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“Who is Represented?” Deconstructing Symbols of National Identity in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee

By Ruxandra Chirila

A crucial theme in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is the questioning of symbols which indicate national identity. The final bookend of the text’s framing, before the nine sections evoking the nine muses, is written in the form of a poem that features the heavy use of anaphora (“what”) to parallel the question “What nationality” in a way that interrogates how nationality relates to alternative conceptions of identity and belonging (2). The words “blood relation,” “ancestry,” or “race generation” imply conceptions of national identity that are intrinsic, from birth (20); alternatively, terms such as “lineage extraction,” “stray ejection misplaced,” or “transplant to dispel upon,” written with no punctuation to separate them, explore the notion of national identity after migration, when one is not essentially part of one nation: “Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other” (20).  The section Calliope/Epic Poetry explores these two contrasting meanings of national identity through the narration of the speaker’s mother living as a refugee in Manchuria to escape Japanese colonialism in Korea, where her “mother tongue is [her] refuge” (45), and the following section, where the speaker passes through an American international checkpoint, where one’s identity can be replaced with a photograph on their passport, implying that nations can obtain a God-like power to create citizens in “their own image” (56). Through analysing how signifiers of national identity—language, national anthems, flags, passports, costumes, and images—interact with the context (or signified) created through the tone, diction, and figurative language the speaker evokes when contrasting herself and her mother in Calliope, Dictee strategically allows for both an essentialist and a constructivist view of national identity to coexist in order to resist imperialism and assimilation for those who have been “transplant[ed],” or extracted from their “lineage” (20), and no longer fit seamlessly within one national identity.

The first piece of this puzzle of opposing but coexisting conceptions of national identity is to uncover the nature of the national signifiers in the text: how the text deconstructs the arbitrary signification between the image and its concept in the Derridean sense. At the international checkpoint, the text emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the pipeline of signifiers that indicate to border authorities whether or not the speaker is American by decontextualizing them in a list where they are void of their attached concept:

“I have the documents. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature. One day you raise the right hand and you are American. They give you an American Pass port. The United States of America. Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph. The other one. Their signature their seals. Their own image. And you learn the executive branch the legislative branch and the third. Justice. Judicial branch. It makes the difference. The rest is past.” 


While the text indicates that the normative meaning of the documents, of raising one’s right hand in the national oath, and knowledge of the three branches of government are necessary “proof, evidence” that the individual is or has become American, the text’s detached tone and chronologically condensed listing of the process erases the meaning of being American in the affective sense. Further, the text encodes the speaker’s mistake, forgetting and misnaming the Judicial branch; this is significant in that getting the answer right “makes the difference,” implying that correctly naming the signifier, as opposed to only knowing the concept attached—“Justice”—is what makes the difference between the moment one who is not-American crosses into the realm of being American, since “The rest is past.”  This procedure of identity-acquisition not only applies to the process of acquiring citizenship but also at each future international travel checkpoint, since the speaker is racially marked as not-American until proven otherwise: “You return and you are not one of them, […] But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity” (56). 

This detached and arbitrary procedure of national identity acquisition—“One day you raise your hand and you are American”— starkly contrasts with the speaker’s affirmation of her mother’s Korean identity in resistance to Japanese colonialism. The speaker first affirms her mother’s identity through a language which has been forbidden: “Mother tongue is your refuge. It is being home. Being who you are. Truly” (45-6). This excerpt emphasises the embodied connection between one’s first language and ancestral lineage: one’s “Mother tongue” signifies something powerful and intrinsic about a person’s identity, particularly in this instance of colonial oppression. At the school, despite the symbols of the Japanese nation—the Japanese flag, words from the emperor Meiji and Japanese as “the tongue the mandatory language”—the speaker affirms, “You are Korean. All the teachers are Korean” (49). Similarly, at the American checkpoint, national signifiers are arbitrarily given authority; however, the key point of difference is that signs of Korean identity are not merely arbitrary or meaningless, even though, just like other signs, they are made of the arbitrary signification of images or sounds and a concept. The text resolves this contradiction by returning to the first process of signification: “Mother, my first sound. The first utter. The first concept” (50). Ultimately, this contradiction can exist because the process of signification can be arbitrary without denying that the connection between sound and concept that creates signs such as “Mother” can be affectively powerful and informative of one’s identity, while other signs are oppressive and arbitrarily imposed. 

The denaturalization of national signifiers from their signified creates the space for individuals to construct their own identity by referencing and reclaiming signs of national identity. For instance, the speaker’s mother singing in Korean is transformed into a forbidden national anthem to be sung in resistance: “In truth this would be the anthem. The national song forbidden to be sung. Birth less. And orphan. They take from you your tongue. They take from you the choral hymn. But you say not for long not for always. Not forever” (46). The text values the deconstruction of nationalist symbols because it allows for the multiplicity of meanings, the space for individuals to imbue national anthems and songs with new meanings in new contexts. In this way, Cha applies Derrida’s concept of “free play,” that is to decentre political nation states as centres of meaning making, thereby exposing the system of language as identity construction as a site of resistance under oppressive and violent institutions of identity inscription. 

This fundamentally contrasts with the oppressive forces of colonialism and assimilation, which insist on their authority over national symbols. Returning full circle to the speaker’s process of proving her American identity, the text emphasises the speaker’s powerlessness in the face of procedure, where “They” is revealed to be customs authorities, “the anonymous variety of uniforms, each division, strata, classification, any set of miscellaneous properly uni formed” (57). Segmenting the last word emphasises the ‘uni’, the one national identity permitted, the singular signified, or meaning, that is acceptable for national symbols. It is from this position, with “Their authority sewn into the stitches of their costume” (57), that national officials obtain a God-like power over signification: “Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph. The other one. Their signature their seals. Their own image” (56). It is against this authority to erase individual identity by fixing a singular meaning to images or utterances that the text resists. The slow erasure of the individual as the speaker passes through the checkpoint, the loss of a meaningful answer to the question of “who is represented,” can only be resisted by returning to the “composition of the body, taking into consideration from conception, the soil, seed, amount of light and water necessary, the geneology” (58). Just as her mother’s identity is reaffirmed by returning to the body and genealogy of “Mother tongue,” so too is the speaker’s identity reaffirmed by returning to intrinsic, or strategically essentialist connections to a national identity as a powerful act of resistance.

Cha’s text embodies the process of constructing and reconstructing one’s identity in the context of being extracted from one’s nation or land of origin or of that nation’s colonial occupation, that which ignites the necessity of “free play,” of deconstructing imposed identity markers to explore the hybridized space that stands between and against national signifiers. This process allows the possibility of calling upon stories from a culture or ancestry to which one intrinsically belongs to retell them in a new cultural context and imbue them with new meaning. The text shows that embracing a constructivist approach to identity allows for a multiplicity of meanings. This can not only empower individuals to solidify a connection to a collective national identity in a strategically essentialist sense, particularly when it has been severed by colonization or assimilation, but it can also resist the reification of national symbols by arbitrary authorities. Ultimately, the deconstruction of national symbols in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee reveals the empowering notion that they have no meaning unto themselves, and only individuals hold the potential to imbue signifiers with meaning; therefore, any arbitrary authority’s attempt to fix a singular meaning is flawed and cannot hold forever in light of individual resistance.

Works Cited

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. 1982. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign & Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. 1967. London: Routledge, 2001.

Lowe, Lisa. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, and Multiplicity.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, Volume 1, Number 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 24-44.

About the Author: Ruxandra Chirila is completing her final year of study in English Literature and Political Science. Her Honours Essay explores immigrant identity constructions in North American short story cycles from the 20th Century to the present. She hopes to continue her studies in diaspora literatures in North America at the graduate level.