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When I set out to complete research for my third-year dissertation, I struggled to find a compelling author that I could write about. I knew that I wanted to study an Asian American writer, but I struggled to engage with any of the authors suggested to me. I was starting to give up on my seemingly impossible project when I stumbled across a writer whose work changed the way I see literature and art. I first came across Theresa Hak Kyung Cha whilst reading Minor Feelings, a critical book on the Asian American condition by the Korean American poet, Cathy Park Hong. Since discovering her seminal work Dictee – a genre-defying book that moves seamlessly from fiction to memoir to history to poetry – I have repeatedly asked myself why such a brilliant artist remains obscure to creatives like myself. 

Cha’s work, although postmodern at heart, resists literary and artistic classifications, and she writes in a way that transgresses genre.

Cha’s work is still widely taught in women’s writing and postcolonial courses in US colleges, yet she is barely known outside of these fields. Whilst these programs are important for preserving texts within those genres and giving them space to be analysed, I am also concerned that we limit the potential of artists to be read and seen outside of these boundaries. Cha’s work, although postmodern at heart, resists literary and artistic classifications, and she writes in a way that transgresses genre. I ask myself if we are doing her multi-faceted work justice by merely confining her to these literary subjects instead of expanding the appeal of her work. Perhaps this attempt to popularise Cha also does her a disservice, since Cha’s work eludes mainstream appeal with its fragmented phrases and ideas that are difficult to consume. But I am also uneasy with the fact that the legacy of such a dynamic artist risks erasure from an oblivious arts establishment. For this reason, I want to introduce you all to the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Cha was born in Busan, South Korea, in 1951 to a Catholic Korean family. Cha spent her early years living with the constant threat of war and exile – the family moved to Seoul then Songdo to escape the escalation of the Korean War. They were able to escape its violent excesses, but the Japanese occupation nevertheless shaped their lives. Cha could not speak Korean in her own home and had to speak Japanese instead. Her family then moved to the US in 1962 to escape the South Korean dictatorship. They lived in Hawaii before settling in San Francisco. It was in the US where Cha developed her love of poetry and art, but this passion proved to be a point of contention between her and her father, who was once an aspiring painter himself. Her father believed that Cha would inevitably fail pursuing art and he wanted to protect her from that disappointment, but his daughter defied his expectations, becoming a successful and productive artist. 

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Cha became a multi-disciplinary artist, working across several mediums and genres. She was working on a piece about the representation of hands in Western art when, at 32 years old, she was murdered and raped in New York City, a week after the publication of Dictee, which went out of print sometime after her death. Hong writes sensitively about Cha’s untimely death, choosing to confront her passing without romanticising or ignoring it. Noting Cha’s murder and the way in which she was killed is important if we ever want to reestablish her legacy. Not only do we risk censoring discussion around sexual assault as it relates to Asian women, but we also risk dismissing her presence in the way that the New York police did when they referred to her as an ‘Oriental Jane Doe’. Talking about rape is uncomfortable, but so is reading critical material that elides over the facts surrounding her death. It is a double standard that we can talk honestly about Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape, and yet not afford the same honesty to a female artist of color.  


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These double standards persist in the way that Cha is received today. Cha left behind a wealth of art, but it seems that her legacy has only been reserved for and recognised by Asian American artists. Ocean Vuong recently thanked Cha in his acknowledgements to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a similarly genre-defying memoir, and Hong herself acknowledges Cha’s presence in her own writing. I think it’s time that Cha’s influence is appreciated by people outside of the Asian American community. Not only is Dictee expansive and diverse, but it has also gripped me in a way few other texts have. Every time I reread Dictee, I become further submerged into its meditation on colonialism, religion and the self-conscious construction and deconstruction of language. 

I would not have known about Cha’s work if not for the efforts of postcolonial and feminist critics that have kept her work alive. Having said that, I believe, in the spirit of Dictee, that we should push against the boundaries of genre and make authors like Cha more widely known outside of these disciplines. I do not believe in promoting Cha just because she is an Asian woman, but because her art speaks to the human condition in a way few other works do; Cha is a great artist, worthy of being studied by anyone, regardless of race or gender. Perhaps I am naïve in thinking that there is such a thing as artistic greatness at all. But reading artists like Cha makes me believe in this standard.

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