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To Name It Now

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee occupies a savage abyss

Born in Busan, Korea in 1951, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha should by all rights be best known for her highly experimental, hybridic hypertext and short cinematically-literate books—works such as Dictee, Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works—but her violent death, and the manner (rape) and method (strangulation) in which she ceased to exist, has long been the most accessible portal for shoppers of literary and interdisciplinary products who seek and acquire their admission ticket. At least it was for me, and I am no mainstream consumer of any products, let alone literary ones. As an experimental maker myself, I am aware that genre-bending literary objects can be an ideal social vehicle to catalog marginalized experiences, as they are more proficient at capturing the complexity of the nuanced, subtle, and blatant issues of coeval bigotry and racism that shape contemporary conversations about our current social-technological and racial-ecological existence(s).

When I was nine years old, my nuclear family of six was transferred from a refugee camp in the Malay Peninsula to another one in Bataan, Philippines. We stayed there for six months before we flew into Iowa. I was an active child that fell ill often, but my young incorrigible legs would explore Bataan mercilessly, taking my convalescent body to sad, violent places in the camp. I recalled walking home insouciantly after we remained in a long queue to collect water into a bucket from a communal spout only to be halted abruptly by the ear-deafening scream of a little girl. The poor girl, a few years younger than me, had been raped by a big, tall Philippine refugee official. He lured her in with Tootsie rolls and colorful lollipops and then placed a pot lid over her face to muffle her cries and raped her.

Was Dictee ahead of its time? Or was it right on time, but the world wasn’t ready for it?

I vividly recall standing there in the middle of the road, imagining her hymen being torn apart by his big penis; her small Vietnamese face shoved against the glass, air compressed by the domestic household lid; her small skull striking the cement. It haunted my life for years to come, these images that stood tall like blades of grass and blades of swords. My exposure to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s work in 2011, when I was a graduate student at Brown University, was similarly visceral and equally harrowing. My thesis advisor, Carole Maso, assigned me Dictee to help process and survive my own experience of molestation, something I was already asking of my work, and I responded to the knowledge of Cha’s rape first and her work second. Raw physicality preceded mere literary appreciation. Dictee showed me what it was to dwell in limbo, a liminal state of choral privation and savaged abyss, between the callous world of emptiness and incredulity.

Cha’s book is often described as a novel, but at 192 pages, it’s shorter than most novels (closer to a novella) and severely longer than most poetry collections. The semi-autobiographical Dictee is divided into nine sections: Clio History, Calliope Epic Poetry, Urania Astronomy, Melpomene Tragedy, Erato Love Poetry, Elitere Lyric Poetry, Thalia Comedy, Terpsichore Choral Dance, and Polymnia Sacred Poetry. Influenced by Western classics, Christianity, and Sappho (whom she epitaphed, “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve”), Dictee houses researched historical, anecdotic, and autobiographical narrations and draws into its constantly moving magnetic experimental north its nine-parts missive, handwritten notes, penmanship in two or three different languages, anatomical drawing of the thorax, quotes, photographs, and experimental poetry. Due to its un-chronologized nature and highly experimental structure, it is a text that allows the reader infinite access to itself at any given random page without compromising its meaning or content. 

When I first began researching Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s past, I studied the temperature of New York. After a security guard raped Cha, he dumped her body in a parking lot outside of the Puck Building. I wondered what came first: Her rape? Or her strangulation? And, if she was strangled first, did that mean she was in less pain, or more? She died November 5, 1982, at the young age of thirty-one. New York must have been so cold in early November.

I imagined her strangled body turning blue and then purple in the cold. The police tagged her body as “Oriental Jane Doe.” I don’t want Cha to be right when she writes under the heading “Memory,” that “It is an empty theatre”—but perhaps she is. My own memory was immediately filled with the whispers of the villagers and fellow refugees who understood that, because of the rape, the officials would accelerate the paperwork so that the victim and her family could be relocated right away to any place in the States. Her attacker wouldn’t even get a slap on his wrist, free to rape girls year after year. No matter how frequently I tried to wash away this vision, to erase it from my consciousness, it continued to haunt me. The image of the young Viet refugee girl, and now Cha’s assault at the hands of the serial rapist working as a security guard, woke me in the middle of a peaceful, nonchalant reverie, whenever I became lulled by the trappings of my life in the States. I would be shopping at Walmart, nonchalantly looking at useless items in aisle eight and it would appear out of nowhere before my third eye.  

Violence rings its bell again and again throughout my life, but most penetratingly during Covid and uniquely for us women of Asian descent. Violence, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-Asian hate crimes have always been around, but they punctured us more deeply and more sharply during the quarantine. When the Atlanta shooter murdered Xiaojie “Emily” Tan (49), Daoyou Feng (44), Delaina Yaun (33), Paul Michels (54), Soon Chung Park (74), Hyun Jung Grant (51), Suncha Kim (69), and Yong Yue (63), I knew history was repeating itself. I heard Cha’s “swans in the rain.” I knew this could have been prevented, easily. Violence towards Asians starts with a thousand different micro-aggressive, structural acts of racism; to name a few, Asian fetishism, model minority mythologies, the bamboo ceiling, and the outrageous upsurge in deportations. How do you prevent violence from recurring? How many more experiences like Cha’s will we fail to learn from? Although Cha’s Dictee cannot be used as an all-encompassing bible to combat and defeat injustice, I return again and again to Cha’s book for guidance and remedy for my unquiet memories of violence. Her words offer our imagination a starting point for thwarting the world we’ve inherited as immigrants or their descendants. Cha writes, as if she understands the historical context of her (our) body and her (our) sex set adrift in time: “To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion. To extract each fragment by each fragment from the word from the image another word another image the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion.”

During Covid, I name the memory of my past by writing about the rape of the Vietnamese girl at a refugee camp where over 400,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong passed through. I name it in hope of transforming my memory of violence—my childhood relationship with violence, my adult relationship with violence. When the Atlanta Spa shooter executed the victims, I was living in Iowa City where my brother invited me to live with him. Chills and memories of the brutality enacted upon Asians flooded my consciousness. Months ahead, in Vegas, I rented out a room on Tropicana Avenue. A roommate had threatened to bleach-spray me and another Southeast Asian roommate because she informed me that Trump had told her to do so. In Cha’s letter to her mother, inside of her Dictee semi-autobiographical memoir, she writes, “You knew it would not be in vain. The thirty six years of exile.” How long did Cha’s work go under, exit out of time’s forced exile, before it reemerged?

Recently, inspired by Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning’s nod towards Cha, her success as a groundbreaking experimental literary, cinematic, and artistic figure is renewed, reincarnated, or re-exposed. Mayukh Sen noted in his 2020 retrospective review of Dictee for The Nation that, after the magnificent publication of her bold Dictee, “The book signaled a step forward for her. It was, instead, her final act.” From a patriarchal, colonial, theatrical narrative, Sen’s reduction of Cha’s work is predictable and linear, but not attuned to Cha’s own dynamic trajectories, in both art and in life. Her publication of Dictee was far from her final act. It was one of her ghosts moving forward into time with us. It’s true that a week after the birth of her now-famous novel, Cha was raped and killed by Joey Sanza, but there is nothing final about her book or her existence. Indifferent to the technical age, her life continues to be profound, in conversation with the #MeToo movement, with the Atlanta Spa shooter.

“Dictee was ahead of its time,” Cathy Park Hong is quoted as saying in The Nation. “It was really dense, and it was this kind of cross-genre memoir-poetry book that no one was doing at the time, and so people weren’t ready for it.” Was Dictee ahead of its time? Or was it right on time, but the world wasn’t ready for it? Or was it Cha’s way of saying, through her untimely death, to the world that her life and work only “open [their mouth] half way?” Was the world ready for her rape? And if the world is ready now, does November 5, 1982 become a place and a time for Cha to get un-raped or de-raped or never raped in the first place? Would she be alive still? Does that world exist, when any Asian or any woman might live a life without the constant threat of violence? Perhaps Dictee is only ahead of its time because she was one of the earliest pioneers committed to breaking that silence. She broke numerous silences in Dictee: Cha documented and recorded the death of the revolutionary leader and activist Yu Guan Soon, who was energetically fighting for Korea’s independence from Japan’s domination. She was born on December 16, 1902 and tortured to death on September 28, 1920. Soon was only seventeen years old.  

Despite her life and work having both been cut short by foreseeable and measured violence, Cha still possesses tremendous agency. Cha did not narrate her art, nor her writing, nor her life in a straightforward or rectilinear fashion. Her short life and work are an anachronistic convergence of interwoven genres, disciplines, and mediums. There are film, performances, videos, documentation, sculpture, book art, multimedia, and different types of linguistic textures (Korean, French, English) in her books and films that reflect her fluency and her polyglottic hybridities with motherland, material, memory, time, and her lineage of violence and diaspora.

“To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion. To extract each fragment by each fragment from the word from the image another word another image the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion.”

Exposure is important to change and transformation. During Covid, when Trump and his followers began to blame the Coronavirus on Asians in general and Wuhan, China in particular, I had no choice but to take out my pen and begin to address memories of violence towards those of my ethnic circle. I did not make time to address my own history of being bullied by my coworkers when I was working for a company in Iowa. But I did take the time to transcribe my memory of violence at the refugee camp. Cha’s violent death, the Vietnamese girl’s rape, my molestation, and the Atlanta Spa shooter are all facets of the structural racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that Asian women—not to mention nonbinary individuals—experience on a quotidian basis. All are everyday events.

Cha must have understood the importance of documentation, of writing, of recording in order to stymie violence. She writes, “You write. You write you speak voices hidden masked you plant words to the moon you send word through the wind. Through the passing of seasons.” If the world hadn’t entombed her work for forty years and preserved its profound relevancy, perhaps we could stop “pain from translating itself into memory” where it revisits us like lost, disembodied ghosts. I had imagined Theresa Hak Kyung Cha as the Korean Persephone, who had been raped by the security guard, Hades. I had imagined Hades fleeing from his Florida escapade to avoid his convictions for his serial rape. And, half of the year, Cha is gone from us, where the mother in all of us, that Korean Demeter in us, roams the contemporary world of experimental literature seeking her vengeance and triumph.  

As a victim of sexual violence, I always think of ways by which it could have been prevented before it befell future generations. I believe Cha’s rape/assassination could have been prevented. That she would be here reading her poems on Zoom instead of me writing about her past and her work. I always wonder if the Atlanta Spa shooting could have been prevented, say if Kavanaugh hadn’t been promoted as a judge into the Supreme Court, if the Stanford rapist, Brock Turner, had been properly punished with fourteen years of prison instead of three months for raping an unconscious woman, or even—seemingly un-farfetched—if the largely white male publishers/gatekeepers who launched Viet Thanh Nguyen’s regressive, misogynist The Sympathizers into fame had instead chosen a Vietnamese female or nonbinary author to be the first Vietnamese author to win the Pulitzer? Would the violence against Asians diminish? What if Cathy Linh Che’s incredible Split had won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry? Such a timely megaphone would go a long way toward amplifying the voices of victims of sexual violence. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, marginalized herself, wields her experimental body and the body of her texts/films/art to illuminate the plight of the marginalized. As she so wisely reminds us, “To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion. To extract each fragment by each fragment from the word from the image another word another image the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion.”