In 1980, when she was 29, the South Korean– born artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha moved from the Bay Area to New York. She disliked the city. After 2 years there, she wrote that achieving success would need her to accept the “dregs of morals, cash, parasitic existence.” To her, the idea of making that ethical deal was “in all honesty, revolting.”
The release of her experimental novel Dictée(1982) that fall, though, offered Cha reason to hope. Released by Tanam Press, the book offered fragmented pictures of mythological and historical females– the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone, Joan of Arc, the Korean innovative Yu Gwan-sun, and Cha’s mom, along with herself. Some pages are in French, others in English. A few are blank. There are periodic physiological illustrations of the human throat and singing cables.
A resolutely avant-garde book, Dictée freed Cha from her despair. “It is hard to state what I feel, how I feel, except that I feel freed, and I likewise feel naked,” she composed her sibling John Cha simply months prior to the book’s publication. The book indicated a step forward for her. It was, instead, her last act.
On November 5, 1982, mere days after the book’s release, she traveled to Manhattan’s Puck Building to satisfy her partner, the photographer Richard Barnes, who was dealing with a task documenting the building’s restorations. A security guard there named Joey Sanza raped and strangled Cha. She was31 Sanza, who dedicated a series of rapes in Florida prior to relocating to New York, dumped her body in a parking lot obstructs from the building. An initial authorities report explained her as an “Asian Jane Doe.” The general public barely eulogized her. “A lady who was discovered killed in a Chinatown parking area was recognized the other day as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 31, of 247 Elizabeth St.,” checked out a short item in the New York Daily News two days later on. The paper made no reference of her art or writing. Soon after her death, Dictée headed out of print.
The impulse to skim over the grisly information of Cha’s murder is appealing, and this has actually been the favored method for critics who grapple with her art. The quiet, however, is perhaps simply one of numerous reasons Dictée was ignored by a more comprehensive audience. The literary facility’s fixation on white skill– and its neglect for skill of color, specifically the kind of writers who care little about pleasing the masses– may have sidelined Cha.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that Dictée has actually spent decades as a cult classic, ending up being a fixture of Asian American and feminist research studies syllabi throughout the nation. Cha was an Asian immigrant.
The author Cathy Park Hong brought greater attention to Cha’s work with her current essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning(2020). In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Portrait of an Artist,” Hong puts Cha’s work and death in conversation, a needed if morally thorny job. The careful avoidance of discussion of Cha’s death has stripped her art of company, Hong argues, turning her into a symbol for aborted artistic pledge. To remedy this, Hong reads court records and speaks to John Cha and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s buddy Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, who posits that Cha certainly would have been idolized more widely after her death if she had been a young white artist on the Upper West Side. Hong’s crucial workout eventually brightens Dictée, which, Hong writes, “made the immigrant’s discomfort with English into a possible form of expression.”
Since her death, Cha’s work has quietly encouraged a more extreme strain of Asian American literature. The authors Elaine Castillo, Alexander Chee, and R.O. Kwon are however a few of the artists working today who have pointed out Dictée as a source of motivation, appreciating the book for its structural invention and thematic bravery. These authors carry Cha’s tradition forward with work that refuses stylistic or political assimilation. For too long, however, the most sustained factors to consider of her work were confined to the academy. Minor Sensations might very well free her from the long shadow her death has cast.
Cha was keenly familiar with how the helpless found their voices reduced. The determination of this dispossession– across generations, throughout borders– ended up being integral to her work. The cycle of violence she wrote of in Dictée continued with her death. To value her work completely, one should face the full arc of her life, including how it ended. Her ghost has hovered on the fringes of the canon of literary genius. It’s time to invite her in.
C ha’s household moved typically when she was a child. Her moms and dads became utilized to this peripatetic presence: Her father, Hyung Sang Cha, and mother, Hyung Soon Cha, grew up in Manchuria throughout the Japanese occupation of China and Korea. Such offenses of language ended up being a specifying part of her moms and dads’ lives and, by extension, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s.
In 1963 the household emigrated to the United States to free themselves southern Korean military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. Cha was12 They settled in San Francisco. She was a lonesome, peaceful kid in her home country, however in the United States, she blossomed. She took to English with ease; she likewise studied and became fluent in French. At 14, she won a poetry contest at her Catholic high school.
That Cha would pursue the arts appeared just natural. Cha was close to her mom, who supported her daughter’s ambition.
Cha defied him. She registered at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969, getting 2 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in relative literature and the visual arts over the next decade. This was a time of seismic change in the city. The year before she registered saw the emergence of the Asian American Political Alliance on school and, with it, the term “Asian American.” In the years when it initially gained traction, “Asian American” was a more extreme type of self-identification than the term usually indicates today, taking cues from the Black power and anti-imperial movements of the age to establish uniformity among Asians regardless of national origin. The 1960 s saw the growing of sibling stirrings like the Chicano motion too. Berkeley was a hotbed of countercultural political engagement, with sit-ins and riots On the other hand, multimedia and efficiency art were nascent fields, and the university established its ethnic research studies department the year Cha registered.
This environment permitted her to find her artistic voice. She discovered coaches in instructors such as Bertrand Augst and James Melchert. She fell in love with Barnes, and they wed in1982 She was drawn to the movies of French directors like Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, and the plays of Samuel Beckett.
By absorbing these varied impacts, Cha cobbled together a type of expression that danced amongst genres. She composed Earth(1973), an artist’s book of English and French poetry.
These works were preambles to Dictée, which questioned the need for categorical differences amongst genres. As a result, Dictée presents a problem: How do you classify a book that defies such an impulse? Cha cared little for such labels.
That Cha provides such options without any explanation may puzzle and push away readers, yet the method exposes how much trust she put in her audience. She studs sentences with durations, draining pipes the English language of its rhythm: “ Dead words. Buried in Time’s memory“.
These staccato fragments are purposeful methods to an end, collecting to convey the gravity of historic injury, especially the kind inflicted on Koreans like her. Essentially, the book issues how easily individuals can lose the ability to express themselves through language. “Mom, you are eighteen years old,” Cha composes.
Trauma manifests as loss of language, which is the direct result of violence against the less powerful– immigrants, refugees, exiles. “Still, you speak the tongue the necessary language like the others,” Cha composes to her mother. “It is not your own.”.
In another passage, it is 1962, and Cha is an 11- year-old woman writing to her mother about her older brother, who wishes to join a demonstration versus authoritarian guideline in South Korea. Once again, the risk of silencing looms large, and the state is the assailant. “They fall they bleed they pass away,” Cha writes of the protesters at the hands of the police. “They are tossed into gas into the crowd to be squelched.”.
The pain of being not able to speak lived inside Cha. It made her who she was. One then begins to comprehend why she creates her own language in Dictée Reliance on the written word to interact is useless; a dominant power can quickly remove the marginalized of their voices.
C ha’s virtual disappearing from cultural memory feels both unreasonable and unsurprising. Dictée‘s creative disobedience may have avoided wider audiences from gathering to the work.
Elaine Castillo, a Filipinx American and the author of the acclaimed novel America Is Not the Heart (2018), initially pertained to Cha’s work in her mid-20 s through Exilée/ Temps Morts: Chosen Works (2009), a posthumously published variety of Cha’s poems, journal entries, and movie stills. “At its heart are the topics that formed so much of Dictée, too,” Castillo stated of the book in an email. “Historic and familial injury, her uncertainty around speech and writing, her razor-sharp awareness of the constraints of language, the important things that can’t be put into words, the important things that exceed their names.”.
In early 2011, Castillo was part of a guerrilla filmmaking team that called itself the Digital Desperados, composed entirely of women of color. Her main medium is the written word, she recognized that she didn’t have to restrict herself to novels or essays; she might make essay movies as Cha did. “Cha’s work revealed me how you might be that sort of artist,” Castillo said. “It was a type of blueprint for how to expand the shapes that ‘writing’ might take.”.
Cha’s composing cast a similar spell over Cathy Park Hong. She initially encountered Dictée in 1996 as a sophomore at Oberlin studying under the poet Myung Mi Kim, who taught the book alongside the poems of William Carlos Williams. Cha’s work reached out to Hong directly due to the fact that of its difficulty.
” It wasn’t practically official development for her,” Hong said. “It resembled using formal development to get at what was silenced, what hasn’t been blogged about. She was using official innovation as a method to sort of discuss historical atrocities that have happened in Korea.”.
Hong noted that Cha was specifically vulnerable to cultural oversight: She passed away young. She was a female. She was Korean American. Her art, however, offered the greatest obstacle of all. She did not write for everybody. “She was someone who was not doing available memoiristic work that would interest a white audience,” Hong stated.
Dictée was ahead of its time,” Hong observed. Cha composed to unchain herself from the commercialism enforced on too many artists in New York.
Unlike with Plath or even Mendieta, Cha’s early death may have decreased her effect rather than broadened it. The really truth that those exact same authors have actually discovered dedicated audiences signals that America might lastly be ready to accept all that Cha’s writing had to use and to swallow the bitterness of her realities.