“Dictee” by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Dictee: Restored Edition, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (University of California Press, September 2022) Dictee: Restored Edition, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (University of California Press, September 2022)

“To satisfy Divine Justice, perfect victims were necessary, but the Law of Love has succeeded to the law of fear, and Love has chosen me as a holocaust, me, a weak and imperfect creature” wrote Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in her 1982 debut novel Dictee. Only two months after its publication, Cha was raped and murdered on her way to meet her husband and friends for dinner in New York City. She was 31 years old. Cha’s novel is  haunting, tragic, and defiant. Written in multiple languages and in a style both enigmatic and experimental, its accessibility is comparable to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Dictee is widely recognized today as a critically important text of postmodern, postcolonial, Asian-American literature and has enthralled scholars of Asian American literature since its publication. Forty years later, University of California Press has produced a restored version of Dictee. With the original cover and high-quality interior layout as Cha had designed them, this book is the most aesthetically appealing edition of the five that have been produced.

Dictee is not a typical novel with a narrative arc, but  a collection of poetical evocations, images, calligraphy, and photographs that is better experienced as poetry than read as prose. In parts, images and blank spaces carry as much emotional depth as the text. The book opens with an image of white hand-written Hangul on a black wall, which is graffiti left by Korean miners on the wall of a Japanese mine. It is a call from child to mother – “mother, I want to see you. I am hungry. I want to go home”. Though Cha was fluent in Korean, this is the only Korean in her book. The rest is alternately written in English and French (in which Cha was also fluent), with calligraphy and diagrams in Chinese and English. This polyglot book is written for diasporic peoples whose mother tongues were lost, whose homelands were ravaged by colonial domination, war, or dictatorship, whose survival depended on displacement and exile, and who feel the need to tell their stories in borrowed languages in a transnational cultural context.


The title “Dictee” refers to the dictation exercises that take place in French classrooms, suggesting that the narrator is taking dictation rather than speaking as an agent with narrative authority. Cha named the narrator “Diseuse”, a female storyteller in Western theater. Diseuse tells other peoples’ stories without a voice of her own: “She allows others. In place of her. Admits others to make full. […] The others each occupying her”. Diseuse the narrator empties herself in a shamanistic trance and evokes the Greek muse(s) to inhabit her body:


O Muse, tell me the story
Of all these things, O Goddess, daughter of Zeus
Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.


Diseuse contorts her facial muscles, lips, and tongue, making it clear that giving utterance is no less laborious, no less painful than giving birth, until a nine-day novena is produced. The nine muses in Greek myth each occupies Diseuse for a day, and each tells a different story in accordance with her own attributes. The book is divided into nine chapters, each one named after a different muse.

The first muse that inhabits Diseuse is the muse of history, Clio. This chapter recalls the story of Yu Guan Soon, a 17-year-old female Korean resistance fighter who was tortured and killed by the Japanese in 1920. Guan Soon’s  black and white photo appears prominently at the beginning of the chapter, determination in her eyes undiminished despite the age and weathered condition of the photo. That page is followed by the dates of her birth and death with the simple inscription “she is born of one mother and one father”. Guan Soon was the only daughter of four children. She fought against the Japanese to preserve Korea’s  sovereignty after Queen Min’s assassination. When captured, she chose death over seven years in prison because “the nation itself is prisoned.” Of this Korean Joan of Arc, Cha wrote “Some will not know age. Some not age. Time stops. Time will stop for some. For them especially. Eternal time.” Guan Soon’s martyrdom is juxtaposed with an unanswered petition written by the Korean community residing in Honolulu, to President Roosevelt, pleading for US’s intervention against Japanese atrocities in Korea in 1905. “To the others,” Cha wrote, “these accounts are about (one more) distant land, like (any other) distant land, without any discernible features in the narrative, (all the same) distant like any other” .

The juxtaposition of Guan Soon’s willing self-sacrifice and the indifference of the Americans invites the question of the value of martyrdom. Cha celebrates the unsung heroes of the diaspora, who choose survival despite hardship by attributing Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, to her own mother, Hyung Soon Huo, a life-long migrant. Hyung Soon was born in Yong Jung, Manchuria and later immigrated to the United States. The chapter opens with a pristine  black-and-white photo of Hyung Soon at the age of eighteen and ends with a creased photo of her as an elderly woman, still showing strength and resolve in her eyes. The narrative focuses on Hyung Soon surviving a deadly illness as a young woman.


Your mother holds your hand and your father your right hand your fingers begin to curl you ask them to unfold them. You feel on your hands the warm tears from your mother and father. They say when one is about to die the fingers curl to a close. She has eaten nothing your father’s voice saying how can she live. Upon hearing this you ask to eat.


Cha here conveys the epic nature of the choice to live in honor of one’s mother and father, to survive despite displacement when one is born without a nation, without protection or entitlement.


Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, relates the suffering of a divided Korea, interweaving three traumas of violence that mark Cha’s own experience and relationship with the nation. Cha was born in 1951, in the middle of the Korean War. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was 12. As an adult, she made three visits to Korea, one of them was in 1980, at the time of the Gwangju massacre. The chapter opens with a map of Korea divided by a dark black line in the middle. A daughter writes to her mother,


4.19. Four Nineteen, April 19th, eighteen years later. Nothing has changed, we are at a standstill. I speak in another tongue now, a second tongue a foreign tongue. All this time we have been away. But nothing has changed. A stand still.


The narrator clarifies that she is not describing violence that occurred on 25 June 1950, when the Korean War started. April 19th refers to the 1960 April Revolution when students in Seoul protested against president Syngman Rhee, which led to mass shootings and Rhee’s eventual resignation. In this chapter, in an act of the imagination that juxtaposes personal and national history, Cha mis-records the April Revolution as happening in the year 1962, shortly before her family immigrated to the United States. The narrator remembers her brother who joined the April protest and was shot and killed as she finds herself being swamped up by another protest 18 years later, in 1980.


I am in the same crowd, the same coup, the same revolt, nothing has changed. […] The air is made visible with smoke it grows spread without control we are hidden inside the whiteness the greyness reduced to parts, reduced to separation. […] The stinging, it slices the air it enters thus I lose direction the sky is a haze running the streets emptied I fell no one saw me I walk.


As the narrator runs away from the teargas-filled streets in Gwangju, she recalls her 11-year-old-self running through teargas-filled streets in Seoul trying to stop her brother from joining the April Revolution. “Arrest the machine that purports to employ democracy but rather causes the successive refraction of her none other than her own.” Cha ends the chapter with a call to Melpomene, asking her to sever the memory of this repetitive generational violence.


Erato, the muse of love poetry, tells a tale of betrayal. The protagonist is “Sister Thérèse” who is married to the Child Jesus. “She is married to her husband who is unfaithful to her. No reason is given. No reason is necessary except that he is a man. It is a given.” The betrayed wife does not simply submit to her fate, nor does she accept her lowly position as a woman second to her husband. Instead, she competes with him. “I cannot confine myself to one kind of martyrdom. To satisfy me I need all. Like you, my Adorable Spouse, I would be scourged and crucified.”

Polymnia, the muse of sacred poetry, provides an alternative version of the Korean myth of Princess Pali, who was abandoned by her parents because of their preferences for sons. Pali nonetheless proves her devotion to the family by saving her mother from a deadly ailment. In this version, Pali is not an orphan, but a well-cared for child. She wears a white kerchief on her head and a white lightly woven smock, a gift from her mother, to protect her from the strong rays of the summer sun. Pali obtains advice from a mysterious woman by the well. She takes the magic remedies from the woman but forgets her warning to not look back. Pali looks back, finding the woman had vanished. The chapter ends with Pali entering her home as dusk falls. The reader never learns whether she was able to cure her mother.


The final page of the book is yet another evocation from a child to her mother:


Lift me up mom to the window […] Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to sky.


The child asks to be lifted to see the gallows, to gaze upon the violence of the world. Cha is no longer seeking to sever the memory of violence. Her writing celebrates the eternal bond between mothers and daughters and offers courage to face a world of violence and hostility.


She says to herself if she were able to write she could continue to live. Says to herself if she could write without ceasing. To herself if by writing she could abolish real time. She would live.


Cha, who would have been 71 this year, has indeed continued to live through her written words.

Emma Zhang is lecturer in English at Hong Kong Baptist University.