Book Review

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

an excellent early 80s hybrid text with a distressing - and violent - context

cw: violence against women; mental illness

Dictee is a collection of prose poetry (of prose? of poetry? of poetry and prose? of CNF? of memoir? of biography? of fiction? of of of literature, ultimately) that is excellent and powerful, yet overshadowed by the context of its publication, a context which – in this edition (I cannot speak to others) – there is no attempt to reckon with.

Dictee was published in 1982 by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a 30ish year old Korean-American woman who was violently murdered in an unpremeditated attack less than a week after the book came out.

Now, as those of you who have read this blog before will know, I firmly believe that failing to acknowledge the authorial context of a work of literature is deeply conservative and primarily a way to deny educational and material privilege and to presume a default worldview and experience, but contrary to the usual relationship between personal life and personal death when explored in literature (e.g. Plath writing about depression, Lawrence writing about TB, Jarman writing about AIDS, Brooke-Rose writing about being really fucking old), the fact that the themes Hak Kyung Cha raised in her sole publication echo the manner of her death are technically coincidental, yet they also justify and almost prove the validity of the fears and anxieties explored in the text.

The writer’s death from patriarchal violence was not inevitable, in the way that the deaths I refer to above were (see also Lowry, Woolf, Quin, B.S. Johnson, arguably Hemingway), yet this autobiographical detail is included on the back of the book, in the author bio and – I imagine! – contributed to increased sales when the book was new (terminal publicity is good publicity?), and certainly helps to form a mythos which definitely contributes to (though is not solely responsible for) the book’s legacy.

Dictee is split into several sections, some of which are half-written in French (sometimes without translation), many include photographs or other images (maps, medical diagrams), and there are also some handwritten sections both in English and – according to Google Translate (tho I do not know if this is accurately guessing the language?) – Chinese. Dictee is a polyphonic text, a text about people (women) all over the world, mostly becoming victims of male violence – be that colonial and public and systemic or personal and in private – which leads the loss of self if not loss of life. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha writes about cultural erasure and loss of language, of attempts to control and coerce the proletariat under minority invasive rule. The book is about the similarities between unpleasant and dangerous situations throughout history: using references to Greek tragedies, to Joan of Arc, to revolutionaries, to her own antecedents subjugated by Japanese imperial armies in the early twentieth century.

The writer uses the collage of people and places, of form and forms and content to evoke, poetically, the woes of the world we live in.

Dictee is haunting, therefore; it is sad and sinister that this idea of normalised, inescapable female martydom, female suffering, was the writer’s own truncated future.

The infamy of Therea Hak Kyung Cha’s tragic death gives Dictee an aggressive and painful marketing hook, and though it is impossible to forget this, I certainly think it would be possible to read and powerfully emote in response to Dictee without knowing what happened to its author a very short time after the book launch. Unfortunately, though, I went into Dictee knowing about this distressing context, so too do, likely, the vast majority of people who read it. Because a violent death is an uncommon thing, it casts a shadow; one cannot keep the knowledge of the violent death of the author out of the reader’s consciousness when reading a text about violent deaths, about systemic oppression, about anxiety and loneliness and a failure to find a sense of security, of home, of life being a bitter fight that will inevitably end in a death that is either sudden and shocking or drawn out and painful.

Dictee is a powerful book, and – I think – would remain so shorn of its tragic context. I cannot confirm that, tho, and that is the legacy of violence: you cannot pretend it didn’t happen.

Probably worth a go, tbh.

Order direct from University of California Press.

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