Michelle Chen

Art by Richard Barnes
Other images courtesy of the author

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.


As the Moonbus emerges from the black sky straight towards the audience, as if a star from one of the nearby galaxies has taken flight, it soars overhead—

cut to it flying back into the atmosphere over barren lunar landscapes in monochrome gradients, before focusing on the technicolor control room filled with human crew from the outside as it drifts forward. Rapid—

cuts show the spacecraft’s path from multiple angles and distances. They symbolize the sweeping and scattered nature of information gained beyond illusions of completion. The technological advancement represented by the spacecraft is shown through its rounded corners and elegant appearance—even as its dusty metal exterior showcases a practicality and realism behind space exploration. As the eerie notes of “Lux Aeterna” continue to thrum, we glimpse the interior control panel for the first time, bathed in red light with two men at the gadgets, a hand poised on a flickering, data-gathering LED screen as the lunar landscape rolls below through two windows, showing nothing of note.


The Asian characters freeze in robotic illumination. I was convinced their bodies held the solitude of mists, or condemned apartments. This is what I remember most. An astronomy club field trip. To Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium. At a 43-acre estate named Eagle’s Nest. I’m turning away from the Chinese girls sitting on the hill, blue sea smoothing out echoes past the banisters. Glistening white skin around the picnic table, symmetrical as a diamond beneath their elbows as they eat peacefully. Sadness pierces. Turn—

away from my people. Toward the hike alone. Dirt path with planets ticked in proportional distances from one another. Somewhere past Venus, or Mars, I come across a collegiate posse—a Pakistani girl, then a white guy, and a Hispanic-looking young woman from Hawaii with a talent for mountain-scrambling up the most difficult trails. I don’t believe in God. Or gods. The effigies, they burned. I don’t have their taste for risky business. I am Chinese. Or am I not?

Dowsing rod of a soul.

A vision of another life. Alternate cycle of planetary rotation. Extruded fog sublimating into artificial sound. Kitchen radio split in two, wires racing beneath a spiraling chandelier of noise. Dining table planked with sandalwood. Studded flavors budding until the very end. They waft on the tongue. Like that of a sommelier. The tongue goes unspoken apart from its original intention. Taste. Suds floating like lotus seeds through a hotel swimming pool.


The craft continues in the same direction over a much larger, bright white moon before—

cutting between several distance- and close-up perspectives that illuminate the crew’s isolation in the universe during space travel. The astronauts are revealed to be having lunch at the back of the spacecraft underneath gray light that juxtaposes the red-lit control room. They discuss the “intentionally buried” monolith they are looking for while flipping through data printouts of visuals, coordinates, and geographic elevations. The normalcy of their interactions showcases the science fiction genre’s capabilities of grounding what has historically been purely imaginative, bringing the film closer to realism.


The sun and its opposite: switch to the ends of the earth. All time swimming in your blood. You amplify—Yes ( ) No ( ).

Toward the direction of death. Bright air, black dawn. Wreath of the mind. Blooms. Footie. Foot game. The boardwalk smooth as an ear beneath you. Catch you beneath the table. Ocean breeze. Read words. The simplicity of the rondel form belies the sophistication of your piece, like tin foil crinkling in the dark. The shore splits along your heel. Foot divides into equal countries. Their partitions wrinkle in hesitant waves.

Do you find hotels appalling? The singed body of her—the same sunken beneath the belly of a bathtub or strangled in a hotel lobby of happiness. You cut through the fabric, put on a play without characters.


Ray Ferrier clambers from his ex-wife’s house’s boiler room into the industrial remains of suburban New Jersey after the tripods’ initial attack, and emerges into a radiant montage of destruction and desolation, broken houses and steel. This morning, he passes by a flaming turbine engine and a blackened plane, among pillars of steam and wreckage, to find a deaf survivor and—

a reporter who comments, “When they flash that thing, everything lights up like Hiroshima” before showing him footage of the tripods’ destruction across the world. As the machines have been buried long ago in the American homeland, aliens ride lightning down into them in an act of possession. Previously, an electric storm has descended upon the city, where electromagnetic pulses disable all magnetic devices in the area and put a halt to the functions of daily human life and all semblance of normalcy—a stilled watch, dysfunctional house amenities, burnt-out car engines, lights and all communication down. By demonstrating the effects of a force strong enough to penetrate the very infrastructure of American life on the largely white cast, colonialism’s effects are magnified and the power dynamics reversed back onto its historical perpetrators in this modern-day film revival.


Underneath the blasted earth. Static falls. Clouds curl like the shores of Singapore, the beaches of Long Island. My near namesakes. Watch animals. As with how he in La Jetée watches his own death. Watches his own comet’s tail through time, vanishing by the minute.

Mother I was born in this land I will not die in this land. Transportation machine. An hour-long drive outside of Beijing is a mountain of funerals. The tall hills are crowded. Crowded with the sod of the immortal. Tombstones in the thousands, grander than those in America. Larger. Statues and statuettes of mythical beasts line the corridors. The corridors of death. Kowtow. Kowtow. Kowtow. My marble globe.

Transportation machine. Graduation party next door in Queens, NY. A tick on the ruler of life. One hop this time. Right foot two stomps. Left foot two stomps. Slide to the left. Slide to the right. Criss cross. Criss cross. Cha cha real smooth. The language, the language!

You have chosen to submit your exam.
1 question answered.
If you end your exam now, you lose the chance to answer all unanswered questions.
You left 3 questions unanswered:

1. Do you think you are living your life like a character in La Jetée? Yes ( ) No ( )

2. Do you think you are living your life like a character in Dictee? Yes ( ) No ( )

3. Rank from 1–4 (1 being your most preferred choice) your favorite science fictional universe for this piece.

( ) La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker (1962)
( ) War of the Worlds, dir. Steven Spielberg (2005)
( ) 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968)
( ) Your Transmigratory Transcontinental Transmigration, dir. you (                                 )

You left 0 questions flagged:

If you are ready, type “I UNDERSTAND” and click Submit My Exam

Singapore has lost it to the British, then Japanese.


Transportation machine. Manhattan. Neon fox at a poké bowl place the night of my mother’s mother’s death. Fox and chrysanthemum sliding along a black chain.

I will be thirty-one. Thirty-one she speaks to me
Thirty-one years old in the
O-O-Os of collective sorrow

Flayed miracle, the bones of the throat
Taken out into rattles and poured onto concrete
Mesa of New York City, pathway of rings led by chains
One around each knuckle.
Around each vocal chord
One of sixteen
In eight humans.
The È-È-Ès.

On November 5, 1982, Cha’s body was discovered
around 7:15 p.m. in a parking lot on Elizabeth
Street in Soho.

Court records noted she had multiple
lacerations to the back
of her head
and that her
pants and
were around
her knees.

Detectives pieced together Cha’s final hours
with help from Barnes. He’d last
seen her at home in the morning
when she left for work
at the Metropolitan Museum
on the Upper
East Side.

She was wearing a beret, gloves,
and a leather coat, and was carrying
a red bag from the Met.
Cha’s hat and gloves
were not in the lot
where her body
was found.

Detectives determined that Cha left
work at the museum around 3 p.m.
and made her way to Artists
Space in Soho, where she was
having an upcoming show.

A photographer told
investigators that Cha
left the gallery
before sunset
around 4:30 p.m. 1


Our two pillars education and safety education and safety education and safety slip out beneath the gargle and spill top over bottom to the very center of the planet.


1 Dziemianowicz, Joe, “Historic NYC Building Becomes Murder Scene For Artist On Verge Of A Career Breakthrough,” Oxygen, February 12, 2022.

In 1970, Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori published an article on what he coined the “uncanny valley,” or his theory of human reactions to objects that are humanistic.

For example, a toy robot will vaguely represent a human, but is not frightening because they are not made to look realistic. The toy robot retains features that make it undeniably inhuman. However, something like a prosthetic hand or a corpse may bring about a feeling of unease to a healthy human being, since they resemble something human but are not, or no longer, human.

It is only natural for people to ostracize that which can destroy them; therefore, the crux of the uncanny valley lies in the innate fear of human mortality.2

2 Shi, Vicky, "Where is the Asian Body? The Problem of Erasure in Western Visual Culture," Thesis Submitted to the Department of Visual Studies at University of Pennsylvania, 2021.

This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene, whose meaning he would not grasp until much later, took place on the great jetty at Orly, a few years before the start of the Third World War.

On Sundays, parents bring their children to watch the planes... Of this Sunday, the child of this story would remember the frozen sun, the scene at the end of the jetty. Moments to remember are just like other moments. They are only made memorable by the scars they leave. The face he had seen was to be the only peacetime image to survive the war. Had he really seen it? Or had he invented the tender gesture to shield him from the madness to come? The sudden noise, the woman’s gesture, the crumpling body, the cries of the crowd. Later, he knew he had seen a man die.

And sometime later, Paris was destroyed. Many died. Some thought they had won. Others were taken prisoner. The survivors settled underground. Above ground, Paris and no doubt most of the world was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity. The victors stood guard over an empire of rats. The prisoners were subjected to experiments apparently of great concern to the experimenters. Afterwards, the latter were disappointed--the others were dead, or went mad.

One day, from among the prisoners, they selected the man whose story this is. He had heard about the Director. He expected to meet the mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein. Instead, he found a gentle man who calmly explained that the human race was cut off from space, and the only hope for survival lay in time, a hole in time through which to send food, energy, supplies. The aim of the experiments was to send an emissary into time to summon the past and future to the aid of the present. But the mind balked at the idea. To awaken in another age was to be born again, fully grown. The shock was too great. So, having failed repeatedly, the experimenters began selecting subjects given to strong mental images. Having a memory of a certain time, they might be able to reinhabit it. This man was chosen because of his obsession with an image from the past.

At first he is simply ejected from the present and its certainties. They begin again. He does not die. He does not go mad. He suffers. They continue. On the tenth day, images begin to appear, like confessions. A morning in peacetime. A bedroom in peacetime--a real bedroom, real children, real birds, real cats, real graves.

On the sixteenth day, he is on the jetty. Empty. Sometimes he recaptures a happy day, but different; a happy face, but different; ruins; a girl who might be the one he seeks. He passes her on the jetty. She smiles at him from an automobile. Other images appear, merge, in that museum which is, perhaps, his memory.

On the thirtieth day, the meeting takes place. He is sure he recognizes her. It is the only thing he is sure of in this world whose richness amazes him. Fabulous materials everywhere—glass, plastic, velvet. When he recovers from his trance, the woman is gone.

The experimenters tighten their controls and send him back on the trail. Time flows by again, the moment returns. This time, he is close to her, speaks to her. She welcomes him without surprise. They are without plans, without memories. Time builds up around them, their only landmarks the flavor of the moment and the markings on the walls. Later, they are in a garden. He remembers that there once were gardens. She asks about his medallion--the dog tags he wore in the war which is yet to come. He invents an explanation. They stop at a tree trunk, covered with historic dates. She mentions an unknown name. As in a dream, he points beyond the tree and hears himself saying "that is where I come from," and he falls back, exhausted.

Another wave of time washes over him, the result of another injection perhaps. This time she is asleep in the sun. He thinks that, in the time it has taken him to return to her world, she may have died. She awakens, and again he talks to her. The truth being too fantastic to believe, he tells only the essentials--a distant country, a long journey. She listens, not mocking him. Is it still the same day? He no longer knows. During endless walks they will take, a deep unspoken trust will grow between them, until he senses before them a wall.

This was the first of a series of experiments in which he would meet her at different times. Sometimes he finds her in front of their markings. She welcomes him happily. She calls him her ghost. One day she seems frightened. Another day she leans toward him. He is never sure whether he seeks her out or is sent, whether he invents or dreams.

On about the fiftieth day, they meet in a museum filled with eternal creatures. By now, the technique has been perfected. Aimed at a given moment in time, he can live there and move about freely. She too seems used to it. She accepts the behavior of this visitor who comes and goes, exists, speaks, laughs with her, is silent, listens, disappears.

Back once more in the laboratory, he sensed a change. The camp Director was there. From the conversation he gathered that after the success of his trips into the past they want him to go into the future. Excited by this idea, he did not realize that the meeting in the museum had been the last.

The future was better protected than the past. After even more exhausting efforts, he made contact with the world of the future--a world transformed; Paris rebuilt; then a thousand unknown avenues. Other men awaited him. Clearly they rejected his leftovers from another age. He recited his lesson: since mankind had survived, surely it could not deny assistance to its own past. This sophism was accepted as Destiny in disguise. He was given a power supply strong enough to start the world's industry, then again the doors to the future closed.

Soon after his return, he was sent to another part of the camp. He knew they would not spare him. He had been a tool in their hands. His childhood memory had been the bait. He had played his part, and now they would liquidate him, together with his memory of a time twice-lived. Then, deep within him, he received a message from the men of the future. They too travelled in time, more easily. They invite him into their world. But he asked for something else. Rejecting their tranquilised future, he asked that they return him to the world of his childhood, and the woman who perhaps awaited him.

Back on the jetty at Orly, on this hot Sunday before the war, where he could now stay, he realized that the child he had once been must be there too, watching the planes. But first he looked for the woman's face, at the end of the jetty. He ran towards her. But when he saw the man from the underground camp he realized that one cannot escape time, and that this haunted moment, given him to see as a child, was the moment of his own death.



3 “The Script of Chris Marker’s La Jetée,” Purdue University, ENGL 696: Learning Theory Through Pop Culture Class Website, 2016.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen was born in Singapore and spent her early years in China before immigrating to New York City at the age of four. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bat City Review, Rattle, and elsewhere, and she has attended Girls in Icy Fjords, the Juniper Institute for Young Writers, and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio with the support of the National Society of Arts and Letters. She is currently a senior at Stony Brook University.

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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