Dictee is Cha’s evocation of the past through the apparatus of speech, told through the voices of the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. It is a remembrance of the strength and resilience of women both fictitious and real and the history of the Korean diaspora community.
During the late 1970s, Tanam Press began to publish artist’s books. Rather than consider artist’s books as highly refined visual objects, the idea of the press was to treat the medium as carriers of information that could be made inexpensively and circulate with all the other paperbacks. The press gave artists free reign to design all aspects of the books and some unusual works were developed as a result. In addition to Cha, Tanam Press released works by Jenny Holtzer, Richard Nonas, Reese Williams, Richard Prince, Werner Herzog, Laurie Anderson, and Susan Sontag, among others.
Initially, Dictee was not well known outside the avant-garde art community. In 1991, the Association for Asian American Studies held a symposium to discuss the importance of Dictee as a work embodying the unique history and experience of Asian Americans. Thereafter Third Women Press published Writing Self Writing Nation and subsequently resurrected Dictee from being out of print. Since then the scholarship on Dictee has helped establish Asian American studies departments across college campuses and Dictee is now read widely in courses involving feminist theory, post-modern theory, art history, and poetry and literature studies. Cha’s most famous work, many consider Dictee as her magnum opus. This work has been translated into 13 languages and inspired works in film, opera, play, artist’s book, music and performance.
In 1983, Donald Richie reviewed Dictee for The Japan Times, a piece entitled Transcendent Lives and wrote:
Beneath life, under the rounds of the days and the months, lies the stuff of life itself, the meaning. But it must be mined and time must be transcended . . . This diseuse is the speaker, the teller, because speaking, telling makes the past again real. The speaker is the shaman through whom the past is revealed, time lost is recaptured, through whom too we discover who we really are. The speaker is Theresa Hak Kyung Cha who, in her extraordinary last book, Dictee, constructed a multi-faceted narrative which reflects history, mirrored past lives, touched mythology, transcended time and cast a multi-linear present, pli selon pli, into infinity.
At the time of it’s publication, Cha described Dictee in a publicity flyer:
Dictee is a series of narratives in nine parts with each of the Nine Muses identifying each of the sections: Clio/History, Calliope/Epic Poetry, Urania/Astronomy, Melepomene/Tragedy, Erato/Love Poetry, Elitere/Lyric Poetry, Thalia/Comedy, Terpischore/Choral Dance, Polymania/Sacred Poetry. The narratives trace names, events and histories of existing persons, individuals personages in history and other fictitious characters embodied in nine female voices. Each of the sections are self-contained chapters, each an evocation of the past through speech, through the research of language that may open avenues to MEMORY, to the elemental process of recollection. Dictee simultaneously experiments with Time; Time which the characters experience (to take an example from the book) in Korean history, or in “mythological” Time. The grammar is applied in ways to establish a chronology which expands or condenses Time, or to make it constant, atonal/eternal.
In a Tanam Press circular, Cha provided another description:
Dictee is a cumulation of narratives in nine parts. A non-linear recording; tracing of names, events and biographies of nine female persons. The personages and their accounts are derived from non-fictional and mythological sources. Established as a constant throughout the book is the self-reference to the act of writing, the act of making speech; inherent in its function that which simultaneously subverts, silences the very act.