Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.
Dictee begins with two paragraphs, one written in French and one in English, that signal a code-switching found throughout the remainder of the text. Alternating between these aforementioned, Western languages, as well as Chinese, Cha's book makes literal the Japanese suppression of Korea's native tongue, which forced Koreans to “speak in the tongue the mandatory language” that “is not [their] own,” requiring them to be “Bi-ligual” and “Tri-lingual,” and erasing “The tongue that is forbidden...[their] mother tongue” (45). But the process of language acquisition, of becoming bi- and trilingual, is a stammering and difficult one; both the form and content of Cha's prose indicate this. Readers discover that, when writing, the author “mimicks the speaking. That might resemble speech...Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words...she resorts to mimicking gestures with the mouth” (3). The “noise” and “groan[s],” as one would expect, do not adhere to “proper” grammatical requirements; more often than not, the author composes her written words in a staccato and fragmented manner. For example: “She takes. She takes the pause. Slowly. From the thick. The thickness. From weighted motion upwards. Slowed” (5). The hyperbolic use of periods mimics the “Broken speech [and] Pigeon tongue” (161) Cha spoke in once exiled from Korea. Moreover, upon moving to Paris, and then to the United States, “someone” took her “identity and replaced it with their” own (56) by culturally mandating her to speak in French and English. In addition to focusing on the relationship between identity and language, idiosyncratic grammar encourages readers to conceptualize the embodiment of language: the voice as an intensive and affective tool. For instance, Cha writes: “Stop. Start. Starts./ Contractions. Noise. Semblance of noise./ Broken speech. One to one. At a time./ Cracked tongue. Broken tongue” (75). On the page facing this poem about the “Starts” and “Stop[s]” of “Broken speech” formed by a “Cracked” and “Broken” tongue, there are several anatomical diagrams of the human larynx. Through the juxtaposition of images and text, the author highlights or intensifies the concept of voice, and language which voice produces, as a physical apparatus, not merely an abstract system indicated by a series of recurring inscriptions. To this extent, when one switches from language to language, the body (i.e. the tongue and larynx) must move, literally, in markedly different patterns. Acquiring these patterns of movement sometimes necessitates that a speaker enter a linguistic “void” (73) wherein nothing is voiced, at other times utter “Remnants” that are “Missing” (69) integral aspects of this new language, and, occasionally, vocalize nothing more than a guttural “Noise” (75). The incorporation of images into Dictee, though, most often elicits pathos from the viewer. In order to do so, Cha uses close-up head-shots of Korean women, engendering a humanistic empathy so as to personalize the “atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, [and] destruction” she and other Koreans suffered. While these images are most prolific throughout the collection, there are several pages of reproduced, handwritten notes and letters as well. Inserting these reproductions into the fabric of the text produces, once again, an intensifying effect that reinforces the “authenticity” of Cha's life-story: this is no work of fiction, but a harrowing autobiography that documents oppression, displacement, and cultural erasure created by a hand, a body, a woman attempting “to write [so] she could continue to live...without ceasing” (141). A final aesthetic point that merits attention is the narrative arc of Dictee. While, indeed, the book does tell a story, its “Narrative shifts, discovers variation” (145), by avoiding chronological progression, abruptly oscillating between characters and point-of-view, as well as altering its mode of conveyance (e.g. verse, standard prose, poetic prose, letters, images, quotation, historical accounts, etc.). To wit, Dictee “follows no progression in particular of the narrative but submits only to the timelessness created in [Cha's] body” (149). In other words, Cha's book does not succumb to traditional (i.e. imperialistic) narrative form and its adherence to comprehensible, temporal spaces, but, instead, is “created in her body,” embodied, and thus an extension of her tangible self.