Dictee is one of these books that readers engage with over a long period of time and continue to encounter new morsels previously undiscovered. Designed by Cha as an open system, the text has inspired multiple interpretations from its readers and engendered a significant body of student dissertations and scholarly publications. This post is the first of a series of excerpts I plan to publish on the various retelling of Dictee.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Wayne Stein’s article, which first appeared in the book Korea and Regional Geopolitics (1998), and is reproduced here with his permission.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Exorcisms from Demons: A Reunification with the Korean Spirit
“I am hungry. I want to go home.” On opening the book Dictee, a picture of Korean calligraphy (hangul) presents these words and introduces the overall theme of the book. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is a Korean Odyssey, and the journey home is full of danger, confusion, and finally hope. The heroes who find their way home are shamans, saints, and martyrs. However, the main character is not the normal hero; instead, the main character is the Korean spirit, trapped, exiled and detained from returning home by various demons; the tyranny of Japanese colonialism, the desolation of the Korean War, the betrayal of political corruption, and the cultural gaps between a mother and a daughter. Dictee is no ordinary book; instead, it can be viewed as an elaborate Korean ritual of exorcisms, a “kut.” Dictee as an elaborate kut is performed by various shamans, mystics, and martyrs. These exorcisms unfold before the reader who experiences the liberation of the Korean spirit from these demons. To understand how Dictee functions as a kut, it becomes important to review how Korean shamans use exorcisms to free people from various physical, psychological, and spiritual limitations or ailments. Basically, a kut is the most elaborate of theatrical rituals that are used to exorcise the demons to leave the possessed. Ethnographer Laurel Kendall explains that fire songs, masks, and drumbeats are all part of the ritual where the mansim (shaman) performs a drama exorcism for an audience of either family members or neighbors. Thus, in one sense, the mansim is a performance artist, and this parallels Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s own artistic achievements. She was a talented performance artist who combined elements of film, dance, sound and poetry together in her productions. Dictee became another of Cha’s performances.
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The shaman reminds us to remember that we are connected to the divine and to our past, and to go beyond our fears, and the demons that try to enslave us. Furthermore, the voice of a Korean American, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, reminds us that we can be liberated because our own spirit is more powerful than reality. Spirit conquers reality. The elaborate kut, Dictee, awakens us to the power of the infinite in language, which is the power of going home to ourselves.
Dr. Wayne Stein is a Professor and the Assistant Chair of Composition and Rhetoric at University of Central Oklahoma. He was awarded the 2008 DaVinci Fellow from the Oklahoma’s Creativity Think Tank. He taught EFL (English as a Foreign Language) in Seoul, Korea, the place of his birth. He teaches Asian American literature, modern world literature, and cyberpunk fiction and is interested in the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the paranoia of Thomas Pynchon, and the postmodernity of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. More info: Dr. Stein’s Webpage.