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144 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée ​ “A Series of Metaphors for the Return” Informed by her experimental video, mail art, and performance art, Cha uses a cinematic technique, juxtaposes image and text, and deconstructs the word on the page as part of a multidimensional art practice in book form. For more than five decades the publication of autobiographical narratives bearing witness to trauma has burgeoned. Anguished stories of surviving political and domestic violence, genocide, colonization, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse abound. Not surprisingly, “the desire for return to origins and to sites of communal sufferings has progressively intensified” in the late twentieth and early twenty-­ first centuries (Hirsch and Miller 3). Theresa Hak Kyung Cha participates in this literary and cultural phenomenon of return, of looking again at the past in order to testify about its continuing aftershocks. Like Peter Najarian and Art Spiegelman, in her radically experimental visual autobiography , Dictée, Cha addresses themes of historical violence, displacement, memory, transgenerational trauma, and the difficulty of articulating a complicated legacy of loss. She seeks to understand her parent’s traumatic experience during the Japanese occupation of Korea and to convey its consequences in her own life as an immigrant who searches for her past—a history, a language, a culture, and a home—to which she cannot return. Like many Asian American immigrant subjects, Cha seeks to find her place within both the United States and “global, transnational, and diasporic matrices” (Lim 16). The phases of Cha’s work, in fact, prefigure the transition that had taken place in Asian American studies by the mid-­ 1990s, from a focus on national (U.S.-­ based experience) to transnational (multiply national or diasporic experiences). Using a cinematic style, Cha incorporates many personal and historical stories in a complex assemblage. In some sections, she creates detailed storyboard narration in which each camera angle is determined; conceives of the page as both a unit of space and time and a screen; and juxtaposes diagrams, letters, documents, archival photographs, and film stills with textual narrative. Cha’s autobiographical persona is a narrator , filmmaker, and daughter, but most profoundly, like Julie Chen (see 145 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée chapter 4), she is a witnessing, interpreting consciousness. She is everywhere but nowhere in the text—a disembodied female voice struggling to visualize embodied speech on the page. Cha offers a self-­ reflexive commentary on the autobiographical process and struggles to find a suitable conclusion to her narrative of trauma. Although Cha desires to return to her homeland, language, and culture, her return is endlessly deferred even as she perpetually performs the attempt through acts of memory that become, finally, memorialized in the book. Dictée Born in Pusan, Korea, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–82) was twelve years old when she and her family left South Korea for Hawaii—the fundamental displacement that she would thematize throughout her work. One year later, she and her family moved to San Francisco. Throughout the 1970s, Cha participated in the lively San Francisco Bay Area art community , contributing her unique vision and voice to the conceptual arts scene. Cha worked in a variety of modes: the then-emerging form of performance art, film and video, handmade books, mail art, mixed media installations, and experimental literature.1 In her MFA thesis, Cha envisioned the artist as an alchemist, a medium whose “vision belongs to an altering, of material, and of perception .” Through the transformative promise of art and art making, “the perception of the audience has the possibility of being altered, of being presented a constant change, Re-­ volution” (“Paths” 3). She links the possibility of transforming audience perceptions to the notion of collective consciousness, a “kind of meta-­ Confucianism” (Rinder 28). In short, Cha believed that art can elicit not merely an individual revelation but also a collective transformation. MyfocushereisonCha’sradicallyexperimentalvisualautobiography Dictée, but I also discuss some of her other creative work—­ experimental film, performance art, and mail art—as it informs my reading of Dictée. Cha incorporates many kinds of cultural stories: official history, personal narrative, stories of parents remembered and imagined, black-­ and-­white photographs, government documents, handwritten and typed letters, lists, diagrams, and maps. “An experimental anomaly in Asian American literature” (Lamm 43), the multilingual Dictée is written primarily in English and French, but also includes Chinese characters and Pinyin, Latin, and one instance of Hangul, the Korean written script. Dictée has been discussed as...


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