Meditating on motherhood and memory, Cha suggests that a woman's suffering cannot be transcended through time or language; rather, her suffering can only be overcome through death. And motherhood, inexorably bound by self-sacrifice and submission, is the ultimate act of martyrdom. Dictee is frustrating because language is frustrating—how can anyone truly understand another's experiences, let alone her own? Cha’s attempt, however, is writing at its most absolutely authentic, full of grace and steady as a rock. In a word, sublime. -Brendan
— From 2020 Holiday Recommendations
This book feels like it was beamed in from another planet, or unearthed in some ruined abbey like an ancient holy relic. Musing on the interconnected mysteries of faith, love, and memory, Cha uses both words and images to obliterate the oppressive limitations of time and language in order to reach her mother—suggesting that motherhood, rooted inexorably in paternal submission and self-sacrifice, is the ultimate form of martyrdom, worthy of saintly veneration. Full of grace, immaculately constructed—this is writing at its most sublime.
— From Brendan
Dictée is the best-known work of the versatile and important Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. A classic work of autobiography that transcends the self, Dictée is the story of several women: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Huo (a Korean born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles), and Cha herself. The elements that unite these women are suffering and the transcendence of suffering. The book is divided into nine parts structured around the Greek Muses. Cha deploys a variety of texts, documents, images, and forms of address and inquiry to explore issues of dislocation and the fragmentation of memory. The result is a work of power, complexity, and enduring beauty.
About the Author
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) was a poet, filmmaker, and artist. In 1982, Cha was murdered by a stranger in New York City, just a few days after the original publication of Dictée.
"Reads like a secret dossier, stuffed with epistles and pictures, religion, and dreams."
— Village Voice
"It remains as radical a text as it was when I first found it, daring to hold a space open somewhere in between several genres, and to let tensions remain unresolved, or ambiguous, to pursue if not the articulation of the inarticulate, then, to let the reader experience what is inarticulate within themselves still in a space that makes room for it or even values it."
— Alexander Chee,
"Too often, of course, the colonizing function of language goes about its invisible work without comment, but in Dictée each scene, each image, each poem or letter purposefully refers us back to it."
— Paris Review
"Dictée addresses themes of time, language, and memory that recur in much of the artist’s work while incorporating multiple forms of media, language, and historical material. . . .Nine chapters, structured around the muses of Greek mythology, result in a form that is novel, prose poem, biography, and photo book all at once."
"Dictée was one of the first books that taught me the transformative power that art could have on the material of a life—that conceptual art wasn’t only populated by urban white folks, and lives like Cha’s or mine or my mother’s could make a strange and wild home there, too."
— Elaine Castillo,
"All writers who play with form that have come since are indebted to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, often without even knowing it."
— Kenyon Review
"Cha’s work . . . is both academic and emotionally present, theoretical and practical. It eschews easy classification, and is influenced by filmmakers as much as it is by playwrights, visual artists, poets, and critics."
"The brilliance of Dictée is in its subverting the dynamics of understandability: incomprehensibility as the communicative channel, obscurity as the language to discuss illumination."
— Columbia Journal
"Dictée enlarges the notion of what a book is. . . .because it is ephemeral, fragile, fierce, and indelible, because it is subversive, because it years and is luminous."