Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982)

    Contributing Editor:

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    As with all "experimental," students may raise questions of how to "make sense" of Cha's pastiche of visual images, historical fragments, personal meditation, and even handwritten drafts. Classroom strategy in this case will depend on whether the excerpt from DICTEE is being approached as an example of postmodernist writing, multicultural literature, feminist autobiography, or, as is most likely, some combination of these categories. In any case, texts like Cha's provide an opportunity for the class to consider the implications of the phrase (and the intellectual/imaginative task of) "making sense," for indeed that is one of the issues foregrounded by Cha's project. By challenging and playing with conventional patterns of historical and autobiographical narrative, Cha's text asks us to think about the assumptions and preconceptions we bring to concepts like history and identity.

    Since the excerpt from DICTEE focuses on history (and with the invocation of the muse Clio, specifically on history as imaginative act), one way to approach this question of making sense is to ask students to engage in a critique of the forms of historical narrative with which they may be most familiar. First, what are the expectations we bring to a work labeled as "history"? What information do we expect? How do we expect that information to be presented? Are we looking for answers? A definite sense of closure and finality? A conventional story with a begining, middle, and end? Having established these paradigms, the class can then proceed to question the limitations of these traditional models, not necessarily to deny their validity, but as a means of acknowledging that all formal strategies of representation have limitations as well as ideological implications. What experiences, attitudes, and emotions, for example, would be difficult to account for by the means of the methods of historical representation with which we may be most familiar?

    Cha's text can now be approached as an example of one such critique/revision. The class can consider how Cha's text differs from or even frustrates their expectations. In what ways does it seem an improvement (and what do we mean by "an improvement")? By recognizing as an instructor that factors like student expectations and criteria of value will vary from classroom to classroom, from student population to student population, such questions can mesh with a discussion of the specific issues of ethnicity, gender, and identity Cha raises, issues that define the rhetorical situation that Cha both finds herself in and imaginatively transforms. The question, in other words, of how students might find conventional forms of historical and autobiographical writing limiting can lead to the question of how Cha's text suggests the ways she finds such conventions limiting.

    For example, if much of the historical and/or autobiographical writing we may be familiar with from school presupposes a fairly stable conception of identity (for example, texts that refer to people as "Americans" or as "Asian" not to problematize identity but with the assumption that such an appellation establishes identity), how could such an approach work for a writer/artist like Cha, who not only explores the multiple cultural identity signified by the term "Korean-American" but does so in the context of the fragmented history of Korean identity itself, as Koreans have struggled in this century with invasion and colonization by both China and Japan and the partitioning of the nation as part of the larger dynamics of the Cold War? Cha's text refuses to consider these issues from a supposedly objective academic perspective but instead represents them as connected to the most intimate questions of personal identity and experience, question that also involve gender and the power of imaginative self-expression.

    The form of DICTEE directly involves the reader as well, not only in asking us to join in her refashioning of the forms of historical writing but also in considering the position of our own identities. How stable do we think of these identities? How does Cha's text assume a multiple audience that will have multiple relations and reactions to her text (consider, for example, how differently her text might read to a Euro-American, Japanese-American, or Korean-American student?). Is this anticipation of diversity and multiplicity in terms of audience similar to or distinct from the conventional historical writing we have discussed? Finally, Cha's text can invite imitation, as students engage in the construction of their own historical/autobiographical texts (and keeping in mind Cha's work in film and video, these media can also be brought in as part of the discussion or assignment).