In 1982, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha took the subway from the Metropolitan Museum (where she worked) to a downtown gallery. She delivered photographs of hands for her upcoming show and then continued past the company that published her poetry book Dictee and the building where Hong would live more than two decades later. Cha was already sick of the corrupt New York art world, even though she was finally succeeding in it. She went to the Puck Building, where her husband Richard, a photographer, was working on a shoot.
This essay begins with what appears to be an ordinary day in the life of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Of course, this introduction takes on an entirely different meaning for readers familiar with Cha’s story. Hong emphasizes the varied connections between her own life and Cha’s: they were both Korean American women writers and artists living in New York, fed up with the art world, married to other artists, and so on. If they hadn’t been separated by a generation, they likely would have met.
Hong read Dictee for the first time in Myung Mi Kim’s class at Oberlin. In the book, Cha juxtaposes her mother’s life story with those of several other women, including Yu Guan Soon (whom Japanese soldiers tortured to death for protesting their occupation of Korea) and Joan of Arc. The book is a series of poems, essays, memories, stage directions, images, and found documents, and Cha does not tell the reader how to connect them. Indeed, unlike many Asian American writers, Cha does not insist on translating everything into English. To Hong, this makes the book far more authentic and relatable.
Hong suggests that Cha’s experiments with language, content, and genre capture the loss and alienation (or the minor feelings) that are so central to many Korean Americans’ experiences. Just like Hong hopes to do in her own writing, Cha rejects the linguistic conventions imposed on her by U.S. literary culture. Similarly, she also explores the connections between history and the present, personal feelings and political life, ancestors and descendants, and Korea and the West.
On Cha’s way into the Puck Building, a security guard (Joseph Sanza) raped and murdered her. This fact became inseparable from her work—especially since it was about “young women who died violent deaths.” But few critics discuss her death in much detail. There are no reliable statistics on violence against Asian American women, and within many Asian cultures, silence and denial about such violence is the norm. Unlike Sylvia Plath, whose readers have debated her life and death for generations, Cha’s readers have seldom investigated hers.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s horrific fate will surprise some readers and be familiar to others. But Hong’s goal in this essay is to give it due consideration by reinterpreting it. She knows that this risks disrespect and sensationalism, but she also thinks that it can illuminate how violence leaves a lasting mark on Asian American women’s consciousness. In other words, Hong brings Cha’s life story to the foreground not because she enjoys prying into strangers’ trauma, but because she thinks that U.S. culture has wrongly ignored that trauma.
In one of Cha’s early videos, she translates from French in her “ethereal and serene” voice; another, entitled Permutations, shows different images of her sister Bernadette’s face, wearing a neutral expression that could mean anything.
Hong mentions Permutations for several reasons. It offers readers another window into Cha’s life and work, and it sets up this essay’s powerful concluding passage. It also highlights how repetition deprives things of their meaning, which speaks to the racist stereotype that Asian Americans are identical and interchangeable.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha grew up in a village near Busan, where her parents had fled from Seoul during the Korean War, and then in San Francisco, where she started winning poetry contests in middle school—after just two years of learning English. Her mother supported her art, but her father did not. She then studied art and literature at Berkeley, focusing on the French avant-garde.
Hong leaves her readers to decide what to make of the clear parallels between her own childhood and Cha’s. On the one hand, she has emphasized how personal experience inevitably shapes artists’ voices, which shapes their art—particularly when it involves questions of race and belonging. But, on the other, she has also criticized the way that artists of color are tokenized and reduced to their biographies. For instance, many readers might assume that Hong and Cha’s beliefs, personalities, poetry, family lives, and so on are naturally similar just because they’re both Korean American women who grew up in California. Of course, Hong will grapple with this tension throughout the rest of this essay, as she asks what role Cha’s biography should play in the critical analysis of her work.
Dictee was ignored for a decade after Cha’s death, but it has since become a staple of Asian American literature courses. Cha’s art has also reached a worldwide audience. Hong teaches her students to treat the words in Dictee like those of a language they’re just learning. Cha uses short, broken sentences to convey “the immigrant’s discomfort with English” and mimic the linguistic effects of Japanese, American, and Soviet colonialism in Korea. Critics often declare that Dictee breaks the norms of autobiographical writing by rejecting the idea of a single authorial voice. But, upon reading the book, Cha’s mother became convinced that Cha was writing specifically to her.
In her previous essays, Hong has discussed her vision of Asian American literature’s goals—such as faithfully capturing individual experience without losing sight of Asian Americans’ diversity and complex position within the U.S. racial hierarchy. She has also identified many of the strategies that she believes writers can use to achieve these goals—like engaging history, giving voice to minor feelings, embracing “bad English,” and “speaking about” different figures and cultures instead of “speaking for” them. Here, she celebrates Cha’s work for employing these literary strategies—in fact, as she will explain shortly, she actually learned many of them from Cha. The contrast between critics’ interpretations of Dictee and Cha’s mother’s interpretation suggests that the book is so powerful because of its hybrid form. Dictee is simultaneously personal and anonymous, comfortable in language (generally) but not in any (specific) language. Its version of the immigrant experience isn’t just being caught between two different cultures, but rather suffering the imposition of a series of different cultures through violence and imperialism.
Hong contacts curators and scholars with questions about Cha’s death, but they reply that they prefer to focus on Cha’s work. Of course, Hong agrees that critics shouldn’t let Cha’s death overshadow her life. But she still finds it disturbing that nobody has ever fully told Cha’s story. Cha’s writing constantly uses silence to capture the horrors of historical violence, but silence can also easily give way to forgetting.
Hong returns to the relationship between biography and literature. While she fully understands critics’ desire to respect Cha’s family and not distract from her work, she also suspects that some might be motivated by squeamishness or fear. Perhaps they are afraid of admitting that history is repeating itself—and that Cha identified the cycle of violence that went on to destroy her. Perhaps Cha would want others to chronicle the violence she suffered, just as she chronicled the violence that others did. But Hong would not dare speak for her. Still, Hong believes that carefully saying something about Cha’s death—even if it means speculating, making mistakes, or failing to reach conclusions—is better than remaining silent about it.
Joseph Sanza, Cha’s murderer, had raped many other women before. But he only killed Cha—probably because she had met him several times before at the Puck Building and thus might have been able to identify him after he raped her. He raped her in the sub-basement, beat and strangled her to death, then rolled her body up in a rug and dumped it in a nearby parking lot. (Hong wonders how specific to get—at what point does more detail start to dehumanize Cha?) Sanza stole Cha’s wedding ring, took a bus to Florida, and raped two more women. The police searched the Puck Building for weeks but didn’t find the crime scene—Cha’s own brothers did.
The details of Cha’s death are beyond horrifying. They demonstrate how sex, violence, and identity are inextricably linked for many Asian American women, as well as how official institutions (like the police) often ignore their needs. But, in recounting it, Hong remains torn between two competing impulses. First, she wants to tell Cha’s story in the public record faithfully and completely. But second, she also wants to ensure that the public remembers Cha’s humanity—that they view her as a full person, with agency and a complex life, and not just the tragic victim of a terrible crime.
Hong interviews Cha’s brother John, who wrote a book about the murder (The Rite of Truth). In Dictee, Cha wrote about how her mother wouldn’t let John participate in the protests against U.S.-backed Korean dictator Syngman Rhee in 1960. Hong is relieved that Cha’s family is willing to discuss the murder.
John shows Hong that her interest in Cha’s death is welcome, and that she’s right to view academics’ reluctance to discuss it as a serious oversight. Once it’s available in English, John’s book will provide another valuable resource to readers and scholars who want to situate Cha’s work in the context of her life and death.
It took three trials for a jury to convict Joseph Sanza. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, a friend whom Cha was supposed to meet the night of her murder, tells Hong how the scratch marks on Sanza’s face and arms became important evidence in the trial. When a student once tried to connect Cha’s work to her “passivity as a rape victim,” Flitterman-Lewis brought up the scratch marks, which prove that “she fought back.” On the night of the murder, Flitterman-Lewis saw Dictee on display at St. Mark’s Bookshop—a store Hong once frequented, and where she once rejoiced in seeing her own book on display.
Flitterman-Lewis’s argument with the student illustrates Hong’s point about the dangers of focusing on Cha’s death. Specifically, doing so risks painting Cha as a passive object who is important because of what was done to her, rather than an active subject who is important because of what she did. Just like writing about Asian Americans risks reinforcing stereotypes, then, writing about Cha risks reinforcing the exact same trends that she tried to write against in Dictee. But these risks are not a reason to ignore Cha’s life and work—just to write about them carefully.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s work has deeply influenced Hong ever since Myung Mi Kim introduced her to it. And this essay is Hong’s way of “trying to pay proper tribute” to Cha. But Hong recognizes that, in the past, she would have disagreed with what she’s doing now: narrating Cha’s death in a straightforward form that Cha would never use, treating it as an “answer key” for interpreting Dictee, and emphasizing her personal connections to Cha. Hong’s father grew up in Busan as a refugee at the same time as Cha; her uncle was in the protest John wanted to join, and her grandfather was so worried that he had a heart attack and died.
Just like the essay about Erin and Helen, this essay raises important ethical questions about how to write about (or “speak nearby”) other people’s stories when they don’t (or can’t) give their consent. By pointing out how her feelings about the issue have changed over time, Hong emphasizes that she does not pretend to know for sure that she is doing more good than harm. But she certainly thinks that she is: not only can she “pay proper tribute” to Cha (and enable others to do the same), but she also wants to show how Cha’s work can serve as a model for Asian American literature, illuminate her own life experiences, and inspire young people to experiment with writing about their own.
Hong wonders why other critics haven’t written about Cha’s death—perhaps it’s because the word “rape” is so powerful that readers either get stuck on it (and overlook Cha’s work) or simply stop reading.
Hong asks about the proper relationship between biography and art, particularly when both are so powerful. Is it possible to consider Cha’s life and work together, or does the seriousness of one inevitably overwhelm the seriousness of the other?
Most supposed images of Cha online are actually pictures of her sister Bernadette, from Permutations. Of course, Asian women are often mistaken for one another. Cha even wrote a poem about being called “Yoko Ono,” a common experience in her era. When Asian women are desired at all, it’s often as part of a sexual fetish. Many learn to assume that all interest in them is really perversion. Hong recalls the poet Bhanu Kapil’s question: “What is the shape of your body?” For Hong, this question evokes shame. What would it mean to Cha, who wrote about women’s bodies being hidden and destroyed? The media paid no attention to her death; Sandy Flitterman-Lewis thinks that it would have if she were white. Hong agrees.
The confusion between Cha and her sister only underlines the point of Permutations: Asian American women are invisible in U.S. culture in part because they are treated as interchangeable versions of each other. Meanwhile, Bhanu Kapil’s question is so profound because it hands women of color control over defining their own bodies—which, in popular culture, are too often defined exclusively from white men’s perspective, as sexualized objects. Flitterman-Lewis’s comment about the media response to Cha’s death shows how these two norms work together to erode the public’s empathy for Asian American women like Cha and, ultimately, divert interest away from crimes like her murder.
After Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s death, her mother dreamed about the number 710 and her sister Bernadette about the number seven, three times. Her brothers found the sub-basement where she was killed when they came across a stairway with the numbers 710, 711, and 713 painted on it. They saw her bloodied gloves, which seemed inflated—and which John called “her final art piece.” This happened on the same day that the gallery was showing Cha’s final photography exhibit—her photographs of hands.
Much like the resemblance between Cha’s work and her death, the connection between Cha’s gloves and her exhibit is too striking not to mention. Yet Hong deliberately refrains from declaring what it means—instead, she prefers to let Cha’s family members speak (and her readers decide) for themselves. Still, it’s worth exploring some of the options. Perhaps the juxtaposition of Cha’s empty glove with her gallery full of images of other people’s hands could represent the way that she has left her mark on the world even after her death. Or perhaps it could suggest that her life and work have ceased to be just her own and taken on a broader social meaning.
In his book, John describes a childhood photo of him and his siblings. Cha is frowning and wearing an ugly, boxy haircut. Years later, in Permutations, Cha would add one frame of her own portrait into the video of her sister Bernadette.
The first picture represents an outsider’s view of Cha, posed in a way that doesn’t represent her true self, while the second represents Cha taking active control of her own image through art. Of course, the first photo also represents the place of family in Cha’s life, work, and legacy. Similarly, the easy-to-miss frame of Cha in Permutations is a comment on both the way that Asian American women are sometimes viewed as interchangeable and the way that artists insert themselves and their lives into their work. Together, they suggest that Cha herself is too often invisible or forgotten, even in discussions about her work.