Theresa Ha Kyung Cha
photo by Camille Roy
When Kathleen Fraser asked if I could say something about the work of Theresa Ha Kyung Cha for an evening discussion of How(ever), I said I simply didn’t have time to do this astonishing work justice. To which Kathleen replied, “Please allow yourself to recall from your heart any memory of how you came to Cha’s work and why it was important to you.” This struck me as such an unusual and generous request and so in keeping with Kathleen’s work as a feminist and as an editor, that I couldn’t say no. So, briefly from the heart…
I was first introduced to How(ever) and subsequently to Cha’s work when I was assisting Margy Sloan in putting together her anthology Moving Borders; 30 years of Innovative Writing By Women (Talisman House,1997). Still in my twenties, access to all of the back-issues of How(ever) (and the women included in the anthology) was wildly exciting and helped plant the seed for the launch of Tripwire; a journal of poetics with David Buuck, a year or so later.
Around the same time, I encountered Cha more formally in Myung Mi Kim’s class “The Work of Silence” at SFSU. Myung’s own experience coming to the US from Korea as a child closely mirrors Cha’s. As a graduate student in the creative writing department with an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies (though I still couldn’t open my mouth in class) I was particularly drawn to Cha’s work for different but also very personal reasons.
Cha’s writing was the closest I’d yet come to finding a poetry that cohesed and expanded my own sense of the tenuousness of language. Cha’s minute recordings of the often violent struggle to acquire language in her 1983 book Dictee, exposed the possibility of struggle as language and opened a way to engage the silence and silencing factors (class, physical isolation, illness) that had so shaped my own young life.
And while the acquisition of language for “us” (my brother and myself), had the relative ease of happening within our mother tongue, we hovered on the flip side of Cha’s equation; the place where she tracked the cultural, linguistic and physical erosion of the old through the acquisition of the new. Or, as in our case, the loss of language and the acquisition of “no language.” For my brother, over the course of three days, lost his ability to speak and has, for the past thirty-eight years, remained silent save guttural noises that I, and to my mind Cha, was trying to make sense of. Wasn’t Cha exploring a continuum of expression as mediated by mouth, nation-state and textbook? Wasn’t she/I trying to write into meaning/history the spits and silences resulting from profound loss?
Dictee affirmed my sense that the ability to speak let alone write couldn’t be taken for granted (especially in poetry- a physical space where things might happen), that we must acknowledge the privilege of fluid, recognizable speech and the silence(s) it betrays. That the fits and starts of acquisition and of loss are in and of themselves a language, a violence and a possibility. And that the discrepancies between interior life/language and the externalization/vocalization of language was a legitimate, even essential field for poetry.
A brief biographical note on Cha by Myung Mi Kim
DISEUSE- from Dictee (as published in How(ever), 1988)