Culture

The Go-Between

Exilee and Temps Morts: Selected Works BY Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. edited by Constance M. Lewallen. Berkeley: University of California Press. 290 pages. $28.

For a writer whose most visible work, Dictée, brims with saints and martyrdom and the possibilities of productive anguish, it’s fitting that Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s disparate uncollected writings—everything from artists’ books to typewritten disjecta membra—should give off the refulgent glow of relics set against plain white cloth. Since there will be no new writing from the late author, every word counts. Indeed, for an artist so committed to permutations of language—to literally mincing words, teasing meanings from amputations, one character at a time—every letter counts. Is a crossed-out line or seeming typo in fact some intimation of wordplay, language on the verge of creative unraveling?

Cha was only thirty-one when she was murdered in New York on November 5, 1982, shortly before the publication of Dictée. From the very first edition, then, everyone encountering Dictée has incorporated this grim fact into the reading experience. Over a quarter century after the book’s publication, that shadow has soaked into its very fibers. Every sentence is haunted by what is about to be.

Yet despite its somber tone, Dictée is not a tomb, but something that remains vividly alive: an explosion of high-wire techniques and wide-ranging influences, a feat of historical imagination, a multimedia display, an eloquent stutter. Recto and verso narratives interlock, the text of one page fitting erotically into the white space on the other. An anatomical illustration of the chest and throat is followed by a map of divided Korea. Language breaks down, starts up, transposes itself from French to English, becomes a deadpan grammar lesson. It ends near glossolalia. The epigraph is from Sappho, whose surviving work consists almost solely of fragments.

Those who have heeded Dictée’s complicated call will find much to savor in the writings in Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works: Cha’s adventurous spirit is present in even the least of these works, a breath of a bygone avant-garde that still hits its mark with astonishing frequency. But the collection isn’t only for completists and converts. Even readers unacquainted with Dictée will be rewarded with an unusual story—one as gripping as anything in Cha’s most famous and fully realized work.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Courtesy Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Courtesy Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation

Exilée and Temps Morts first appeared, together, in the anthology HOTEL, published in 1980 by the New York–based Tanam Press. Boxed before the ink was dry, the copies of HOTEL stuck together; nearly three decades later, separating one for further study requires tearing it from the pack, unavoidably damaging the glossy cover. A palimpsest of the contents printed on the back now mars the front; a bold H or L from the front finds itself transferred on the back. The book looks like the sides of those ancient buildings in New York that a nearby demolition will suddenly expose, on which traces of old painted advertisements linger, ghost texts. In other words, the perfect cover to house a work by Cha. 

Exilée, Temps Morts: these titles represent distinct works, but their adjoining suites in HOTEL suggest that we read the titles together. For Cha, the condition of exile is dead time (temps morts), however fertile it may prove for creative work (Joyce’s credo: silence, cunning, exile). As with Dictée, the title itself performs an initial alienation—French instead of English, which conjures Cha’s more primal exchange, English instead of Korean.

Thus one might expect a dry run of Dictée’s themes and methods, yet Exilée/Temps Morts (as we shall call it) is no mere sketch, but a fully formed triumph, an echo chamber aerated with a subtle stream of laughing gas. Page-spanning X’s appear in Exilée, but that’s as elaborate as the graphics get; everything else is text and white space. On this smaller canvas, without Dictée’s intricate architecture and visual apparatus, the words take center stage. Cha’s lines achieve a quiet grace—

meanwhile

it might be time for at least one light

in this three mat room

—or clatter into compelling repetitions and mutations—

take are taking took have taken have been taking

have had been taking had taken will take will have

been taking will have taken will have had taken.

There is more humor in Exilée/Temps Morts than in the entirety of Dictée: “she is asked with enthusiasm / who is being exiled that is the title what does / it mean who are you.” Even as the text turns on itself, Cha is able to play the interrogation for a laugh as well. One of several seemingly found texts is a business letter (beginning “Dear Colleague”), which gassily expounds on the concept of “future shock” before dissolving into a hilarious traffic jam of verb tenses. A menu (apparently from her trip, that year, to Japan) is reproduced with this header:

YESTERDAY WAS WEDNESDAY

TODAY IS THURSDAY

TOMORROW WILL BE FRIDAY

This language-lesson formulation, repeated across a week, accrues shades of homesickness and desperation, like hotly telegraphed panic signals of someone counting the days till freedom.

Time and again her words self-destruct, sentences dissolving to expose the very skeleton of language, the limit of sense: “noun verb adjective article” at one point, shards of a Dick and Jane primer at another. “[N]o other cure none other than words,” Cha writes. A cure for what? It is a curious cure, involving constant breakdown—but perhaps the speaker or writer is inoculating herself with the base elements of language against some bigger breakdown, looming off the mind’s horizon.

Excerpted from Exilee and Temps Morts: Selected Works by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, published by the University of California Press. © 2009 by The Regents of the University of California.