Pablo Picasso was a poet and a good one, but it would be a tragedy if his literary work had somehow diverted attention from his achievement as an artist.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was an artist and a good one, but it is in no way a tragedy that her book “Dictee” has, to a large extent, eclipsed her artwork. This is not because the artwork is unworthy of attention, but because the experiments with language (and also images) that became “Dictee,” a masterpiece of avant-garde autobiography, were not peripheral to her artistic practice but of a piece with it.
Indeed, the more closely one considers Cha’s artistic and literary work, the harder it is to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. That her artistic and literary production was a unified project becomes abundantly clear in “Exilee and Temps Morts,” a selection of her pre-“Dictee” writing.
The text, for example, of the first piece in the collection, was originally part of a mail-art work. Cha lithographed the words onto pieces of paper that were then folded into cards, and in that form they were hung on the wall of a gallery. One doesn’t doubt they were striking in that context, but ripped off the gallery wall and placed between the covers of a book the publisher narrowly designates as “literature” and “poetry,” the artwork loses none of its power.
Even in works not originally conceived as literary, Cha’s words are vital enough that they can stand alone, and in standing alone they reveal one of Cha’s central concerns: language, our miraculous ability to communicate by means of squawks and scribbles. At the beginning of that first piece, “audience distance relative,” a writer speaks to a reader:
neither you nor i
are visible to each other
i can only assume that you can hear me
i can only hope that you can hear me.
The suspicion that makes communication something to be hoped for rather than assumed is present throughout Cha’s work, perhaps in part because Cha, who was born in Korea but spent most of her life in California, lived between languages and between cultures, a state she reflects upon in the linked works “Exilee” and “Temps Morts.” The former appears to have been written in anticipation of her 1979 return to Korea, her first trip back since leaving when she was 11 years old. She will be able to overcome the physical distance between her and Korea, but trying, before boarding the airplane, to move back through time is trickier. She writes, in “Exilee”:
Backwards. from backwards from the back way back.
This phantom images/non-images
almost non-images without images.
She arrives, in memory and anticipation, at a past that:
was dreamed was erased was
fantasy was phantom.
As is clear from the examples quoted above, Cha’s work, which owes more to Samuel Beckett than to popular chroniclers of the Asian-American experience such as Amy Tan, is not an easy read. She was of the avant-garde during her lifetime and, 27 years after her death, she remains there. Her work demands readers’ attention; readers’ attention will be rewarded.
The timid should not imagine, however, that her work is some arcane experiment, dry and humorless. The two-part “Surplus Novel,” for example, makes one laugh out loud even as it makes a serious point:
they calling me
they calling after me
hey yoko ono
I ain’t no I ain’t
your yoko ono.
It was, one imagines, difficult for some to grasp that more than one Asian female could be making avant-garde art at the same time. Likewise, the frustrated traditionalist imagined by Cha will also raise a chuckle:
. . . all the years you
spent here all the literature courses you studied is this what they taught
you I can’t understand a thing. . .
. . . why do you write only poems can’t you write a novel
an epic all the lovely lunches. . .
Another voice, and one imagines it must be Cha’s, says:
is the essay this is the fiction this is the poetry this is the novel this is the
writing you have been waiting for. . .
Indeed it is. We must be grateful to editor Constance M. Lewallen, and the University of California Press, for bringing us Cha’s pre-“Dictee” writing, particularly in light of the fact that there will be no post-“Dictee” writing. In the early years of an artistic and literary career that had delivered much and promised more, Cha was murdered by a stranger in 1982 at the age of 31.