i dont mean to be cute: DICTEE by Theresa Cha is hard to talk about.
it’s a postmodern, feminist avant garde book. you might call it a novel; it has memoir and poetry in it as well. it draws on cinema and conceptualist art. there are photos without captions, and reproductions of handwriting.
it’s organized in nine sections. you get a table of the program: each section is named after a muse (and there’s a prologue with a proper invocation of the muses). but one of the muses, Elitere of Lyric Poetry, isnt real. Theresa made her up. pull apart the word: Eli Tere…Tere in Teresa. El i… Elle y Taire. She is silent.
there’s an epigraph from Sappho: “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.” she made that up too.
the text comes in english, sometimes broken, as well as french and hangul and chinese characters. the experience will be different depending on your linguistic background. and like the Elitere thing above, Cha makes multi-lingual puns. “Speak fucking english!” Cha mounts some incredible wordplay, nearly all of it i unquestionably missed. it’s part of her response to the experience of an immigrant writer, an exiled writer, a politically orphaned writer. this is no rah rah rallying cry for the ~Asian American Community~. that’s all bullshit. no identity, no speech. it’s an incredible political charge brought to Beckett’s concerns with silence and the representation of an incommunicable experience.
it resonated with me on a deeply personal level. my mom’s side of the family are ethnic Chinese who fled from Vietnam as part of the mass exodus from Indo-China in the 80s. Who do they blame? the communists, naturally. they embraced the US and thoroughly assimilated. my mom badly wanted me to be that cliche Asian Achiever that i simply wasnt. it made me angry and i couldnt understand it, until i got into punk and anarchism (very white things, in the very white pacific northwest). my family is anti-black, and i cant say they’re just bargaining their way into the white dream — Asian people are anti-black in their distinct way. i often think to myself that i hate my chineseness more than my whiteness.
but it’s not like the finger should be pointed to Uncle Sam instead. this is where Cha sustains incredible complexity. towards the end she gives us a page with a single line:
Tenth, a circle within a circle, a series of concentric circles. (175)
it’s tenth of a list of what i think are schools of thought, including tai-chi. i have no clue. but the concentric circles image reflects on the US, among many other things. there are concentric circles to US imperialism/neocolonialism, which operate distinctly yet concurrently. Cha includes an appeal from Korean Americans in Hawaii to intervene in Korea due to Japanese imperialism, which the US neglects because of their own interests in the Philippines.
one of the strongest sections is Clio / Epic Poetry, which is centered on Cha’s mother (the chapter is flanked with two portraits taken of her, in youth and old age). she describes the process of assimilation:
They have not questioned. It is all the same to them. It follows directions. Not yet. They have not learned the route of instruction. To surpass overtake the hidden even beyond destination. Destination.
I have the documents. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature. One day you raise the right hand and you are American. They give you an American Pass port. The United States of America. Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph. The other one. Their signature their seals. Their own image. And you learn the executive branch the legislative branch and the third. Justice. Judicial branch. It makes the difference. The rest is past.
You return and you are not one of them, they treat you with indifference. All the time you understand what they are saying. But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity. They comment upon your inability or ability to speak. Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality. (56)
identity replaced with photograph; the adopting country allows you to assert your existence on their terms, those of representation. “The rest is past.” this is the triumphalist delusion of linear history. trauma can be erased just by the beautiful experiment of US governance. it’s all in the past, get over it; your rise to citizenship cancels it out. really it’s America’s own crimes that are erased, throughout the century.
the other stand out section is “Erato / Love Poetry”. the text is laid out in a stereo-form, with each page acting as a column. you jump from one side to the other depending on where the text goes. on the left channel, a woman is watching a film (Dreyer’s Gertrude), on the other is an impressionist narrative of St. Teresa. we follow the unnamed woman, an immigrant, enduring an awful marriage with an abusive husband who cheats on her, but she stays for the baby. we also get another through-line of Joan of Arc. the three threads or layers actually move fluidly through the stereo format — it’s hard to keep track of it.
you can see it as another form of concentric circles, those of women in history who “transcended suffering,” i suppose, but Cha invites us to be more skeptical of celebrating women in this way. marriage here is one of the most oppressive and torturous institutions imaginable. and in these cases of pain, different women through time seem to rise out of the text, in a way similar to Walter Benjamin’s messianic conception of history. we get a still from Dreyer’s film about Joan D’Arc, that famous tear-stained close up. we also see a photo of St. Teresa dressed up like Joan of Arc for a play.
the feminist avant garde might be characterized as deliberately sloppy. films by Su Friedrich or Minh-ha may be scattershot and deliberately obscure, but sloppy i dont think they are, even if they refuse the coherency of a proper masculine closed system. Cha’s embracing of mythological and classical forms and her intricate placement of every element makes the book incredibly dense. the very last piece is a photograph of nine Korean women — nine muses. one of them is the militant and martyr Yu Guan Soon.
another photograph opposite the title page is graffiti on a wall scrawled by a Korean minor in a forced labor camp in Japan. he’s addressing his mother, likely never to be seen again. wholeness is false — Cha shows us that the honest way to do history is to haul up these fragments of misery.
her conceptualism drives the text to become spatialized, so to speak. although that’s really hard to follow through, since words still have to be read in sequence. the photographs of handwriting, actually reproductions of photographs, probably do most to hold the reader in that liminal spot between text and image, line and space. here she tries to give voice to a yearning and experience that really can never be understood. the space itself is kind of a festival, all the same, with its own rituals, and everyone inside is free to “become” something, not their true identity, which is meaningless anyway, but just becoming, again and again and again.