Intimacy in Cha’s Dictee

Despite its cryptic and avant-garde manner, Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha makes powerful statements about the role of women in heterogeneous romantic relationships. Much of the language in the beginning of the book refers to female characters as she and her, which simultaneously places women as the main character yet fails to ever attach any form of identity (name, background, individuality) to these characters, perhaps alluding to the neglect or inferiority women felt in Korean societies. It is not until one hundred pages into the book that readers get a glimpse into the strict expectations of women and see how she interacts with he in a marital relationship.

Passages such as “One expects her to be beautiful…You are shown the house in which she lives, from the outside” suggests that women are often judged and treated differently based on their physical appearance (98). This passage also reinforces the idea that women are not valued as multi-dimensional, emotional women, but rather as repressed and domesticated wives, mothers, and providers.

Furthermore, there is lack of intimacy in the marriage between husband and wife. On page 102, Cha writes, “He is the husband, and she is the wife. He is the man. She is the wife. It is a given…You only hear him taunting and humiliating her. She kneels besides him, putting on his clothes for him. She takes her place. It is given.” Here, the wife assumes a slave-like position, responding without contention to her husband’s every wish. While the husband has freedom to taunt and humiliate, the woman shows no speech, a theme that runs throughout the novel as a symbol of women’s oppression and disenfranchisement. Cha continues, “Perhaps she loved him…Perhaps she loved him inspite of. Inspite of the arrangement that she was to come his wife. A stranger. A stranger to her….It was given. She took whatever he would give her because he gave her so little. She takes she took them without previous knowledge of how it was supposed to be how it supposed to be. She deserved so little” (110). In this passage, Cha vacillates between whether she loves her husband out of obligation, expectation, desperation, or sincerity. Cha implies her self-confidence has been diminished down to so little that she believes this is what she truly deserves. No where in a chapter entitled “Love Poetry” is there any mention of intimacy, closeness, or warmth, yet there is mention of sex, which suggests that love serves as a strategic tool for economic, political, and religious reasons rather than romantic reasons.

It is also interesting to consider Cha’s repetition of what is “given”. Throughout the book, I find myself asking, who is the giver and who has laid the foundation of what is given? Who is the receiver—is it always women or are men also susceptible to what is given?

Dictee as Prose-Poetry and the Effects of Fragmentation

When I first started reading Dictee, I was immediately taken aback by the complicated and largely fragmented form the novel took place. It did not seem like any other novel I was familiar with, and thus I had an initial struggle interpreting not only the plot and meaning of the novel, but the overall point of the novel as well. As I continued to read the poem, I decided to stop reading the poem as a traditional novel (which even flipping through the novel, it becomes immediately apparent that this is not the case), and started to read the book as a sort of long-form prose-poem. In reading the book in such a way, I was able to decipher a lot more meaning form the book itself. Prose-poetry in essence is fragmented, disjointed, and at times quite unclear—all things that could be said about many immigrant experiences, and certainly could be said about the immigrant experience Cha presents.

In presenting the book as sort of a fragmented prose-poem, the book also highlights the fragmentation of language that is inherent in translation. This concept is most developed in the moments when Cha includes poems that are written in both English and French. However, the English version will often add lines that were not in the original French (or at least presumed original in that the French is often presented before the English) that will slightly alter the meaning of the poem. Thus, Cha emphasizes that meaning is often lost in translation just because of the nature of translating from one language to another. When one loses the ability to talk in their native tongue, they also often lose the ability to convey an intended meaning—especially when a language is new to that speaker. Thus, these moments of fragmentation—both in the presentation of Cha’s language and in fragmentation of meaning in mistranslated poems—Cha is, in a way, able to simulate the immigrant experience of language and meaning.