Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha, Dictee, (New York: Tanam Press, 1982)
I made a mistake a few years ago: I did not read this book. It wasn’t until halfway through my Creative Writing MA year that I encountered it. And even then, Cha wasn’t recommended to me through the auspices of that prized programme, nor did I have access to such texts at the institution I attended. Dictee bends and twists so many things: genres, formats, histories, mythologies, literary tropes and most importantly, the human tongue itself, in more than three languages. In the epilogue and contents page, Cha deliberately misquotes Sappho: ‘May I write words more naked than flesh / stronger than bone, more resilient than / sinew, sensitive than nerve’ and incorrectly names Euterpe, the Greek muse of lyric poetry, as ‘Elitere’—a name entirely made up by her with an etymology that conveys the dominant elitism of Western classicism.
I ask: what would I have written had I read more texts like Dictee in the beginning of that year? Or better yet, even before I began my limp, frustrated little manuscript? I might’ve seen more lucidly the kind of colonial structures upheld by such institutions; perhaps I might’ve been more convicted with my intent to (re)construct the intergenerational trauma in our diasporic histories with sutured breaks and fractures that spoke more confidently to a multicultural paradigm—one of many that exist beyond the institution’s dominant linguistic concerns. Or better yet, I might’ve dropped out.