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  • On the Enunciative Boundary of Decolonizing Language:The Imagined Camaraderie of Poets Itō Hiromi and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
  • Lee Friederich (bio)

On the surface, Itō Hiromi (b. 1955) and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982) are writers who do not belong in the same category. Although Itō now lives in the United States, she writes in Japanese. Cha was a Korean American writing in English. Both women, however, are experimental poets who defy categorization and who can be seen as “borderline artists” who, in the words of Homi K. Bhabha, “perform . . . a poetics of the open border between cultures . . . display[ing] the ‘interstices’ . . . that [are] part of the history of those peoples whose identities are crafted from the experience of social displacement.”1 Inhabiting personal and poetic spaces outside of the national boundaries within which they were born and initially claimed citizenship, Itō and Cha also trouble the boundaries of their respective national feminisms by traversing and going beyond the realms of “universal, feminist humanitarianism” and “ethnic nationalism” in their works. They refuse any single voice through which to explore the transformation of colonized subjects, making use of multi-vocal narrators instead.

In this essay I analyze one such work by each writer. In her 1993 work “Watashi wa anjuhimeko de aru” (I am Anjuhimeko), Itō uses the voice of the miko, or spiritual medium. In Cha’s 1982 Dictée, the female narrator, or diseuse, is taken from French drama. [End Page 24] Drawing from these distinctly feminine storytellers, Itō and Cha meet on the common ground of the mythical, inventing voices to express new forms of female-female empathy teased out of old, androcentric stories. Ueno Chizuko’s comments about Itō hold true for Cha as well: “Borrowing voices and rhythms from old traditional narratives,” these poets “successfully transform” their “own personal tragedies into the universal suffering of everyday life.”2 And yet, as this essay shows, in addition to the transcendental expressions of personal suffering that each of their pieces display, both poets are also attuned to the particular issues of racial ethnicity and displacement wrought by colonialism and its aftermath on the contentious borders between cultures.

At the heart of both “Watashi wa anjuhimeko de aru” and Dictée is a sense of physical and national indeterminacy that extends to the lives of these poets as well. Born in Pusan, South Korea, in 1951, Cha’s family settled briefly in Seoul, where she attended elementary school before moving permanently to the U.S. when she was eleven. Returning “home” to Korea for the first time in 1979, just three years before her untimely death in her early thirties, Cha traveled again to Korea (and Japan) a year later to work on a film with her brother. This trip, however, was cut short because of the siblings’ need to flee Korea in the aftermath of President Park Chung-hee’s murder.3 This reflection of Cha’s “dislocation—cultural, geographic and social—embodied by immigration” appears not only in Dictée but also in her performance pieces and short films. As Constance M. Lewallen, curator of Cha’s retrospective exhibit “The Dream of the Audience,” writes, Cha employed “slow fadeouts, repetition and subtle shifts of words through the use of closely allied meanings and cognates to reveal a sense of displacement and fragmentation which she likened to memory and the experience of the immigrant.”4

Published in 1982 only a few days before her untimely death, Dictée is divided into nine sections named for the Greek muses, imposing the illusion of order upon this highly experimental piece. Entwining stories of the revolutionary Korean martyr Yu Guan Soon (1902–1920) and Cha’s mother, Hyung Soon Huo, born to Korean parents exiled to Manchuria, Cha also inlays fragments of poetry in both English and French, photographs, a map of North and South Korea, Chinese characters, handwritten notes and letters, and diagrams of the bodily organs used to produce speech. This enigmatic tour de force—which has been described as a novel, poetry, a memoir, and auto-ethnography—has captivated college campuses, where it is studied in Asian and Asian American Studies, Creative Writing, and Women’s...