Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

I developed a small crush on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha about a year and a half ago in Los Angeles. While I was in town to kick off our monumental dialog recording sessions for EndWar, I checked out a show called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Geffen Contemporary satellite of the Museum of Contemporary Art, down in Little Tokyo.

It was not a great show, which is often true when the message is more important than the work itself. The only pieces to captivate me were two small black and white videos by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. They were very simple, very lo-fi (dating, as they did, from the 70’s), just some plain images with written and spoken text in English, French, and Korean. They felt very personal and intimate, like I was being let in on a secret, or even sneaking a peek at a diary.

I did a little more research when I got back home and I found out that she died very young, only 30 or 31, murdered a few days after her only book was published in 1982. So I ordered the book, entitled Dictee, to find out more about her work and her world. The book dives deeper than the video pieces I saw, and while it’s much less crush-inducing, it’s notable for a number of reasons.

I want to call it Dictée, but all over the book the title is written without the accent, so Dictee it is. Like the video works, the book mixes French and English and just a few words of Korean (rendered either in Roman letters or in Chinese characters, as used to be the standard for official communication in Korea). From my years of French lessons, I can testify that a dictée is an oral test, during which the teacher reads some text, and the students have to transcribe it as accurately as possible. This act embodies two major themes of the book, memory and language. Language is inextricably linked to identity, and the act of expressing a memory in language and recording it inevitably alters it.

Dictee is broad in scope, using the nine Greek muses to represent the work’s primary divisions, and at other times reflecting aspects of Christian rite. It addresses Korean culture from a national level as well as a personal perspective. The work serves as a biography of several women, not only of the author herself, but also her mother and the Korean national martyr Yu Guan Soon, among others. The French lesson that opens the book builds in resonance later on, as the narrative turns to Koreans living in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who were forbidden from speaking their native tongue.

While the book is fascinating to me as a student of Asian culture, the aspects that intrigued me most were structural, which is not what I had expected when I first cracked the cover. The book is a multimedia collage, weaving different kinds of text together with images, including photographs, a map, a diagram of the vocal tract, a still from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and copies of letters. At times, Ms. Cha treats the two adjacent pages as two streams of information proceeding at the same pace. Sometimes it’s English and French, sometimes it’s narrative and commentary, and other times the relationship between the streams is more oblique.

The most distinctive feature of the book, and one of the most intriguing ideas, is also the thing that makes it a real slog at times. Much of it is written in a kind of perpetual present tense, evoking a steady state with no forward impetus; this is a real trick to pull off in writing, as reading is an inherently linear activity. But by fragmenting sentences and repeating the same idea with only minute variations of text, Ms. Cha at times succeeds in achieving a sort of constant incredulity, as though she never wants to give the reader time to grow too comfortable with the idea being presented. It’s not hard to imagine why she’d want to do this, when the subject is personal or national subjugation; this specialized writing style never lets the reader lapse into complacent acceptance, keeping the shock and indignation ever fresh. But the problem with trying to make each word a revelation is that after a while, after a while they all start to sound the same.

It did occur to me a few times while reading that this effect might be well served by a non-linear musical setting. I could imagine shuffling up pieces of the text, deploying them in real time, creating a kind of indefinite, almost devotional space, dedicated to rumination and memory, and allowing for unforeseen juxtapositions to emerge through multiple streams of sound.

Then again, I kind of have musical states on the brain a lot these days, so perhaps I’m just finding in the work the kinds of ideas that are already on my mind. But that’s kind of what everyone does, isn’t it?

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