DICTEE’s Auto/Biographies: On Liveness & Family Photographs


Maddie Kim

Art by Richard Barnes

In this vital commemorative portfolio “The Muse: Dictee at 40,” edited by Porochista Khakpour and Jee Leong Koh, 12 writers, scholars, and artists respond to the continuing influence of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s groundbreaking work. Read Porochista Khakpour’s introduction here. For the full portfolio, click here.


Note: I use “Gwan-sun” when referring to Yu Gwan-sun in relation to my great-great-aunt, and “Yu” when referring to her presence in the text.

When I first turned to the back cover of the original 1982 Tanam Press edition of DICTEE, I was surprised to find a colonial-era photograph where one might have expected to see an author biography, a summary, blurbs. The photograph depicts two rows of young girls, students at Ewha Girls’ School in Seoul. Korean national heroine Yu Gwan-sun, who was killed at seventeen by the Japanese colonial police for her resistance activities, stands in the upper right corner. The same photograph also introduces the text’s earlier “CLIO/HISTORY” section, though it is cropped to include Yu’s face alone. As I flipped back to compare the two images, I realized I had also seen this photograph elsewhere, hanging in the narrow hallway of the Methodist church in Cheonan founded by my great-great-grandfather. The girl standing next to Yu is my great-great-aunt, Ahn Yena, Yu’s best friend.

I was a senior at Stanford writing about Cha’s work for my honors thesis. That year, I shuffled between Stanford and Berkeley to examine Cha’s archival materials, which are stored at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. I obsessively read and reread DICTEE, at first intimidated by it, then not quite sure what to make of it. My belated recognition of the photograph suddenly opened up a portal into the text that was simultaneously a portal out of it, tessellating text with life—Cha’s, Gwan-sun and Yena’s, and mine. Why hadn’t I recognized it before?


Part of the reason is that, prior to checking out the Tanam Press edition from the university library, I had been working with the University of California Press reprint from 2001. In this version, rather than appearing on the back cover, the photograph of Gwan-sun and Yena is tucked away behind the book’s last page. On its front cover floats an underexposed image of Cha, her face hovering ghostlike over the text. In her short biography on the back cover, the only information included besides the fact that Cha “was a poet, filmmaker, and artist” is that of her murder “by a stranger in New York City.” Printed again in 2009, the UC edition is the one most widely circulated today. It makes glaringly present what has been eerily excised from criticism on DICTEE and what, as Cathy Park Hong notes, imbues the text with “a haunted prophetic aura”: Cha’s violent rape and murder shortly after DICTEE’s 1982 publication by Joseph Sanza, the security guard at the Puck Building where Cha’s husband worked as a photographer.1

In Minor Feelings, Hong vitally argues that the gendered and racialized brutality of Cha’s death is inextricable from DICTEE, which is most frequently characterized as autobiography. But while Hong turns to a fuller unpacking of Cha’s murder as a means of demystifying her ghostliness, I want to follow a different biographical line—not one that turns away from Cha’s death entirely, but one that places her death in tension with the other figures suspended within and without the text. One in which history becomes familiar, familial, and undeniably alive.

From formalist and object-oriented ontology scholarship to more recent public writing about Cha’s work, critics often characterize DICTEE as a text populated with deadened, traumatic objects. Its fragmented sentences, swaths of white space, and inexplicable photographic inclusions brim with traces of an unreachable historical past overlaid, either implicitly or explicitly, by Cha’s murder. Here, I want to ask instead: What might DICTEE teach us not only about the devastation of trauma, but also about the irrefutable condition of liveness produced in its wake? What happens when dead things speak?

I first encountered the image of Gwan-sun and Yena in the summer of 2018 as part of a longer research project on my family history during the colonial period. My great-great-grandfather and Yena’s father, Ahn Chang-ho, was an early leader of the Methodist movement in Korea, and his church served as a hub of activist organizing and a site of refuge from the brutal arrests of the Japanese police. The ironies of one site rooted in the imperial project of Protestant evangelism serving as a source of resistance against another imperial project are immense. For now, all I can say is this: there was shelter and a will to survive. Chang-ho’s family housed Gwan-sun following the influential 1919 March First protest in Cheonan, which she helped to organize and lead, and for which she was ultimately killed.

By the project’s end, I had collected hundreds of pages of documents from libraries, local museums, and relatives in Seoul. After recognizing Yena on DICTEE’s back cover, I returned to these materials, searching urgently for other images of her—but I could not find any. However, one photograph emerged out of the photocopied stacks as tangential to Yena, so near to her that it is imbued with a sense of her spirit. It is a traditional portrait of the Ahn family: Chang-ho stands farthest from the camera, behind his son Cheol-young and his daughter Shin-ah, Yena’s younger siblings. For reasons unexplained by the photograph, Yena is not included; perhaps she was away at school. The two siblings stand guard-like at the sides of their sitting mother, whose white hanbok radiates from the center of the photograph.

1 Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Random House Publishing Group, 2020, 155.

Shin-ah, Yena’s sister and the girl on the right, is my mother’s grandmother. She appears slightly disconnected from the rest of her family, her expression one of vague duress. Her presence draws my mind to my mother, and to a story she had once told me about Yena. It is the only concrete recollection she has of her great-aunt. She had told Yena about how all her other relatives harped over how much she resembled one of her other aunts. “No, you don’t,” Yena had responded, “because you’re prettier than her.” The memory ends there. The only other thing my mother can recall from those visits is walking in the dark down the country road toward the house. The story lends a surprising playfulness and wryness to her girlhood severity as she appears in the photograph with Gwan-sun.

Then there is the mother’s expression, which is the part I remember most once I put the photograph aside. She is almost a spitting image of the Yena in the Ewha photograph: her eyes curving downward in a similar arc; her face even and ovular; her lips pursed with tension, as though about to speak. Her cheeks lack the youthful volume of Yena’s, which in turn lend a greater sharpness to her eyes. My own mother’s face haunts the photograph as well, through the face of Shin-ah, in whom I see even more vividly my own childhood face. The imaginary voice of Yena fills the photograph, too, the laughter I imagine must have followed her words to my mother. When I listen to it, it is deep and fluid and quietly self-assured, like someone speaking modestly about a great achievement.


In examining the Ahn family portrait, I do not experience what Roland Barthes identifies as the futility of reading external meaning into a photograph, which can offer nothing but pure presence. It is instead the opposite: the photograph becomes imbued with a temporal, physical, and sonic depth. Yena appears in the photograph as vividly as her mother does, as do my mother and me. I am reminded of Kevin Quashie, who writes of “the aesthetics of aliveness” as “the freeness of a black world where blackness can be of being.”2 In a similar vein, the radical possibilities of Cha’s text lie in its capacity not only to sharply critique the profound violences of imperialism and war, but also to open itself up toward such explorations of being, historical inheritance, and ongoingness.

The text thus brings forth photograph upon photograph, life upon life. I can’t help but think this is what Cha would have wanted—for DICTEE to serve as a site of dynamic, personal movement toward the unfurling of other narratives, other archives. Throughout DICTEE, it is precisely the flattening singularity of dominant narratives that Cha writes against. For narratives like these, such as those sprouted from the masculinist nationalism of the Korean independence movement, render Yu “exchangeable with any other heroine in history,” confined to the roles of “child revolutionary child patriot woman soldier deliverer of nation.”3

Even for those without such a personal connection to the text, the photograph on the back cover still enables the reader to engage in that same process of historical revival and transformation that I underwent. Through this photograph, one recognizes the existence of other possibilities—of Yu’s identity as a student, a classmate, a friend—as opposed to the singularly-fated martyrdom of her conventional mythologization. As Cha writes in her “Artist’s Statement,” “Introducing the performance aspect to projection is to present a possible alternative to the projected image that continues to remain flat and two-dimensional.”4 Cha, who would have overseen the publication of the Tanam Press edition, certainly placed the photograph on the back cover intentionally. Through it, the closure of the book is not really a closure, but an invitation to animate and dimensionalize Yu’s presence, to perform with the text by physically and imaginatively flipping back to a past moment of reading, and then revising that moment in the reader’s present.

During Yu’s imprisonment, she was placed in an isolated prison cell, where she was tortured by Japanese colonial police. Yu’s biography, like Cha’s, has been largely narrated around the brutality of her death. Cha refused to repeat such a pattern. While her writing scathingly critiques such narrativizations, it is the unexplained inclusion of the image that offers us the possibility of recognizing the shocking tenderness of Yu’s life; we might imagine her braiding her hair in the mornings, walking briskly with her friends to school.

It is telling that Cha preferred the graininess of this cropped image to Yu’s prison mugshot, which is the photograph most famously associated with her. I sense that Cha understood that the inclusion of such a photograph would render Yu a dead girl from the start. Throughout DICTEE, the ongoing force of history manifests itself in language, in the twisted physicality of the tongue. The inclusion of the mugshot, then, which captures Yu in the state of confinement that would ultimately lead to her murder, might even risk self-annihilation: the contagion of death spreading from image to text to author, from word to body.

From the text’s frontispiece, which displays a Korean forced laborer’s anguished words etched into a stone wall, to its centering of martyred women like Yu and Joan of Arc, DICTEE might initially appear to be a book obsessed with death. Hong argues that Cha herself was a subject of this ghostlike preoccupation, that she “was less interested in the sensuous presence of her body than its erasure.”5 However, I find the opposite to be true. Her touch radiates viscerally from the text’s pages in her collage-like placement of images, in the inclusion of her handwritten drafts riddled with lines crossed-out and written over. When I read DICTEE, I feel as though Cha is asking us to recognize that she did not simply write this text but rather made it, that she felt things and she moved them, that she existed. Just as in her treatment of Yu, she would not allow herself to be annihilated.

2 Quashie, Kevin. Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Being. Duke University Press, 2021, 10.
3 Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. DICTEE. 1st Calif. pbk. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, 30, 37.
4 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, “Artist’s Statement,” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive.
5 Hong, Minor Feelings, 176.


Last spring, I took a Korean studies seminar at Berkeley, where I am now a PhD student in English. The art historian Joan Kee came to visit one week, and together we discussed both the beauty and the danger of Cha’s memorialization in academic criticism and mainstream media outlets. How can we make room for other kinds of biography? Kee had asked.

In probing my own unexpected familial connection to the text, I have hoped to offer a partial response, however muddled. Cha’s death, as Hong has argued, cannot be viewed as extricable from her work. But neither can the various lives of Gwan-sun and Yena, nor can Cha’s own indisputable liveness. Of course, my reading of this liveness is also informed by my embodied experience as a Korean American studying art and literature at Berkeley, as Cha did. I am not a neutral observer. But then again, neither is any other reader who lives in the aftermath of imperialism and war, which is to say any reader at all.

When I read DICTEE, I move between text and life, and as I move through the dailiness of my life, I return again and again to the text. As the archivist at BAMPFA shared with me, Cha photocopied the images she used in her work at Krishna Copy Center on University Avenue. I pass by it every time I walk home from campus. In the evenings, a live jazz band plays standards in front of a nearby pizza joint. I think of these lines from DICTEE: “The present form face-to-face reveals the missing, the absent…But the remnant is the whole.”6 I am here, and so was she. Whatever existed in the past is no less susceptible than the living to change, motion, transformation. These days, as I approach my apartment, I’ll often eat a ripe blackberry straight off a bush. The sun sets in Berkeley the way it always does, singeing the tops of houses with a sharp, pink light.

6 Cha, DICTEE, 38.


Maddie Kim

Maddie Kim is a PhD student in English at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Journal, They Rise Like a Wave: An Anthology of Asian American Women Poets, and elsewhere.

Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes is a New York–based artist and photographer. For his series “Murmur,” which he produced over the course of two years, he photographed hundreds of thousands of migrating starlings in the skies above Rome as they coalesced in formations known as murmurations. Barnes’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions that include the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego; the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, MI; and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. His photographs are held in numerous public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum in New York; SFMOMA; LACMA; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Barnes was the recipient of the Rome Prize in 2005, and in 2006 his work was featured in the Whitney Biennial and awarded the Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Photography. His monograph, Animal Logic, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009.

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