Dictee is a 1982 novel, by author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Considered to be the magnum opus of Cha, the book focuses on several women: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha's mother Hyun Soon Huo, and Cha herself, who are linked by their struggles and the way that nations have affected and twisted their lives.
The book was first published in 1982, the same year Cha was murdered, but since audiences struggled to connect to the experimental writing style, the book went out of print. In a collection of scholarly essays, Writing Self, Writing Nation (1994), Cha's work began to receive critical attention. In 1997 due to resurgence in popularity for Asian American studies and Third-wave Feminism, as well as visibility caused by the compilation of the 1992 “Writing Self Writing Nation” book of essays regarding Dictee, the book was brought back into print by Norma Alarcón and Third Woman Press.
Even though "Dictee" is widely known as a novel, the genre is not clearly definable. Due to its polyphonic aspect, dictee can not be classified into specific category. Dictee has a very unorthodox structure, and consists of descriptions of the struggle to speak, uncaptioned photographs, tellings of the lives of saints and patriots, and mysterious letters that seem not to relate to the other material. In Dictee, Cha “borrows from avant garde techniques such as jagged cuts, jump shots, and visual exposition,” based on her experience in the video and performing arts. The work “deviates from genres, themes, and styles” and fails to fit a single descriptor or label with clarity. It has been described as auto-ethnography, due to its highly subjective view of heritage and the past.
In this work, as well as her other works, interaction of language is one of the most important themes. She visually manipulate letters and texts in her own ways. The sizes and placement of letters on the page are graphically transformed and reconstructed, which was unusual and considered as an experimental approach at that time.
"Dictee" consistes of various languages such as French, English, Korean and even Chinese characteristics. These languages are mingled with each other without any dominant rule even in a same paragraphe or on the same page. They form a kind of visual image and sound or uncertain impression. As a result, words or phrases itself do not contain any significant meaning. However, its sounds and visual variation newly construct significant meaning as itself.
Most of the phrases are compared to a babbling of enfant, which does not has any meaning but expose a desire for speaking. In these texts, the languages are used in repetitive, “broken” phrases and frequent code-switching, similar to the communication of an individual learning the languages. This way of writing causes readers to think about the arbitrary on language and writing, bringing our a question on the social requirements of good speech and correct grammar.
Reviews and criticism
Reviews for Dictee has been rather positive, with Madison Smartt Bell from the 1996 edition of Spin Magazine commenting, "Dictee enlarges the notion of what a book is...because it is ephemeral, fragile, fierce, and indelible, because it is subversive, because it yearns and is luminous."—Spin
- Lewallen, Constance (2001). The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982). University of California Press.
- Anlin Cheng, Anne (2001). The Melancholy of Race. Oxford University Press.
- Yi Kang, Hyun; Kim, Elaine H.; Lowe, Lisa; Sunn Wong, Shelley (1994). Writing Self, Writing Nation: A Collection of Essays on Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Third Women Press.
- "SPIN." Google Books. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?id=UPmf0Kr8tR0C>.