Beyond the Boundary Between Literature and Visual Art

Beyond the Boundary Between Literature and Visual Art


Analysis of Visual Elements in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictee tells nine stories of several women: Cha’s mother and Korean female activists who faced silencing during the Japanese oppression of Korea, and Greek muses. By telling these stories, Cha dictates and records the memories of the oppression for the silenced Koreans. Dictee is Cha’s deliberate attempt to break the silence imposed on Koreans during the oppression and revive their voices in the present. It is also Cha’s requiem for Korea, her mother country that she lost from her own exile during the oppression. While Dictee is a work of literature, it also involves visual elements including photography and illustrations. Visual storytelling and communication by witnessing seem to have a special importance for Cha in writing the history of Japanese oppression. When the Japanese banned the Korean language, sight was the only tool of protest left for the Korean people. Cha writes, “They [had] not forbidden sight to [Korean people’s] eyes. You see. You are made to see…Everyone who has seen, sees farther. Even farther than allowed.”1 Careful seeing allows one to witness or sense things deeper than the surface. Cha explores this power of sight through her experimentation with visual elements in Dictee. In this essay, I will analyze her use of visual art in two ways: the use of visual art, specifically photography, in recording history, and the use of visual art as a way to create a deeper literary expression. 

Cha starts Dictee with a monochrome photograph of Hangul letters engraved on a black background with white sand-like texture. On the right side of the letter, there is a rough silhouette of a pillar-like object. There are nineteen Hangul letters aligned vertically, but the reader of Dictee does not necessarily understand Korean. In fact, Dictee is a work of literature written primarily in English. Yet, this photograph of Hangul letters plays a crucial role in setting up the book, which is to inform the reader that the book discusses the raw, unfiltered experience of Korean people’s struggles during the Japanese oppression. Two pages after this photograph, Cha inserts a quote from a female Ancient Greek poet, Sappho: “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.”2 While Cha gives a spectacular English and French translation of Korean people’s experiences during the oppression, the ultimate, untranslated form of Korean people’s voices is in Korean. If the letters in this photograph were carved during the oppression, which I suspect them most likely to be, this photograph is a raw documentation of the forgotten voices from the oppression that Cha attempts to resurrect throughout Dictee. Although this photograph provides minimal information, Cha is already able to communicate the memory of oppression on the first page of the book. Yet still, this photograph is for the most part a negative in which most of the content is obscured by the poor mimeographic quality. It is very hard to figure out what is in the background of the Korean letters. The limited information offered by this photograph points to the limitation of photographic documentations of history. One’s photograph can only frame one piece of the entire historical narrative. While some memories are recorded, memories that are left uncaptured gradually disappear in oblivion. These capabilities and restraints of photographic historical documentation are further explored in the chapter “Clio History.” In “Clio History,” Cha juxtaposes her prose about the memorialization of history with a monochromatic photograph of a scene from a Japanese execution of Korean activists. Here, while photography is a powerful instrument that allows history to be looked back into, Cha also questions its authenticity. In her prose, Cha writes that for the martyrs who died during the oppression, “their image, the memory of them is not given to deterioration unlike the captured image.”3 The memory of the martyrs does not deteriorate because they are memorialized to later generations. Photographs could be the medium of remembering the martyrs, similar to how my great-grandparents’ photographs allow me to know them although I have never met them. For the martyrs pictured in the photograph of the execution scene, their contribution to Korean history is remembered because this photograph records their sacrifices. When “Time stops” for martyrs, and their fight halts, turning into “the dy-ing” memory of the past, photographic records of their struggles enable stopping this decay of memory to preserve it for the future.4 Photographs are valuable proof of the past. In “Clio History,” by providing the proof of the martyrs’ sacrifice with the photograph of the execution, Cha brings the historical event of the oppression into closer proximity with her telling of its memory. 

While photography enables history to be recorded, Cha also questions the authenticity of the story captured by photographs. She describes that captured images “extracts from the soul precisely by reproducing, multiplying itself.”5 In other words, photography could engage in downgrading historical memory. As the media theorist Walter Benjamin suggested, the reproductive ability of photographs could weaken the specificity of events.6 The reproductive capability of photographs enables a wider distribution of historical memory. However, this multiplication of historical memory simultaneously cheapens the “weight” of specific events. The aesthetic qualities of photographs are another factor that might downgrade historical memories by diminishing the messages that are intended to communicate. The famous photographer Sabastiao Salgado said, “beautifying human tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity towards the experience they reveal.”7 The sheer aesthetics of a photograph can weaken the message. Thus, photographic historical documentation has inevitable limitations and risks. 

In addition to exploration of the relationship between memory and photography, Cha also explores the use of visual art as a tool for an artistic expression beyond the boundary of literature. In the “Urania Astronomy” chapter, Cha juxtaposes a poem about silence and an illustrated diagram of the human air passages. This illustration is an enhancer of the emotional depth conveyed by the poem. The poem expresses the suppression of sound in a visceral tone. It reads: “the sounds that move at a time stops. Starts again. Exceptions stops and starts again all but exceptions. Stop. Start. Starts.”8 By repeating the words “stop” and “start” and punctuating them with periods to create staccato-like pauses, Cha quite literally makes the poem “stutter.”9 Cha continues: “Contractions. Noise. Semblance of noise. Broken speech. One to one. At a time.”10 Again, with the staccato pauses, the poem reproduces suppressed “broken speech.” Cha also turns this stuttering physical as she describes the movement of larynx muscles such as “contraction,” “swallows,” and “inhales.”11 The level of physicality of silence is further intensified by the diagram next to it. By showing a detailed diagram of a universal human body structure, Cha allows the reader to imagine themselves in suppressed speech. The diagram of closed vocal folds also evokes a sense of suffocation and choking. The poem combined with the diagram even allows the reader to feel the frustration of being silenced. With this expression beyond the boundary between visual and verbal languages, Cha links the oppressed Korean people and the reader at a muscular level, connecting them extremely close together. 

Cha also plays with page layout. In the “Erato Love Poetry” chapter, on each facing page, Cha places some paragraphs on the left page and some on the right, leaving blocks of white negative spaces on each page. Combined with the story of the woman yearning for her unfaithful husband, these negative spaces articulate Cha’s desire for her lost home. In her prose, Cha again uses staccato pauses, but in this case, to express the emptiness of loving things that are nonexistent. She writes: “She forgets. She tries to forget. For the moment. For the duration of these moments.”12 There is a Japanese term that accurately describes these pauses between sentences. The word ma () stands for a sense of pause, time, emptiness, and space between things such as actions and sounds. Cha creates both sonic and visual ma in her prose through frequent punctuations. The visual ma is further magnified by the ma made by the negative spaces on the pages, intensifying the portrayed emptiness and desire. By embedding many literary and visual ma, the conveyed emptiness and desire are boosted into another level. Similarly to the diagram in the “Urania Astronomy” chapter, Cha’s expression beyond the boundary between visual and verbal languages ultimately enables a deeper engagement with her memory of exile for the reader and thereby brings the reader into a greater proximity with history. 

In this essay, I explored two ways in which visual art can be used: visual art as a tool for historical documentation and as an artistic expression that enhances literary expression. One of my observations was that inevitable restraints and limitations arise when visual art is used for historical documentation. However, these limitations could be overcome when visual historical documents are combined with documents of other mediums including written documents. For example, with the photograph of an execution in the “Clio History” chapter, while the photograph itself only offers one piece of the entire history of oppression, and it also has a risk of downgrading specificity of the event and weakening the message, these limitations are covered by Cha’s short stories and poems to provide multiple dimensions to the story of this memory. Furthermore, all of the photographs, illustrations, and the white spaces on pages added greater depth to Dictee’s story and heighten readers’ engagement. Visual art, whether as a historical document or as a tool of artistic expression, becomes a truly powerful storytelling instrument when it is combined with other media. Combining multiple modes of storytelling expands their collective potential. In Dictee, visual elements such as photographic records, illustrations, and Cha’s unique page layout, and literal texts mutually increase the physicality of the memories told by each other. With this expanded mode of storytelling, Cha allows the historical memory of Japanese oppression of Korea to be dictated and restored at a greater sharpness and resolution. 

  1. Theresa H. K. Cha, Dictee, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022), 47.
  2. Cha, Dictee.
  3. Cha, Dictee, 37.
  4. Cha, Dictee, 37.
  5. Cha, Dictee, 37.
  6. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. Harry Zhou (Schocken Books, 1969).
  7. Ingrid Sischy, “The Good Intentions,” New Yorker, September 9, 1991, 89.
  8. Cha, Dictee, 75.
  9. Cha, Dictee, 75.
  10. Cha, Dictee, 75.
  11. Cha, Dictee, 75.
  12. Cha, Dictee, 113.
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