Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung

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CHA, Theresa Hak Kyung

Born 4 March 1951, Pusan, Korea; died 5 November 1982, NewYork, New York

Daughter of Cha Hyung Sang and Huo Hyung Soon; married Richard Barnes, 1982

Particularly considering that an early and tragic death put an end to her career after the publication of just one book-length work, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's influence as a writer is extraordinary. Her book Dictée (1982), which combines poetry, prose, and visual art in unique and radical ways, has been a source of inspiration and empowerment for many artists and writers, and continues to be cited, excerpted, and viewed as a seminal text in the tradition of Asian and Asian-American women's writing. Cha was not only a writer, but a prolific video, film, and performance artist as well. Her video and film work won numerous awards, including the Eisner Prize for Video and Film from the University of California at Berkeley (1975), the Stuart McKenna Nelson Memorial Award for the Photographic Medium (1977), and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1981).

Cha was born in Pusan, Korea in 1951, the third of five children. Her parents had been raised in a Korean community in Manchuria, but returned to Korea during World War II. In 1962, when Cha was eleven, the family left Korea for the U.S., settling first in Hawaii, then in 1964 moving to San Francisco, where Cha attended Catholic schools and learned French as well as classical literature. She attended the University of San Francisco beginning in 1968, then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where she received a B.A. in comparative literature in 1973, a B.A. in art in 1975, and an M.F.A. in art in 1977.

In the mid-1970s, Cha began performing and showing her works regularly; in a curriculum vita, she designated the year 1974 as the beginning of her career as "producer, director, performer, writer in video and film productions, installations, performances and published texts." Works created between the mid-1970s and 1980 include the performance pieces Barren Cave Mute (1974), A Secret Spill (1974), A Blé Wall (1975), Aveugle Voix (1975), Life Mixing (1975), Vampyr (1976), and Reveille dans la Brume (1977), and the black-and-white videos Mouth to Mouth (1975), Passages Paysages (1978), Re Dis Appearing (1980) and Exilée (1980). In 1976 Cha went to France to study film at Centre d'Etudes Américaine du Cinéma á Paris, and also visited Amsterdam, where she met and became involved with international artists. In 1977 Cha became a naturalized U.S. citizen. She traveled to Korea in 1979 for a visit, the first time since her family had left 18 years earlier that she'd been back.

In 1980 Cha moved to New York City, where she began work as an editor and writer at Tanam Press, and edited Apparatus, Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings (1980), which included a piece by her, "Commentaire." In 1981 she returned to Korea to begin gathering material for a film which was to be called White Dust from Mongolia. That same year she was appointed instructor in video art at Elizabeth Seaton College in New York. The year 1982 was perhaps Cha's busiest year, and the year, ironically, that she began to get real critical notice. She was an artist-in-residence at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, her video Passages, Paysages was shown in New York and The Hague, her 16 mm film Permutations was shown at the San Francisco Art Institute, and Dictée was published by Tanam Press. In May she married freelance photographer Richard Barnes.

Dictée broke with tradition in a number of important ways. Formally the work used a nonnarrative sequence, and was structured in nine sections, each one titled for one of the nine Greek muses. Dictée used a variety of both prose and poetry forms in its textual presentation, as well as using a fascinating array of graphic images (photographs, maps, drawings, illustrations). The use of non-English text (Korean and French) in numerous segments throughout the book added yet another layer of interest relating to language, and confronted the reader with an unexpected, and instructively uncomfortable, foreignness. The content of Dictée, or the "theme" to the extent that concept can or should be applied, is autobiographical. It is an examination of self, of memory and remembering, of family, of ethnicity, of history, of nationality, of the concept of home and "mother country." It is a book about women in particular—Ya Guan Soon (a young Korean hero who spoke and acted out against the Japanese occupation), Cha's own mother, and Joan of Arc—and women's lives—predicaments, joys, sorrows—in general. It is also, as noted, very much a book about language, about learning language, acquiring it, having it, identifying with it, using it, being understood or misunderstood because of it.

Cha was murdered by a stranger in the basement of a New York building in November of 1982. She had a number of works in progress at the time of her death, including the film about memory, White Dust from Mongolia, another book project, and a piece on the representation of hands in Western painting.

Other Works:

Audience Distant Relatives (1978).


Hagedorn, J., ed., Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction (1993).

Reference Works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other reference:

Afterimage (Summer 1986).