun (坤), a way of signifying the Yijing trigram of the feminine principle. Dictee depicts the fertile soil germinating forth a flower, the feminine moon blotting out the sun, and the earth expanding into a dark, immaterial formlessness.

Cha transfigured herself into a shaman whose spells called forth the migrant’s refusal to speak.

The key to understanding these cryptic images is to read them as literally as possible; the chapter in which they appear, “Terpsichore – Choral Dance,” becomes easier to understand if you treat it not as textual narrative but as choreography. Written in the second per­son, the chapter invites the reader to join this communal dance. Cha even provides the itinerary: a Daoist account of cosmogony written in her father’s brushwork, Cantonese transliteration, and English translation. She rewinds time toward decreation and returns to the primordial origin where heaven and earth, yin and yang remain unseparated. One could return to the clouds after all.

The chapter named for Terpischore describes a person deliver­ing holy waters onto a stone altar in a ritual for the deceased typ­ically conducted by a woman shaman called a mansin or mudang. The book’s many images of whiteness indicate forms of matrimo­nial separation (a bride’s veil, a nun’s habit), but they also refer to a Korean indigenous exorcism called a kut. The mansin opens a white cloth to create a bridge for the dead to enter paradise. By untying knots in this sheet, the mansin frees the recently deceased from their suffering. Because Cha lived, she could conduct this exorcism and minister to the martyrs who did not. But this pale road could only be traveled by spirits. For the living, the white sheet erected a wall separating them from the dead.

The first mansin was the mythical Princess Bari, whose journey Cha evokes in the book’s final chapter, “Polymnia—Sacred Poetry.” Bari is the seventh daughter of a king and queen who, because they want only a son, abandon her. Years later, when they fall ill, they ask her for help. She travels to the afterlife, where she must draw holy spring water to heal them. After accomplishing many trials, Bari emerges bearing the elixir, only to discover that her mother and father’s funeral has begun. She interrupts the services, tears open the coffins, and resurrects her parents by feeding them the magical elixir.

Dictee ends with the speaker and her mother finally together, gazing out a window. Unlike the book’s early images of stained glass, veils, and film screens, the window neither cuts off the world nor represents it. It allows them to see it. Buddhists describe enlightenment as a process that first deconstructs a person’s vision, so they see the emptiness in all matter, until the adherent returns to their body and can once again see trees and mountains. In its final movement, the book’s alchemical elements become simply what they are. Stone, sunlight, trees.

Cha’s family entered America to escape dictatorship, but she could never migrate from her wound. Broken into a postcolonial holiness, too loyal to an imagined past to fully assimilate, Cha transfigured herself into a shaman whose spells called forth the migrant’s refusal to speak. While no one can travel back in time, Cha saw the minute particles and dust of her own ego and fused them into a triumphant book that left visible the seams and fis­sures. Dictee is less an elegy than a rite created to care for those who have passed, an exorcism whose methods are séance and solidarity. But one special attribute of the shaman, wrote the religious scholar Mircea Eliade, is that she is often herself one of the afflicted who has succeeded in curing herself. As Cha wrote in “i have time,” the “wound is deep, but precisely this wound this mark allows me to see suffering and the need in others to be loved and my first and foremost need…is to love.”

While writing about this famously difficult book, I took my daughter to the playground, sat at a table, and reread Dictee. One of my mom friends asked me what I was reading. She possessed little familiarity with experimental literature, but the book did not intimidate her. She knew Cha’s questions quite well. Having migrated from wartime Congo to France, then Brooklyn, my friend immediately recognized Cha’s grief and laughed at her jokes. This is a funny book! I found myself thinking about this magical text being encountered by other readers in our vast, inhospitable world, where children slumber in the cages of West Texas, men scramble up makeshift ladders tossed against the fences at Ceuta and Melilla, and mothers and fathers taste the sting of salt before their heads slip below the Mediterranean’s waves. I imagine them reading Dictee and seeing themselves, the refugees, the living mar­tyrs of nationalism.

Ken Chen is the author of Juvenilia, selected by Louise Glück for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Previously executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, he teaches at Barnard College, where he is associate director of creative writing.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022

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