‘It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say.’

To speak and to be understood is a challenge we all experience. Expression is a triumph yet also a burden.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was born in 1951 in South Korea, during the Korean War. Cha’s parents grew up in Manchuria, their parents having fled there during the annexation of Korea by Japan. Upon returning to Korea, their native language and other cultural practices remained banned. Cha and her family moved to the United States in 1963 and there she continued her education and then began her career in film, writing and art. Her only book, Dictee, was published in 1982. In the same year, she was raped and murdered by convicted serial rapist Joey Sanza in New York.

Dictee’s structure as a hybrid work of poetry, prose, image and diagram deliberately rejects narrativity. Its richness offers something new with every reading. However, the experimental structure initially deterred readers and so it went out of print. Her work only began to receive critical attention after a book of essays edited by Elaine H. Kim was published in 1994. The University of California Press eventually republished Dictee in 2001.

 

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The cultural exile of Cha’s parents and Cha’s own subsequent alienation of moving to the United States act as autobiographical anchors in what is a truly remarkable and expansive investigation of language, religion, gender, diaspora and power. The book’s nine chapters are named after the nine Greek muses, and the fragments seem to trace Cha’s female influences, including Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Huo, Korean revolutionary Yoo Kwan-soon and Joan of Arc. The combined effect of these multiple voices is humbling, galvanising and disorienting. In this way the text necessarily conveys the distress of colonial oppression.

‘Arrest the machine that purports to employ democracy but rather causes the successive refraction of her none other than her own. Suffice Melpomene, to exorcise from this mouth the name the words the memory of severance through this act by this very act to utter one, Her once, Her to utter at once, She without the separate act of uttering.’

Cha’s words continue to reverberate today in this maelstrom of uncertainty and hypocrisy. While the terrible pain of speech is made clear, this book ultimately reminds us that we must not be silenced.

 

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