I was introduced to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee as an undergraduate student in the late 1990s and was immediately struck by the work’s radical relationship to its audience. Cha never spoon-fed the experiences of colonialism and diaspora to a white readership. She was not trapped in the straitjacket of “multiculturalism” that reduces artists of color to an “identity” defined by the white gaze. It was the first time I had encountered an Asian woman who tried to write her life as it bled across oceans, generations, and political histories, poetically undoing the rigid categories by which the world is normally structured.
It was only years later, as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, that I learned she had been raped and murdered in New York City shortly after Dictee was released. Later editions of Dictee would include the fact of Cha’s murder in her bio on the back cover, but I am of a generation of students who were protected from that knowledge. For those of us who love Cha’s work—who have been altered forever by her capacity to dwell in the layered complexities of time, space, and memory—it is often difficult to separate her murder from her art. Dictee spills over with a death that is both premonitory and already past.
When we try to engage with Cha’s art on its own terms—as I was encouraged to do in college, by professors who did not acknowledge her rape or murder—we do not allow ourselves sufficient space to grieve. Just as humanities scholars continue to study and write about Cha, she continues to be discussed in another discursive realm: that of the law. There, Cha exists as a legal case that highlights the foundational patriarchy that infuses every aspect of our culture and its institutions.
to begin with, the investigation of Cha’s rape and murder was inept. A 1986 opinion from the New York Supreme Court, where the case against her murderer had arrived on appeal, states: “The police were initially unable to ascertain where Mrs. Cha had been murdered. However, her husband and her brother searched the building where defendant worked and found a room the police evidently had overlooked”—a room full of evidence related to Cha’s murder, including missing articles of clothing. Without the work of her family, key evidence against her murderer, who was a security guard in a building where Cha’s husband had been working, might never have been found.
Even after that evidence had been gathered and her killer convicted, Cha’s posthumous existence in the juridical system did not end. The first conviction was thrown out by the New York Supreme Court, which ruled that inadmissible evidence had been used in the trial. This evidence comprised testimonies from three women who had also been raped by the same assailant; he had pleaded guilty to each of these acts, which he committed in Florida years before he murdered Cha. On appeal, the court deemed the inclusion of these testimonies to be in defiance of the Molineux Rule, which states that it is inadmissible to use evidence of a defendant’s prior crimes merely to establish “criminal propensity.” In the end, it took three trials, and a total of five years, for Cha’s murderer to finally be convicted. Cha’s case continues to haunt the system; in the intervening years, it has been cited in other cases involving sexual violence, including one in early 2022.
Both realms—that of the public intellectuals who write about Cha’s art while eliding her murder, and that of the legal scholars for whom she is only “Mrs. Cha”—in some way need her not to be a whole person in order for the discourse to function. In the field of art, we would like Cha’s vibrant and expansive practice to remain unsullied by the brutality of her death. Meanwhile, in law, Cha is not an artist, poet, or editor; she is simply a victim of sexual violence. Between these two types of discourse is an inexorable silence that contains all that remains unsaid and unsayable, a landscape of grief that lovers of Cha’s work must collectively traverse in order to understand ourselves as inheritors of her urgent project to retrieve memory from the fractures of history.
In order to begin to mourn, we must endeavor to see Theresa Hak Kyung Cha as a whole person. We must understand that she is one of the most radical artistic voices of her generation and she is a victim of femicide. The silence between her life and death is not an emptiness to be filled but rather a form to grapple with unto itself. If indeed the silence has something to do with the shame of sexual violence and our culture’s tacit acquiescence to femicide as a central motor of patriarchy and empire, then the work is not to make the silence “speak up” but to begin to understand how and why it exists, what it has allowed for, and what it keeps us from. The work is to reckon with silence as Cha would have worked with it: namely, as an Absence where multiple times and multiple stories, ruptured by historical circumstances, might, however tenuously, converge.