Over the past 15 years, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee has gone from relative obscurity to become one of the most discussed works in Asian American literature. Published in 1982, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s only full-length book utilises a wide variety of experimental techniques in order to break down traditional narrative models and liberate the individual subject from oppressive master narratives. In this paper, I would like to examine how Dictee undermines metanarratives that clump disparate individuals together into a “nation,” and then address the use of Dictee itself in the service of Asian American cultural politics. Because of the complexity of the work, I will first offer a short summary of it and then my own interpretation, which stems from reading Dictee as a work heavily influenced by visual art and thus more amenable to a visual arts approach than traditional literary criticism. One of the difficulties with understanding Dictee is its anti-narrative organisation, which I hope to illustrate by analysing important cultural nationalist readings of Dictee to show how its experimental techniques work in practice to frustrate narrative desires.
Dictee is divided up into a prologue and nine chapters named after the nine Greek Muses. The prologue introduces many of the themes and artistic forms that Cha uses in the body of the work. The subject of Dictee, a diseuse (the French for speaker or storyteller) resurrects the voices of women from different nations and eras so that history may be reinterpreted. However, this reinterpretation follows none of the traditional rules. Cha writes in various languages, using ungrammatical sentences, puns and neologisms interspersed with official documents and caption-free photographs. The mode of writing indicates that a new form is needed to unearth untold histories.
The chapters themselves relate the stories of individual women from myth and history. The first four chapters are concerned with Japanese colonialism in Korea, the Korean War, and the subsequent military dictatorship. The second part of the book becomes increasingly fragmented, studying unnamed women in cinema, St. Therese of Lisieux, Demeter and Persephone among others and is marked by increasingly incoherent sentences that frustrate attempts to order the information into a coherent narrative. The final chapter, Polymnia, is a subtle rewriting and blending of both Greek and Korean myths told in an unexpectedly plain style that creates a sense of wholeness and unity. The book thus moves from an interest in the subject’s ethnic cultural history to a wider exploration of the forces that shape one’s identity.
Lee Kun-jong has persuasively argued that the structure links the work with Hesiod’s Theogony, which charts the origins and rise to power of Zeus and the Olympian Gods and the creation of a civilized patriarchal order. Hesiod’s promised sequel to the Theogony was the Catalogue of Women, a poem that only survives in fragments. Dictee seeks to restore the balance by writing her own Catalogue of Women. Her epic rewrites poetic traditions. Instead of focusing on founding fathers at historical peak times, it deals with mothers and daughters struggling through history’s in-between moments. Instead of dealing with the rise of empires, it concentrates on colonial subjects trying to deal with the defeat of their nation. Dictee does not chart the linear rise of a nation but moves in circles, both temporal and spatial, shifting time periods and locations in order to show a unity among the diverse female characters.
Cinema, History, and Dictee:
Although scholars have explored Dictee’s relation to lyric and epic poetry, one of the unexplored aspects of Dictee is its relationship with cinema and its use of cinematic techniques. As an avant-garde filmmaker and visual artist, Cha’s approach to literature is heavily informed by her knowledge of visual art techniques and Dictee particularly employs the juxtaposition of images in order to suggest meanings that are echoed in the text. Looking at Dictee through a visual arts lens may yield more fruitful insights than a purely literary approach.
The book opens with two images, the first of a rocky wasteland (Fig.1) and the second a picture of Korean graffiti carved into the walls of a tunnel in Japan by Korean slave labourers during World War II (Fig.2). The graffiti reads, “I miss my mother. I’m hungry. I want to go to my hometown/homeland.”
The juxtaposition of the images, without any captions, is effectively a cinematic edit that suggests the graffiti is hidden within the dry rocks. This metaphor returns in the text at a later point. Cha suggests that history is fossilised and lifeless and desires to bring these hidden stories to life. She associates these hidden stories with women’s histories and with water, the element most commonly associated with the female yin of Chinese philosophy:
A new sign of moisture appears in the barren column that had congealed to stone. Floods the stone from within, collects water as to a mere, layering first the very bottom… water on the surface of the stone captures the light in motion and appeals for entry. All is entreat to stir inside the mass weight of the stone (Cha 161-162).
The final chapter of the work features two women drawing water from a well, thus symbolically raising the forgotten tales submerged beneath the rock.
Similar techniques are seen in the first chapter, Clio, in which Cha questions received histories. The chapter examines the myth of Yu Guan Soon, the Korean schoolgirl revolutionary (Fig.3), and offers a montage of documents, letters, newspaper reports, and popular legends in order to expose the falseness and inadequacies of conventional histories.
Here the juxtaposition of these different elements serves to contrast them with each other to show how each one obeys the different traditions necessary for those forms. The scholarly history book describes the Japanese takeover of Korea, complete with quotes from relevant sources and an attention to small details that help illustrate the overall trend of domination. “Japan at once created an assembly, in the name of the King, for the ‘discussion of everything, great and small, that happened within the realm’” (Cha 28). The newspaper editorial ends with the indignant demand that “the authorities either police the whole disaffected districts effectually and properly, or else confess their incapacity for controlling Korea” (ibid 31). The foreign media describes a skirmish between enemy troops and adds, “we may mention that this news does not come from native sources; it comes from European” (ibid 32), a comment that illustrates its Eurocentric worldview. The popular legends wildly exaggerate and distort real histories for the purposes of nationalism. The myth says that:
in 1919, the conspiracy by the Japanese to overthrow the Korean Government is achieved with the assassination of the ruling Queen Min and her royal family. In the aftermath of this incident, Guan Soon forms a resistant group with fellow students and actively begins her revolutionary work… organizing the nation’s mass demonstration to be held on March 1, 1919 (ibid 30).
Queen Min was actually assassinated in 1895. Yu Guan Soon was not the leader of the March 1st national demonstrations. She actually organized a small follow-on demonstration at her hometown on April 1st, 1919. The conflation of events symbolically links the two great heroines of Korean resistance to the Japanese, Queen Min and Yu Guan Soon, so that one can be seen as the spiritual rebirth of the other. Thus, despite their being many sources on Yu Guan Soon, none of them can give us an accurate sense of her life. The chapter fittingly ends with a fragment of the author’s own rough draft of the chapter, with all its deletions, insertions, and modifications, thus underlining how artificially constructed these accounts are (Fig.4).
Cha thus enters a debate about the relationship between narrative and historiography that had surfaced during the 1960s and 1970s. As Hayden White argued in Metahistory, history is no longer “an object, a content, the form of which is to be perceived by the historian and converted into a narrative” because “the form provided, the narrative actually produced, becomes a content” (93). All histories are emplotted within traditional narrative structures that create particular types of meaning. The narrative form itself creates meanings out of the raw facts and these meanings can change based on the form of the narrative. Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, thus means from this perspective that similar historical events can be emplotted differently by the historian to produce different meanings.
Cha was well aware that “it is possible to see historical consciousness as a specifically Western prejudice by which the presumed superiority of modern industrial society can be retroactively substantiated” (White 2). Historical narratives can justify acts like the Vietnam War and Dictee can be seen as part of a larger intellectual effort to destroy national metanarratives that justify oppression and murder. The various accounts of Yu Guan-soon can be used to bolster a variety of narratives: the victory of industrial societies over peasant agrarian ones, the need for Japanese suppression of the “disaffected districts” in the name of law and order, the privileging of Eurocentric views over foreign, or the legitimacy of murdering Japanese in retaliation for their imperialist crimes. These narratives structure the raw facts of Yu Guan-soon’s life in order to support ideological assumptions and justify violence. By exposing this, Cha undermines such justifications.
The image that ends the chapter exemplifies the manner in which Dictee exposes our desire to impose a narrative form on historical events (Fig. 5).
The photograph is of three Korean peasants being crucified in a field by the Japanese military and is obviously reminiscent of the Crucifixion scene. But what does this mean in relation to all that has gone before? Is the position of the photograph supposed to satirise the martyrdom mythologies of Korean revolutionaries? Does it suggest the inability of words to capture the raw brutality of this scene? Is it implying that the story of Jesus is also a false mythology or that Koreans are a persecuted and spiritual people? Or does the lack of a caption indict us for not knowing who these people are or why they are being executed? As Cha says in the text, “the identity of such a path is exchangeable with any other heroine in history, their names, dates, actions which require not definition” (30). Does the viewer seek to place them into a familiar narrative without knowing the first thing about them? Cha’s art is designed to open up the possibility of all these interpretations and connections and also to make the readers aware that they will take this raw fact and try to create meaning by inserting it into a narrative, thus distorting it for their own purposes. Christians may favour a religious interpretation while nationalists may see in it a story of oppression because both sides will situate the photograph within a context that they have no objective justification for using. Although this process may be inevitable, Cha seeks to make people aware of the process and thus liberate them from the logic of their own metanarratives.
Dictee’s connection with cinema and visual art is most strongly seen in Chapter 5, named after Erato, the Muse of Love Poetry. The opening paragraphs are written as if they were seen on screen, with a description of the variety of shots. “Extreme Close Up shot of her face. Medium Long shot of two out of five white columns from the street. She enters from the left side and the camera begins to pan on movement as she enters between the two columns” (96). The chapter is presented on the page in an unusual way – two separate stories run simultaneously, one on the left page and one on the right, echoing the cinematic techniques of the split-screen and crosscutting, which link separate events together. The parallel stories are passages from the diaries of St. Therese of Lisieux and an account of a woman in an abusive marriage and thus compare religion and marriage as institutional structures that oppress women. As St. Therese exclaims, “it is my weakness that gives me the boldness of offering myself as VICTIM of your love, O Jesus” (111). This idea is repeated in the next chapter when Cha describes the “voile de mariee. Voile de religieuse” as screens which “render mute strike dumb voiceless tongueless” (127). Chapter 5 is bookended by two photographs, one of St. Therese playing the role of Joan of Arc in a play (Fig.6) and the other the tortured visage of Maria Falconetti playing Joan of Arc in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc (Fig.7).
Again, the images help construct multiple interpretations – not only the direct connection that St. Therese is tortured by male-dominated Catholic institutions, but also the recurring idea that the female martyr is a performance, not a reality. However, we also see how art can construct a diverse community. The narrator watches the movie about the woman in the abusive marriage on screen and mentally connects that with the diaries of St. Therese, implying that she sympathises with them both and thus creating an unlikely community across time and space. The book as a whole seeks to compose a community out of diverse individuals and an individual who contains the experiences of others inside her.
Cha’s concept of community is centred on the individual mind and is not limited to gender, ethnicity, or nationality.
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 ejection misplaced (Cha 20)
The different names for the ways in which people are categorised are satirised as the results of a “stray ejection,” pointing out how ludicrous it is to divide people on the basis of random biological characteristics. Cha’s community, the community of the diseuse, is a community of like souls linked by shared experiences.
This idea culminates in the final image of the book, an image of a group of nine women together (Fig.8).
If you compare this image with the original photo of Yu Guan Soon (Fig.3), you can see that the original picture is actually just an enlargement of the top right-hand corner of this photograph. Yu Guan Soon has been taken out of context earlier for the purposes of various ideologies, but at the end she has been placed within a true community. The diseuse has taken these seemingly isolated stories and helped to construct an alternate history not just for the women she describes but also for herself. The photograph simultaneously suggests that history has been restored by making mythologized individuals once again members of the community and that an individual is made whole by acknowledging the multiplicity of voices within her.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Dictee is how it mirrors our own attitudes and beliefs. The broken style of writing and odd juxtapositions of textual and visual fragments leave gaps that can be completed only by the reader’s active participation. Reader participation in meaning construction is, of course, true of all texts but is emphatically true of Dictee. Every reading of the work ultimately reveals more about the reader than about the book, and as the number of readings grows, so too does interest in Cha’s work. The strength of Dictee is how it reveals the prejudices of its readers and thus each reading affords another example of one of the work’s primary themes. In this regard, it is interesting to examine some previous readings of Dictee to see what they reveal.It wasn’t until 1994 that Dictee received serious attention from Asian American scholars with the publication of Writing Self, Writing Nation, which, as Elaine Kim stated in the preface, sought to “encourage further thinking about Dictee and suggest more possibilities for an Asian American cultural politics” (ix). The primary idea behind the book was to draw attention to “the specific histories [Dictee] represents and the material histories out of which it emerges” (Kim ix). Earlier criticism had ignored the fact that the work was specifically rooted in Korean history in favour of analysing it from a postmodern transnational feminist framework. What Kim and the other contributors sought to do was focus attention back on the specific cultural background to the work.
This is undoubtedly an important aspect of the book. Dictee devotes a lot of time to describing various aspects of Korean history, a history that is not widely known in the West. Not many people in the Western world know much about the Japanese colonial empire, and the Korean War is probably the great forgotten war of the 20th century. It is histories like these that Cha repeatedly draws attention to and that the contributors to Writing Self, Writing Nation wanted to highlight. Ironically, however, whereas Cha struggled with the difficulty of how to recount history without letting it be employed in the service of an ideological metanarrative, Writing Self, Writing Nation is concerned with employing Dictee in the service of the metanarrative of Asian America. This provides a fascinating example of how Dictee exposes the method by which raw facts are transformed by incorporation into a wider ideological narrative.
The greatest difficulty cultural nationalists have faced in dealing with Dictee is how to cope with the fact that almost a quarter of the book is in French. How can the French language possibly be expressive of Korean American subjectivity? It is quite rare to find either a Korean or an American that speaks French. Cha’s own familiarity with French comes from her time in a Catholic girl’s high school in California and a year spent studying French film theory at a university in France; her écriture féminine style of writing shows the strong influence of French feminists like Helene Cixous on her work. However, none of this can be generalised into a comment on Korean American identity. The solution has been to explain the use of French by greatly exaggerating the influence of French missionaries on the Korean peninsula.
Allow me to briefly outline the history of French missionaries in Korea. Korea is unusual in that Christianity first came to its shores not through the intervention of foreign missionaries but through a self-study of Christian literature by Korean natives:
It was in 1784 that the Catholic Church was founded in the Choson kingdom. Yi Sung-hun returned from Peking after being baptized there, baptized Yi-pyok, and held a meeting at the house of Kim Pom-u (the present site of Myong-dong Cathedral) in Seoul. The Catholic Church was established in this manner by Koreans for themselves without aid from foreign missionaries (Kwang 1).
The doctrine of equality attracted Koreans who felt oppressed by the rigid patriarchal hierarchies of Choson dynasty culture and thus served a need felt by many in Korean society. French missionaries arrived to augment the fledgling Catholic community after 1836, but instead of spreading the use of French, they actually accelerated the creation of a hangeul (the indigenous Korean script) culture by encouraging the printing of Christian texts in the local vernacular. The Catholic Church thus “played an important role in forming hangeul culture, an intellectual weapon for the populace” (Kwang 25). French missionaries were few in number and cooperated with local Catholics rather than dominating the movement. The Korean government, suspicious of the influence of this new sect, frequently persecuted and purged the Catholic community. This led to frequent diplomatic rows with France; matters came to a head in 1866 when a small French expeditionary force occupied the Ganghwa Island, but it was easily contained and defeated. This defeat “propelled the French southward, toward their eventual colonization of Indochina” (Cumings 96). France later gained greater freedom for its missionaries in Korea in the 1880s, but after 1866 it had no imperialist ambitions in Korea and no desire to be drawn into region being warred over by China, Russia, and Japan. French involvement in Korean affairs was therefore limited and had little impact on national culture.
However, the desire to fit Dictee in with prevailing theories has led to the exaggeration of French influence on Korea. Lisa Lowe asserts that:
the French grammar lesson dramatizes not only the indoctrination of the Korean narrator within a foreign western language, but the Dictee – as a paradigmatic instance of French educational influence on the Korean subject – may also allude to the long history of French Catholic missionary activity in Korea (39).
This was later cited by Anne Anlin Cheng as evidence that the use of French “calls forth French missionaries’ systematic colonisation of Korea in the early twentieth century” (126) While it is true that there were some French missionaries in Korea, this can hardly be called a “systematic colonisation”, especially in comparison with the actual colonisation and annexation of Korea by Japan, which had a far greater political, economic, cultural, and linguistic effect on Korea than anything the French ever did. If the use of French is supposed to call forth Western imperialism, then why aren’t large sections of the book also written in Japanese? It may be that Cha’s use of French is making a comment on the Vietnam War instead, but she tends to repeat her most important themes in recurring patterns throughout the text and Vietnam is not alluded to once. A better answer may lie in studying it in terms of Cha’s fascination with language. From the very beginning of Dictee, Cha presents us with texts written in both French and English that seem to be identical but actually contain small discrepancies that subtly alter the meaning, thus calling into question the representational ability of language, a key theme of the text. Of course, these minute differences would be invisible to most readers if Dictee were written in English and Japanese. The two languages need to be sufficiently close together for a reader to discern the differences. Once you tie the practical benefits of using French in with Cha’s familiarity with the language, her interest in French film theory and French feminism, it is a stretch to associate the use of French with references to missionary colonialism in Korea, especially as Cha only began learning French not in Pusan, but in San Francisco.
Ironically, the misreading of the use of French only serves to further obscure Korean history by giving the impression that it suffered from the same difficulties as Indochina, a region of Asia with which most Americans are much more familiar. However, there is no real comparison between the two. The French influence on Indochina is obvious from the one’s first day there, from the ubiquitous baguettes to the Vietnamese alphabet, an invention of French missionaries in the 17th century. The French influence on Korea is invisible, for it was negligible at best. However, linking the use of French to colonialism does inscribe it within the scholarly project to link Western racism with Western imperialism and thus the need for it to be true fills in the gap created by the absence of an explanation for its presence in Dictee.
A second area that scholars have highlighted is America’s complicity in Korea’s tragedies. In the chapter on Yu Guan Soon, Cha presents a letter written in 1905 by Korean Americans to President Theodore Roosevelt asking for help against the Japanese. The letter complains that:
the Koreans fully expected that Japan would introduce reforms into the governmental administration along the line of the modern civilization of Europe and America, and that she would advise and counsel our people in a friendly manner, but to our disappointment and regret… she turned loose several thousand rough and disorderly men of her nationals in Korea, who are treating the inoffensive Koreans in a most outrageous manner (Cha 35).
The excessively formal and constrained style of writing illustrates again the key theme of the Yu Guan Soon chapter – the inability of words to accurately express reality. However, scholars have used it as the basis for indicting America for the Japanese colonisation of Korea. Elaine Kim claims “the US played a crucial role” (10) in the Japanese colonisation after it signed a secret 1905 agreement with Japan agreeing to respective spheres of influence in Korea and the Philippines. Laura Hyun-yi Kang states that the US “tacitly promised Japan sole dominion over the peninsula if it would agree not to interfere with US expansionist plans in the Philippines” (79). This fits in with the scholarly project enunciated by Lisa Lowe, of “making crucial connections between anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States and imperialist expansion in the Third World” (38), a line of research at the heart of modern Asian American literary criticism because it usefully connects older and more established Asian American communities with the newer immigrants coming in from Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia.
It is interesting to note that this viewpoint is more of a Korean American perspective than a Korean viewpoint. Modern Korean students learn that Korea suffered from poor leadership and made bad decisions in the latter half of the 19th century . While Japan underwent modernisation along European lines during the Meiji Restoration, Korea became the Hermit Kingdom, refusing all contact with Western powers and declining to alter its traditional way of life. “The very closeness of the two nations – in geography, in common Chinese cultural influences, indeed in levels of development until the nineteenth century – made Japanese dominance all the more galling to Koreans” (Cumings 141). The lessons of history learned in modern Korea are remarkably different from those applied by Korean American scholars. While Korean histories emphasise the fact that Korea’s fate lies in its own hands, provided correct strategic decisions are made, Korean American scholars like Elaine Kim and Laura Hyun-yi Kang blame the US for selling Korea to the Japanese and thus locate racist white capitalist forces as the scourge of the Asian and Asian American subject. Dictee makes little reference to the USA, however, contenting itself with the above-mentioned letter and a short paragraph about becoming an American citizen. This is a logical outcome of Cha’s repeated subversion of nationalist discourses in the text; if you don’t believe in the narratives of nations, why would you be concerned with the narratives of clashes between nations whose identities you don’t acknowledge as legitimate? The accusation against the USA is a debatable point, but Dictee is not the source of this argument, merely the occasion. The accusation was already to hand and it only required a minimal amount of textual support to make it an important element of critical readings of the text.
The fundamental irony at the heart of cultural nationalist readings of Dictee is that they demand recognition of specific material histories while at the same time repressing or distorting those facts that disturb their metanarratives. The difficulty with such an approach in relation to Dictee is that the work is concerned with exposing false histories and undermining master narratives. One cannot construct false histories out of a book concerned with exposing false histories; this is building on quicksand. Dictee is a treacherous mirror that conceals its true nature while revealing our prejudices and assumptions. I have no doubt that my own reading of it is equally guilty of this failing, but like the contributors to Writing Self, Writing Nation, I “hope that this is just the beginning of a lively conversation that will encourage further thinking about Dictee” (x). In my own view, the subject of Dictee refuses assimilation into pre-existing categories and insists on recognition of her individuality.
This individuality can be a threat, however, to some prevalent notions of identity. Rather than offering the liberation of diversity, identity politics can often result in what Terry Eagleton describes as a “pluralized conformism, in which the single universe of Enlightenment, with its self-sameness and coercive logic, is challenged by a whole series of mini-worlds displaying in miniature much the same features” (42). An identity politics that struggles to let individuals have individual voices is doomed to failure in the long run. Much of Asian American identity politics is focused on studying the links between American imperialism in Asia and American racism at home and Asian acts of resistance to both. While this is a valuable line of research, it too easily becomes an ideological conformity to read Asian American works for those themes only. As Viet Thanh Nguyen argues:
The way critics have tended to read [Asian American] literature, as cultural works that demonstrate resistance or accommodation to the racist, sexist, or capitalist exploitation of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, may be as much a reflection of the critics’ professional histories, political priorities, and institutional locations as what may be found in historically framed close readings of the works themselves (3).
Literary analyses of Dictee tend to insert it into pre-existing metanarratives that Dictee itself is trying to escape from. The individuality of Dictee is therefore suppressed in order to make it perform a function for the community. A visual arts approach to Dictee, however, suggests that the subject of Dictee chooses her own community, thus restoring the primacy of the individual. In a world of overlapping shared identities, it is the individual who chooses the community to belong to, not the community that determines the individual’s outlook on life.
 I am indebted to my students at Ewha Girls Foreign Language High School and private students from other Seoul high schools for these insights into the teaching of modern Korean history.
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