As I write this post I am asking myself the question whether Theresa Cha would like to be written about as a nasty woman writer or a nasty woman artist. I suspect she would want to be identified as an artist first so I approach this post in that way.
Even her seminal and acclaimed book Dictee would be better described as mixed-media art or an artistic exploration of the subjects she covers: language, voice and expression and repression of that, women’s lives and the expression and repression of those, and then specifically Korean women’s lives and the expression of their experiences and the repression of that over the past 150 years. Then, more specifically, the biographies of the women in her family, including herself, and the repression of those.
It is a powerful piece of work, using varying styles of writing: prose, poetry, letters, speeches, internal dialogue and stream of consciousness. Various untranslated languages—French, Korean and English—are interspersed with photographs, maps, sketches, anatomical drawings, handwritten notes and postcards.
The photographs and artwork are also by Cha who may have considered herself a photographer and film maker first. Sections of the book are written in the style of a film script, dictating camera cues and scene directions.
The muses and the mothers
Dictee is given form and context through Greek Mnemosyne, Goddess of memory and her nine daughters with Zeus, the nine muses, who are headings for the chapters.
Inspired by the Goddess, the muses as patrons of the arts and the nine ways humans express themselves, the book begins with a prayer.
“O Muse, tell me the story
Of all these things, O Goddess, daughter of Zeus
Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us” (7)
Intersectional and colonized lives
Cha is categorized as an avant-garde artist.
“The avant-garde, (In French: ‘advance guard’ or ‘vanguard’, literally ‘fore-guard’) is a person or work that is experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It is frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avant-garde)
I would say it fits. The book, with its untitled photos and sketches, often unidentified characters, and sudden unexplained plunges into a speaker’s deep interiority, defies interpretation.
Dictee, first published in 1982, is also way ahead of its time with the subjects it raises. Cha addressed intersectionality and colonialism before most people knew how to speak of them or what to call them.
From A Far
or what kindred and relation
what blood relation
what blood ties of blood
what race generation
what house clan tribe stock strain
what lineage extraction
what breed sect gender denomination caste
what stray ejaculation misplaced
Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other
Tombe des nues de naturalized
what transplant to dispel upon (20).
Identities and indignities
Dictee explores Cha’s own identities: an immigrant to the US from Korea in 1963 at the age of 12, and the indignities suffered as a result of that. Both Korean and American, she belongs to both and neither. Female, Catholic, artist, academic, writer, poet, film maker, daughter, lover, her various identities are expressed in multiple ways throughout.
Dictee also records Cha’s mother’s many identities and experiences of indignity and gives name to Korea’s many identities and indignities suffered as well.
Goddess Muse Clio: History
She begins with the muse Clio, muse of history and writing. She begins with the story of Yu Guan Soon (1903-1920), the Korean Joan of Arc like freedom fighter who led a revolt against the occupying Japanese and died in prison age 20.
She begins the section:
“She is born of one mother and one father”(25).
Cha also dedicates Dictee to her mother and to her father. That is the place we begin to remember, to backtrack toward deeper memory, toward deeper histories of ourselves. Their stories make ours, add to ours, the ancestors behind them, parents open the gates to it all.
The loss of language
Cha lived through the Korean War. Her mother lived through both the war and the Japanese occupation. Under Japanese occupation, her mother was not allowed to speak her own language.
Once in San Francisco, Cha went to a French Catholic school. The book is rife with references to Catholicism and her French language education.
There are many languages to use because language often fails us. Especially when we cannot use our language of origin, expressing ourselves becomes both frustration and creative act.
Dictee can also be read as a love letter to her mother and other women she is inspired by—Cha’s personal muses, including St. Theresa of Lisieux, and Joan of Arc. Cha is a quintessential Nasty Woman Writer because she pays homage to them. She unerases them. In speaking for Korean women who were silenced, Cha gives voice to her own past and identity, exposing lies and prejudices, allowing the truth of experience to come forward.
Goddess Muse Calliope: Epic Poetry
In the chapter titled Calliope, using the second person, Cha tells the story of her mother and her mother’s mother, the story of what has happened to Korea in their lifetimes. It is the “epic poem” of Korea. The epic poem of herself.
“You take the train home. Mother . . . you call her already, from the gate. Mother, you cannot wait. She leaves everything to greet you, she comes and takes you indoors and brings you food to eat. You are home now your mother your home. Mother inseparable from which is her identity, her presence. Longing to breathe the same air her hand no more a hand than instrument broken weathered no death takes them. No death will take them, Mother, I dream you just to be able to see you. Heaven falls nearer in sleep. Mother, my first sound. The first utter. The first concept”(49-50).
Taking dictation from memories denied
Dictee means dictation. It is as though Cha is taking dictation from these women. Speaking for them.
Goddess of memory and mother to the muses, Mnemosyne is not mentioned by name but she is implied. In fact perhaps it is her that Cha is taking dictation from in the channeling of this book. All the memories haunting her, talking to her, wanting her, moving through her.
The nine muses have also been silenced over time.
Cha speaks for them all in any way she can, grappling for words and images as ways to express their pain, their lives, their stories.
The beginning of the book has a section titled “Diseuse.” Diseuse is a woman who is a professional reciter. Is this Cha? Is she doing recitation, for these women who lost or were disallowed their voices? For this history, forgotten and untold? For these truths experienced and disappeared.
“It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak. It festers inside The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void”(3).
Mnemosyne: Memory and speech—Dictee—a dictation of memory and speech is woven through it all.
Nine prayers over nine days for nine women
The number nine is repeated. Novena. Nine prayers over nine days said nine times. Novena for these nine women overseen by the nine muses.
In Catholic tradition Novenas are nine prayers said nine times over nine days for someone who has died. They are also effective for “praying someone out of purgatory.” Novenas also have an association with the Holy Spirit descending for guidance and protection which relates to the end of this book, the ninth muse: Polymnia.
Goddess Muse Polymnia: Sacred Poetry
The nine prayers elicit sacred transcendence for the mother and the daughter in a meeting of a child and a young woman at a well. The woman, who may be Mother Mary or a Korean Shaman, gives the child medicines in a basket wrapped in a bundle of white cloth to take to her mother, to heal her mother.
“She gives the bundle to the child to hold in her right hand and says for her to go home quickly, make no stops and remember all she had told her. She gives her a deep bow.
She began walking very rapidly. Her steps seemed to move lighter than before. After a while she turned around to wave to the young woman at the well. She had already left the well. She turned and looked in all directions but she was not anywhere to be seen”(170).
The last page of the book begins with “Lift me up mom…”
Through the novena that is Dictee, Cha experiences transcendence of the spirit, rising above the “earthy” events, earthly body, earthly pain. Transcending history, transcending stories, transcending memory.
Theresa Cha’s last work
Theresa Cha was raped and murdered in New York City in 1982, a few months after Dictee was released. In her book, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong tells us that right before she died, she had dropped off her most recent photographic study at an art gallery on Hudson Street: a study of hands.
When I read this, I assumed the photographs would all be hands of alive humans. But when I was finally able to see them on Calisphere, the online archives of UC Berkeley from which Cha was a graduate, they are not. Many of them are images of the hands of statues or paintings, of Mary and Jesus and the Mona Lisa. They are lined up to look like film strips.
It is untitled, but labeled: “Theresa’s last work.”
The feelings evoked by what Cha highlights are compelling. The touch that is expressed. One is left with many subtle impressions.
It does not need an explanation. No explanations will be given anyway. It is not intellectual. It is felt. In the body. In the soul. In the heart.
Similarly, I see Cha’s Dictee as a hand reaching through time, touching whomever it encounters, leaving them with so much to say but few words with which to say it.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is a Nasty Woman Writer.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. University of CA Press, 2001. First published by Tanam Press in 1982.