Open the novel Dictée. Turn to page 3.
“DISEUSE. She mimics the speaking. That might resemble speech. (Anything at all).”
DICTÉE. French for dictation: the action of saying words aloud to be typed, written down, or recorded on tape; the action of giving orders authoritatively or categorically.
“Greater than is the pain not to say.”
Greater than is the pain not to say. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was a Korean-American writer, producer, director, and artist whose life and heritage were complicated and oftentimes painful, and who wanted to express her experience (both lived and inherited) in equally complex forms. She rejected climax, resolution, or set identity, and instead lived and wrote in sweeping, diffusive landscapes of expression. Dictée, her 1982 novel, is a puzzle of New Wave film translated to print, a bible of thoughts both fully-formed and stunted, scenarios imagined and real. To read it is to experience a raw exploration of Cha’s own voice as well as the voices of historical figures and family members who affected her—all of them women, many of whom did or could not speak for themselves. It is important not only because of its unorthodox composition and Cha’s complicated perspective, but also because it is a raw chronicle of the will to speak.
Dictée, her 1982 novel, is a puzzle of New Wave film translated to print, a bible of thoughts both fully-formed and stunted, scenarios imagined and real.
Born during the Korean War and raised in South Korea until age 12, Cha watched a country that once fought for its freedom from foreign oppression collapse against itself at the 38th parallel. In 1963 her family left for America, where they settled first in Hawaii before landing permanently in California. Theresa attended Sacred Heart Catholic high school and then became a student of the UC system where, during the height of the protest movement and the beginnings of second-wave feminism, she studied art, comparative literature, and avant-garde cinema. After establishing herself as an artist and scholar at Berkeley, she graduated, moved to New York, and made a name for herself in the film and art worlds. She returned to Korea in 1979, but found her countrymen unwelcoming and suspicious (the film she was working on at the time prompted South Korean officials to accuse her of being a North Korean spy). She soon returned to the States. In 1982, immediately after the release of Dictée, Cha was raped and strangled by Joey Sanza, a security guard at Manhattan’s Puck Building. She was just 31 years old.
When you’re ready, turn to page 177. Almost the end.
“If it should impress, make fossil trace of the word,
residue of the word, stand as a ruin stands,
simply, as a mark
having relinquished itself to time and distance.”
Her work remains. Structurally, Dictée shifts from a painstakingly documented Catholic mass, to the story of the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, to Cha’s own mother, to ethereal switch-narratives involving Joan of Arc and a nameless, unhappily married wife, to Demeter and Persephone, bride of the underworld, to Cha herself. There are many stops in between. The book reaches its arms around different forms of expression: photography, letter writing, workbook-style translated passages, anatomical charts, poetry, and more traditional forms of narrative storytelling. It follows a loose structure around the nine Greek muses and their respective inspirational powers: Clio (history), Thalia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), and the six other sisters. Some portions are in French; others are simply letters from the Korean alphabet. There are short fragments of Latin. Cha’s writing is dreamlike and jarring: words echoing on cave walls as she tries different sentence structures, repeats herself, turns over sentences to see if, lying on their backs, they sound more right.
Page 141, that last paragraph.
“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. If she could display it before her and become its voyeur.”
What is most haunting about Dictée, other than its many martyr narratives and Cha’s own untimely death, is a recurrent theme of urgency, an insistent “fever to tell” that would make Karen O’s forehead cool in comparison. There seems to be something biting at her heels as she writes, a prescient fear of being silenced. The other side of fear, however, is hope: if she could write, then she might be able to overcome time itself and be able to live on through her work. It is a very human desire, but in this case Cha’s racial identity and womanhood raise the stakes. She repeatedly mentions women in relation to inaudible suffering, their silence creating a gap where a story should be. Dictée pushes back against that void and offers not only another type of female heroine, but also a completely different way to express oneself through print. It is a scream that evokes the ecstatic agony on Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s face in The Passion of Joan of Arc, mouth open but wordless, eyes fixed on a murmur of birds while the flames rise to meet her feet, (Cha includes an image of Falconetti praying at the end of the chapter “Erato: Love Poetry”). Even in a newly postcolonial world, Cha might have realized that if she didn’t write, her voice would likely also be lost.
A memoir is often thus: one person, one personality, one story. The whole truth, however, is not so simple. We are partially our present experience, but we also carry our memories (both lived and inherited) alongside the movies or music we connect to, the books we read, and the weight of minority status and identities as women. It’s a messy thing to try to articulate such a web into one cohesive work. Yet Cha was compelled to try. Dictée, the action of saying aloud, with force, to be listened to and accepted, finds strength in its very being. Though now voiceless, and rendered thus too early in life, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha did not let herself be silenced. Her writing stands for however long it will be read, a beautiful ruin of speech.