The web of women writers is the deeply interwoven connectivity of relationships between women writers through the layers of time. In this web the words of one woman inspire another, the writing of one woman supports another, the bravery of one woman encourages another, the biography of one woman reassures another, the brilliance of one woman enhances another.
This web of women writers is alive and nurturing to anyone who accesses it. One only need know that it is there. The Nasty Women Writers project has detected this hidden, invisible web and is making it visible with the category: “Revealing the Web of Women Writers-Connections that Nurture and Inspire.”
Read Nasty Women Writers post about the Web of Women Writers— Invisible Connections: The Hidden Web of Women Writers
Embedded within this web are certain women writers who hold a larger node for other women writers. We call them hubs within this network of connectedness. With their writing and work, hub women deliberately paved a meaningful trail; they opened closed doors and reached their hands back to those behind them to follow. (Read more about these hub women here.) Theresa Cha is one such writer in the web.
Cha (1951-1982) and her book Dictee hold a space of authenticity for people of multiple, intersected identities and to the truth of these experiences. She sets a bar and models a way for women artists and writers to hold that space for both the future and the past.
The web of women writers is powerful for each writer who finds an ally, ancestor or predecessor on this web. It strengthens their own work. Cha is that for women writers in general, immigrant women writers and exiles, most of all Korean Americans.
Read Nasty Women Writer’s post on Theresa Cha— Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: What would you say if you could say it? Giving Voice to Korean Women and Korea.
Korean American writer and poet Cathy Park Hong writes that she first encountered Cha’s work at Oberlin in 1996.
“At the time, I couldn’t relate to some of the Asian American fiction and poetry I came across. It seemed, for the lack of a better word, inauthentic, as if it were staged by white actors. I thought maybe English was the problem. It was certainly a problem for me. English turned an experience that should be in the minor key to a major key; there was an intimacy and melancholy in Korean that were lost when I wrote in English, a language which I, from my childhood, associated with customs officers, hectoring teachers, and Hallmark cards. Even after all those years since I learned English, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that to write anything was to fill in a blank or to recite back the original. Cha spoke my language, that English could never be a true reflection of her consciousness, that it was as much an imposition on her consciousness as it was a form of expression. And because of that, Dictee felt true”(Hong 154).
In her book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Hong discusses the way Cha died and the silence that surrounds it. Though there is a hesitation to talk about it for concern of turning her brutal and horrifying end into tawdry gossip, or allowing it to define Cha and her work, it is also completely outrageous that a woman’s rape and murder is being ignored and erased.
Read Nasty Women Writer’s post on woman writer Cathy Park Hong- Cathy Park Hong (Korean American b. 1976): Writing the Language of Change.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was born in Busan, South Korea in 1951 during the Korean War. Her family fled, first to Seoul and then to San Francisco, in 1963. She found her gift and passion for poetry at a young age and began to actively pursue the arts in Bay Area schools ending up at UC Berkeley studying art, film, literature, avant-garde poetry and theater and acquiring several degrees.
“Cha treats language as both the wound and the instrument that wounds; hers is a language that conceals rather than reveals identity. In her art projects, she regards words, whether in English or French or Korean, as textured objects, rigid as a rubber stamp, arcane as a stone engraving, not as part of her, but apart from her”(Hong 163).
Cha wrote Dictee while living in New York City. It is a fascinatingly full-bodied book traversing the lives of her ancestresses in Korea before and after the Japanese occupation, including revolutionaries and saints, and her mother’s life intermixed with Cha’s own biography. Cha writes of being of two places but belonging to neither, of speaking three languages but able to express herself fully in none of them, of her homeland with melancholy and grief. She writes with a feminist lens exposing the added layer of being Korean and a woman, woman and exile, revolutionary and female. She writes with poetic honesty, of beauty and pain, longing and mournfulness. Dictee was just about to be published when she was murdered.
Many of Cha’s friends and associates that Hong interviewed about Cha’s death commented that they didn’t want to focus on the way she died, to protect her work from being overtaken by that. But Hong questions:
“If their protectiveness may have been too effective. Right after her homicide, there was no news coverage except for a brief obituary in The Village Voice. This lack of coverage, I suspect, is because she was—as the police described her—“an Oriental Jane Doe.” But since then, despite court records that are available to the public, there has been no other story about her rape and murder, enshrouding Cha in mystery and hushed hearsay”(Hong 164).
There should have been vigils for Cha, there should have been widespread outrage. We needed more of her. She was only beginning and we must acknowledge how she died, thereby acknowledging how so many all around the world die every day. Ignoring it is not the answer. We must also not accept her death as normal or ordinary. We must not remain silent to this crime.
“Where does the silence that negates her end, and the where does the silence that respects her begin? The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting”(165).
Hong breaks the silence with sensitivity, writing about Cha’s murder with eloquent rage and wells of tears sitting just beneath the words, for the reader to feel and become uncomfortable with. Without telling the reader how to feel, she makes them feel it and in this does Cha enormous justice.
Dictee went on to become a defining text for Asian Americans and is taught in universities. It has inspired countless other women writers. In the book, Writing Self, Writing Nation: A collection of essays on DICTEE by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha edited by Elian H. Kim and Norma Alarcón, Korean American woman writer Elaine Kim writes:
“It seems to me that while Cha problematizes identity and identity politics, she redeems from nationalist discourse something of use to a Korean American woman whose shifting identities conform to neither Korean nationalist nor Western feminist narratives. Refusing to be drawn into an opposition between “woman” and “Korean” or between “Korean” and “Korean American,” Cha creates and celebrates a kind of third space, an exile space that becomes a source of individual vision and power. Indeed, far from dropping a specific identity in favor of endless difference, she predicts the breakdown of binaries that are part of the logic of domination. She foregrounds a highly specific cultural context, inserting Korea, Korean women, and Korean Americans into the discourse, thereby opening the space for an individual search for selfhood as well as a non-reified, non-essentialized collectivity”(8).
Cha’s work allows others to explore their multiple identities, including feminist. She gives voice to issues, feelings and secrets often unvoiced and gives further permission for discourse to those who come after her.
She also does not stop to explain herself. In this way, Dictee models to writers of diverse cultures, traditions and languages what Toni Morrison calls freeing oneself of the white gaze and what Virginia Woolf calls freeing oneself of the male gaze.
“By inserting a Korean American woman’s experience of history, Cha challenges hegemonic assumptions and offers presence and empowerment to the traditionally absent and disenfranchised”(Kim in WNWS 23).
In the New York Times article “Overlooked No More: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Artist and Author Who Explored Identity,” Dan Saltzstein writes,
“Dictee is also poignant for Asian American writers who have few precedents where authors portrayed their cultural history and inner experiences.
“My admiration for her is her sense of entitlement,” said Min Jin Lee, the Korean American author of the novel “Pachinko” (2017), in a phone interview. “I had never met anybody like me, who shared my biography, who felt a sense of entitlement to have that level of difficulty in her work” (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/07/obituaries/theresa-hak-kyung-cha-overlooked.html)
I cannot help but believe Cha was doing this intentionally, deliberately bringing forward voices of women of the past and offering one to women of the future.
She knew she was a gateway, a nexus, between the past and the future. Because that is what all children are, but a role children of immigrants, exiles and those unwillingly displaced feel even more profoundly.
May she and Dictee continue to inspire, encourage and allow the voices of women’s experience to flourish and be heard.
Thersa Hak Kyung Cha is a hub on the web of Nasty Women Writers.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Featured image by Richard Barnes
Alarcón, Norma and Elaine H. Kim, ed. Writing Self, Writing Nation: A collection of essays on DICTEE by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Berkeley. Third Woman Press. 1994.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. University of CA Press, 2001. First published by Tanam Press in 1982.
Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. N.Y., One World, 2020.
Saltzstein, Dan. “Overlooked No More: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Artist and Author Who Explored Identity.” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/07/obituaries/theresa-hak-kyung-cha-overlooked.html