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Dictee (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha)

February 18, 2010

Okay, this is the second time I’ve read this unusual memoir, but I can’t say I feel like I fully understood it this time either. Sadly, the blurb on the back of the book helped quite a bit, since it explained that each section is about a different person — historical figures, family members, etc. This is one of the most unusual aspects of the memoir…that it isn’t actually entirely about the author. It’s about her mother, Joan of Arc, Yu Guan Soon, Greek goddesses, and herself. Of course, this is part of why I’m still struggling to understand it — it’s a memoir told through the stories of several women, and then there’s the inclusion of poetry. Well, not only poetry. Poetry, letters (typed, handwritten, you name it), photographs, prose, different languages (Chinese and/or Korean calligraphy, French, English, Latin) — it’s more than just pastiche, it’s downright collage-like.

Right, so the writing itself. It’s not straightforward…it’s very fragmented and also “experimental” (if I can use that word to describe her use of language). Cha likes to take words that are typically written as one word (like “anything”) and split them with a large space (to become “any  thing”). The effect is really surprising — I wouldn’t have thought this would have made a noticeable or significant difference, but it really did. Whenever I came across a word like that, I found myself pausing over it and really thinking about its meaning. She also plays a lot with form. For instance, there’s an entire “chapter” told half on the left page, half on the right page. It’s hard to explain, but basically there are two voices, and one of them is stuck on the left page while the other is stuck on the right page. Anytime there’s writing on the left side, the right side is blank. Once the left side stops, the right side starts. It’s one of the most interesting methods for writing a dialogue (or dialogue-like stuff) I’ve ever seen.

Cha’s method of telling her story by including the stories of others reminds me of the way that Oskar (from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum) and Saleem (from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) both believe that in order to tell one’s own story, one must first tell the stories of one’s ancestors. While Oskar and Saleem are both fictional characters, Cha’s narrative is founded on a similar premise and effectively uses it to communicate key aspects of Cha’s life. Instead of focusing on significant events from her life, as most autobiographers do, Cha focuses on mental and emotional states; this is not to say that the memoir is completely devoid of significant events, as it’s not, but that its primary focus lies elsewhere…on a more internal plane.

Someday, I hope to understand Cha’s memoir with more confidence, but for now I’ll have to live with impressions that are sometimes vague and sometimes less vague.

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