The Radical Afterlives of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

The Radical Afterlives of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

A Kind of Blueprint

The radical vision of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée.


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 hated the city. After two years there, she wrote that achieving success would require her to accept the “dregs of morals, money, parasitic existence.” To her, the thought of making that ethical bargain was “in all honesty, disgusting.”

The release of her experimental novel Dictée (1982) that fall, though, gave Cha reason to hope. Published by Tanam Press, the book offered fragmented portraits of mythological and historical women—the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone, Joan of Arc, the Korean revolutionary Yu Gwan-sun, and Cha’s mother, as well as herself. Some pages are in French, others in English. A few are blank. There are occasional anatomical drawings of the human larynx and vocal cords.

A resolutely avant-garde book, Dictée liberated Cha from her malaise. “It is hard to say what I feel, how I feel, except that I feel freed, and I also feel naked,” she wrote her brother John Cha just months before the book’s publication. The book signaled a step forward for her. It was, instead, her final act.

On November 5, 1982, mere days after the book’s release, she traveled to Manhattan’s Puck Building to meet her husband, the photographer Richard Barnes, who was working on a project documenting the building’s renovations. A security guard there named Joey Sanza raped and strangled Cha. She was 31. Sanza, who committed a series of rapes in Florida before relocating to New York, dumped her body in a parking lot blocks from the building. An initial police report described her as an “Oriental Jane Doe.” The public barely eulogized her. “A woman who was found slain in a Chinatown parking lot was identified yesterday as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 31, of 247 Elizabeth St.,” read a short item in the New York Daily News two days later. The paper made no mention of her art or writing. Shortly after her death, Dictée went out of print.

The impulse to skim over the grisly details of Cha’s murder is tempting, and this has been the preferred tactic for critics who grapple with her art. In focusing on her death, after all, one risks diverting attention from her life and the thrilling body of work she left behind, which spans performance, video, and the written word. The desire to dignify her death through silence may have been well intentioned. The quiet, however, is possibly just one of many reasons Dictée was neglected by a broader audience. The literary establishment’s fixation on white talent—and its disregard for talent of color, especially the kind of writers who care little about pleasing the masses—may have sidelined Cha. The book’s formal disobedience did not lend itself to popular embrace, either.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Dictée has spent decades as a cult classic, becoming a fixture of Asian American and feminist studies syllabi across the country. Yet the general public is less likely to know of her than the writers Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath or the performance artist Ana Mendieta, women who met similarly tragic ends. Cha was an Asian immigrant. She lived in an America that casually diminished women who looked like her. Passersby would call her Yoko Ono when she walked down the street.

The writer Cathy Park Hong brought greater attention to Cha’s work with her recent 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 necessary if morally thorny task. The careful avoidance of discussion of Cha’s death has stripped her art of agency, Hong argues, turning her into a symbol for aborted artistic promise. To rectify this, Hong pores over court records and speaks to John Cha and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s friend 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 critical exercise ultimately illuminates 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 radical strain of Asian American literature. The writers Elaine Castillo, Alexander Chee, and R.O. Kwon are but a few of the artists working today who have cited Dictée as a source of inspiration, admiring the book for its structural invention and thematic bravery. These writers carry Cha’s legacy forward with work that refuses stylistic or political assimilation. For too long, though, the most sustained considerations of her work were confined to the academy. Minor Feelings may very well free her from the long shadow her death has cast.

Cha was keenly aware of how the powerless found their voices suppressed. The persistence of this dispossession—across generations, across borders—became integral to her work. The cycle of violence she wrote of in Dictée continued with her death. To appreciate her work fully, one must confront 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 welcome her in.

Cha’s family moved often when she was a child. She was born in Busan, South Korea, in 1951, the third of her Catholic parents’ five children. Soon after her birth, the family left for Seoul and then for the village of Songdo, a temporary haven from the Korean War. Her parents became used to this peripatetic existence: Her father, Hyung Sang Cha, and mother, Hyung Soon Cha, grew up in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation of China and Korea. Their migration coincided with the theft of language: They could not speak Korean in their new home. Such violations of language became a defining part of her parents’ lives and, by extension, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s.

In 1963 the family emigrated to the United States to free themselves from the South Korean military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. Cha was 12. They settled in San Francisco. She was a lonely, quiet kid in her home country, but in the United States, she blossomed. She took to English with ease; she also studied and became fluent in French. At 14, she won a poetry contest at her Catholic high school.

That Cha would pursue the arts seemed only natural. The compulsion ran in her blood: Her mother wanted to be a writer, and her father aspired to be a painter, but neither dream materialized. Both became teachers instead. Cha was close to her mother, who nurtured her daughter’s ambition. She had a more conflicted relationship with her father, who discouraged her from becoming an artist, knowing that path was filled with hard work and disappointment.

Cha defied him. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969, getting two bachelor’s and master’s degrees in comparative literature and the visual arts over the next decade. This was a time of seismic change in the city. The year before she enrolled saw the emergence of the Asian American Political Alliance on campus and, with it, the term “Asian American.” In the decade when it first gained traction, “Asian American” was a more radical form of self-identification than the term typically connotes today, taking cues from the Black power and anti-imperial movements of the era to establish solidarity among Asians regardless of national origin. The 1960s saw the flourishing of sister stirrings like the Chicano movement as well. Berkeley was a hotbed of countercultural political engagement, with sit-ins and riots. Meanwhile, multimedia and performance art were nascent fields, and the university established its ethnic studies department the year Cha enrolled.

This environment allowed her to discover her artistic voice. She found mentors in teachers such as Bertrand Augst and James Melchert. She fell in love with Barnes, and they wed in 1982. She was drawn to the films of French directors like Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, and the plays of Samuel Beckett.

By absorbing these varied influences, Cha cobbled together a form of expression that danced among genres. She wrote Earth (1973), an artist’s book of English and French poetry. She staged performances like Barren Cave Mute (1974), which involved the flame from a single candle burning waxed paper to gradually reveal a series of cryptic, poetic phrases scrawled on them. She made videos like Mouth to Mouth (1975), her camera fixed on a mouth inaudibly uttering syllables while words in Korean and English flashed on the screen.

These works were preambles to Dictée, which questioned the need for categorical distinctions among genres. As a result, Dictée presents a dilemma: How do you categorize a book that defies such an impulse? Was it an autobiography? A novel? Cha cared little for such labels. She bends the rules of language without apology. The book announces its nonconformity from the opening page, which is in French and English. She openly mocks the idea of punctuation: “Open paragraph It was the first day period She had come from a far period tonight at dinner comma the families would ask comma open quotation marks.” The paragraph goes on, and a blank page follows. “She mimicks the speaking,” she writes a page later. “That might resemble speech. (Anything at all.) Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words.”

That Cha presents such choices without any explanation may confuse and alienate readers, yet the tactic reveals how much trust she placed in her audience. She makes them work. She divides the book into nine chapters, each named for the Greek Muses who represented the arts and sciences, such as astronomy, comedy, and tragedy. She studs sentences with periods, draining the English language of its rhythm: “Dead words. Dead tongue. From disuse. Buried in Time’s memory.”

These staccato fragments are purposeful means to an end, collecting to convey the gravity of historical trauma, particularly the kind inflicted on Koreans like her. Fundamentally, the book concerns how easily people can lose the ability to express themselves through language. She saw this injustice in her mother, the subject of the book’s most arresting passages. “Mother, you are eighteen years old,” Cha writes. “You were born in Yong Jung, Manchuria and this is where you now live. You are not Chinese. You are Korean. But your family moved here to escape the Japanese occupation.”

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 mandatory language like the others,” Cha writes to her mother. “It is not your own.”

In another passage, it is 1962, and Cha is an 11-year-old girl writing to her mother about her older brother, who wants to join a demonstration against authoritarian rule in South Korea. Again, the threat of silencing looms large, and the state is the aggressor. “They fall they bleed they die,” Cha writes of the protesters at the hands of the police. “They are thrown into gas into the crowd to be squelched.”

The pain of being unable to speak lived inside Cha. It made her who she was. One then begins to understand why she invents her own language in Dictée. Reliance on the written word to communicate is futile; a dominant power can easily strip the marginalized of their voices.

Cha’s virtual vanishing from cultural memory feels both unfair and unsurprising. Dictée’s artistic rebellion may have prevented wider audiences from flocking to the work. Her unruliness, however, has been the point of entry for a number of Asian American writers she inspired who have achieved more mainstream prominence than she did in life or in death. This cruel dissonance speaks to her work’s foresight. She imagined a form of expression that was situated along the uncomfortable fault lines between modes of art.

Elaine Castillo, a Filipinx American and the author of the acclaimed novel America Is Not the Heart (2018), first came to Cha’s work in her mid-20s through Exilée / Temps Morts: Selected Works (2009), a posthumously published assortment of Cha’s poems, journal entries, and film stills. “At its heart are the subjects that formed so much of Dictée, too,” Castillo said of the book in an e-mail. “Historical and familial trauma, her ambivalence around speech and writing, her razor-sharp awareness of the limitations of language, the things that can’t be put into words, the things that exceed their names.”

In early 2011, Castillo was part of a guerrilla filmmaking crew that called itself the Digital Desperados, composed entirely of women of color. Though her primary medium is the written word, she realized that she didn’t have to limit herself to novels or essays; she could make essay films as Cha did. “Cha’s work showed me how you could be that kind of artist,” Castillo said. “It was a kind of blueprint for how to expand the shapes that ‘writing’ could take.”

Cha’s writing cast a similar spell over Cathy Park Hong. She first 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 because of its difficulty.

“It wasn’t just about formal innovation for her,” Hong said. “It was like using formal innovation to get at what was silenced, what hasn’t been written about. She was using formal innovation as a way to kind of write about historical atrocities that have happened in Korea.”

Hong noted that Cha was especially vulnerable to cultural oversight: She died young. She was a woman. She was Korean American. Her art, however, provided the greatest challenge of all. She did not write for everyone. “She was someone who was not doing accessible memoiristic work that would appeal to a white audience,” Hong said.

Today the inventiveness of Cha’s writing may still strike readers as daring. “Dictée was ahead of its time,” Hong observed. “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.” Cha wrote to unchain herself from the commercialism imposed on too many artists in New York.

Unlike with Plath or even Mendieta, Cha’s early death may have minimized her impact rather than expanded it. The acknowledgment of her genius has long been limited to the Asian American writers who followed her, writers who may have also escaped the gaze of literary gatekeepers in an earlier era. They work in a different time, though. The very fact that those same writers have found devoted audiences signals that America may finally be ready to accept all that Cha’s writing had to offer and to swallow the bitterness of her truths.

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