Reclaiming Our Language

Dictee as a feminist ritual

Zahra Patterson

Fragment of a Yellow Fresco Panel with Muse, c. A.D. 1–79. This image of a Roman fresco by an unknown artist opens the “Thalia – Comedy” section of Dictee. Courtesy Getty Museum

when “thalia — comedy,” the seventh chapter of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, begins, a woman tries to answer a ringing telephone, but she cannot speak. She can only release a “wail” after a series of “barely audible” attempts. As I read, I imagine this woman is powerless to speak because she is unable to access an ancestral language deep within her. I feel less like a reader than like an audience member in a theater, watching a woman on a telephone trying to articulate her “rehearsed” lines onstage. As the scene unfolds, the woman reckons with her inabil­ity to articulate herself, haunted by her desire to speak her forbid­den mother tongue.

In the process of reading the novel, I experience cultural loss, displacement, and the violence of imperialism in Korea, as women all throughout the book experience a disconnect from their pasts. However, through various performative, rhythmic, and incantatory passages, I am also invited to consider the relationship between ritual performance and healing. Cha’s tone, within prose that chal­lenges linearity and rationality, evokes a spell, and the combina­tion of religious imagery and effortful dictation undulates steadily toward a climax in which the lost power of speech is reclaimed. The italicized text on the page preceding “Thalia” provides the clearest clue: “Dead words. Dead tongue. From disuse. Buried in Time’s mem­ory…Let the one who is diseuse, one who is daughter restore spring.” The woman who cannot speak into the phone embodies both “disuse” and “diseuse.” If I imagine myself as an audience member instead of a reader, I realize that by participating in language discovery and recovery, I, too, can begin healing from the trauma of cultural loss due to the violence of imperialism.

Toward the end of the telephone scene, there’s a shift, and the once-painful act of speaking becomes mystical and liberatory. At first, the woman feels trapped with “No end in sight.” She thinks, “There is no future, only the onslaught of time.” But within the swirl of emotions an idea appears, and “She says to herself she could displace real time.” The language becomes increasingly abstract and irrational, rejecting and ejecting the logic of colonialism. The scene’s final verse is italicized, and the woman’s words transcend the page: “To herself if by writing she could abolish real time. She would live. If she could display it before her and become its voyeur.” Here the word “voyeur” is compelling because it signifies an estrangement between viewer and object. But this is just the beginning of Dictee’s resolution. There is time to get closer.

In the final pages of this chapter, the reader is invited into the text as a participant, because one cannot conjure the past alone. An unspecified someone enters “an empty theatre” and, unnoticed, observes a woman. The metafictional narrative positions the reader as the stranger in the dark theater, “between seances,” watching the woman begin to cast her spell: “Without a doubt she knows what she must say.” Unlike the woman who couldn’t speak on the phone, this woman in the dark theater is confident and unafraid. She hopes the performance of the utterance will reconnect her with her ancestors, just as many of the figures throughout the text have looked for ways to resurrect or protect their motherlands and mother tongues. In its final pages, Cha’s novel depicts a return to the ancestors, and it arrives there by choreographing a ritualistic dance in the penultimate chapter, “Terpsichore – Choral Dance” (a continuation of the chanting begun in “Thalia”). This séance ini­tiates the book’s final rituals, which conclude with the appearance of an ancestor who delivers healing potions to a little girl. These potions help the girl save her mother and, symbolically, reclaim her mother tongue.

Dictee is a spell book for current insurgent language move­ments. It performs the memory of cultural loss, then calls for a resurrection of our connection to what has been stolen. Because performance expresses emotional states that can’t otherwise be articulated, Dictee often feels less like a book than a theatrical space where women convene, conjure, and heal, retaking their stolen heritage through the practice of ancient ritual. Cha invites me to understand my role in her prophecy. Am I simply a reader? A voyeur? A witness? Or am I an active participant in the process of restoration? I choose to participate, and in that performance of recovery, I am filled with a sense of possibility. I am learning how to restore what has been taken.

Zahra Patterson is the author of Chronology, which received a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography. Their work can be found on Montez Press Radio, in Wasafiri Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Philadelphia.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022

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