Faces of Modern American
Literature—a Transnational and
Transcultural Reading
Zhu Ying Julia
American Studies Program
East China Normal University
1 June 2007, Shanghai
• I. The Past is an Inexhaustible Resource—
Toni Morrison’s Beloved
• II. The Past Survives through Traces—
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee
• III. The Past as an Uncanny Trespasser—
David Marshall Chan’s “Goblin Fruit”
Paul Ricoeur: The Reality of the
Historical Past (1984)
• “three categories”
The Same: the past is reenacted in the present through
documentary evidence and
imaginative construction
The Other: the past is a
pertinent absence due to
temporal distance and
The Analogue: the past is recreated by the integration of reenacting and distancing
I. The Past is an Inexhaustible
Resource—Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Living and Imagining the Historical—
revising “the Same” slave-narrative
b. Rememorying the Past: Configuring
and Translation—Beloved and
rememory as “the Other”
c. History Goes on: Repatterned and Reenacted—storytelling as a process of
“the Analogue”
Toni Morrison
“I can’t change the future but
I can change the past”
(Taylor-Guthrie xiii)
“National Amnesia”
• “We live in a land where the past is always
erased,” Morrison contends, “[t]he past is
absent or it’s romanticized. This [American]
culture doesn't encourage dwelling on, let
alone coming to terms with the truth about
the past” (Gilroy 179).
Historical Evidence & Historical Imagination
• Margaret Garner & “A
Tale of Horror” in The
Cincinnati Daily
Enquirer (29 Jan. 1856)
James Van Der Zee’s
photostory in The
Harlem Book of the
Dead (1978)
a. Beloved as a historical novel
• It comes to those
• Sethe’s back—Amy “a
terrible spaces that
chokecherry tree”
autobiographical slave • The tree (trace) of
scars on Sethe’s back is
narratives could not
a living trace or record
write about
of the sufferings of the
• It “rips that veil drawn
slaves; a bearer of
over ‘proceedings too
“mute testimony to
terrible to relate’
(Morrison, “Site” 110)
forgotten histories”
(Ellmann 46)
b. Rememory & Beloved
• Morrison’s coinage:
noun and verb; visual
and spatial quality;
individual and
collective (Beloved 3536)
• “memory as thought”
with a threat of
repetition (Derrida 106)
• “continual entry and
re-entry of past into
present” (Ferguson
• Sethe’s murdered
incubus of
personal past
• Survivor from the
Middle Passage—
a historical “trace”
• Unceremoniously
buried slaves—an
absence of history
c. Reenacting with a Difference
• Definers vs. Defined—Schoolteacher,
sheriff, Paul D., and Sethe
• double entendre— “pass on”
sharing & overlooking
• ambivalent ending— “Beloved”
remembrance & forgetfulness
Historia vs. Fictio (Facere)
• As a work of fiction “bound up with history,”
Beloved aims “to free, retrospectively,
certain possibilities that were not actualized
in the historical past, […] [and] to perform
its liberating function. The quasi-past of
fiction in this way becomes the detector of
possibilities buried in the actual past”
(Ricoeur, “Interweaving” 191-92)
II. The Past Survives through
Traces—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s
• “From another epic another
history. From the missing
narrative. From the
multitude of narratives.
Missing. From the
chronicles. For another
telling for other recitations”
(Dictee 81)
Paul Ricoeur
• “the past survive[s] by leaving a trace”
--The Reality of the Historical
Past (11)
Ricoeur’s Three Categories
• a. “The Same”—Dictee is an imaginative
and incoherent re-construction of
documentary facts
• b. “The Other”—Dictee is a female and
polycultural side of the Word
• c. “The Analogue”—Dictee is an enigmatic
re-enactment of history and poetry
a. Dictee is a generic hybrid
• Various dictation and translation exercises,
including prayers, liturgical texts, mythological
allusions, documents of Korean history, which is
a history of repression but also one of rebellion
against the political and cultural repression by
the Japanese.
• Cha’s mother’s history of exile in Manchuria
where she was forbidden to speak her Korean
mother tongue.
• The uprising of 1919 led by the Korean Jeanne
d’Arc, Yu Guan Soon, in which thousands were
• Personal letters, passages
from history books, a
petition sent by Hawaiian
Koreans to President
Theodore Roosevelt about
the brutality of the
Japanese Occupation (that
the President ignored);
• Excerpts from the
autobiography of Saint
Thérèse of Lisieux with a
variety of visual texts;
• Empty pages and spaces
between paragraphs
marking rapture, collapse
of voice, or meditative
silence; photographs, film
stills, Korean, Chinese,
and Japanese pictorial
signs, the reproductions of
handwritten letters, of
paintings, maps, and
illustrations such as four
views of the larynx where
voice is formed, speech
Dictee (1982)
• A product of dictation—a French dictation,
presumably at a school of French Catholic
• “Dictee,” “dictation” opens a wide range of
associations concerning power and repression:
the mind’s submission to the authority of the
written word—from the rule of teachers to that
of priests or missionaries, dictators and military
oppressors, colonial regimes, or bureaucratic
dispensers of immigrant identity.
b. dictée
• A metaphor of political, linguistic, and
cultural dominance.
• Dictée has an additional meaning—the
person who receives, is perhaps even
formed by, dictation, is female since “dictée”
also implies the gender of its object.
• Against the male and (mono)cultural
written dictum/decree, it sets a female voice
and a polycultural perception that
emphasizes difference.
Dictee—nine chapters
• “Diseuse” the opening section—identifies
the narrator as female story teller, but also
implies that someone is being spoken, who
repeats and mimics but cannot yet speak for
herself, stutters and stammers but is slowly
and painfully finding voice and articulation:
“The wait from pain to say. To not to.
Say…The pause. Uttering. Hers now. Hers
bare. The utter” (4/5).
The Word
• To submit, to give in to dictation is to take
in, to internalize, the Word. But the tongue
that takes the Host (the Word made Flesh) is
also the tongue that is to utter speech in a
foreign tongue; as much as it is the place of
the lost or forbidden mother tongue. The
IN HIS OWN LIKENESS is accepted and
repeated but also turned around in
rebellious parody.
c. Clio
• Prelude to the first chapter—a defiant evocation
of the nominal: “In Nomine/ Le Nom/ Nomine”
(21) associates “In Nomine Patris,” in the “Name
of the Father,” which, according to Lacan, is also
the Law of the Father: “le Non du Père.”
• Inscribed in the very dictation of the title is thus
also the rebellion of the one dictated to (dictée)—
and the dissolution of dictation into the
multicultural, multilingual, multimedial
play/performance of the text as “counterscript”
Nine & Myth
• Nine chapters named after nine muses, the
daughters of Mnemosyne—the Greek goddess of
memory, who had lain with Zeus for nine
successive nights and give birth for nine
successive days.
• Allusions to Demeter who, in her grief,
wandered nine days with flaming torches in her
hands in search of her daughter Persephone.
First & final pages
• The first page is a photograph of an
anonymous wall carving, according to
secondary sources, it says in Korean script:
“Mother, I miss you, I am hungry, I want to
go home to my native place”—this was
probably scratched into a wall by Korean
prisoners during Korea’s occupation by the
• The final page is a photograph cut to show
nine Korean students (among them the
martyred Yu Guan Soon).
Lost & Found
• Text
• Subtext:
• The loss of voice and
native place, the
repression of mother
tongue, the pain of
division and
• Connected with the
number nine, is reconstructive, stages a
finding of voice, a
homecoming and a
reunion of daughter
and mother.
“Words cast each by each to weather
avowed indisputably, to time,
If it should impress, make fossil trace of word,
residue of word, stand as a ruin stands,
simply, as mark
having relinquished itself to time to distance”
Dictee as a “poetic” reading of
the historical “trace”
• The text, although seemingly finding rest in
a final vision of return, in fact, oscillates in
the memory of absent presence since it can
“mark” origin (“home”) only as lost to
“time” and “distance”—as “trace” inscribed,
and as “ruin” re-presented, in the word.
• To evoke a pre-linguistic state of mind and
communication that can yet be rendered
only in and through words, a language
beyond the dictate of the Father—a new
(yet also re-constructed) Mother tongue.
• “The main body of my work is with Language,
‘looking for the roots of language before it is
born on the tip of the tongue.’” (Cha in
Lewallen 80)
• “My work […] has been a series of metaphors
for the return, going back to a lost time and
space, always in the imaginary. The content of
my work has been the realization of the imprint,
the inscription etched from the experience of
leaving, the experience of America.” (Cha in
Lewallen 76)
• The writing grew out of the painful
experience of loss and exile, but opened up
and explored a new, if purely linguistic,
space of belonging: the language before
‘dictation’ where open, fluid, multiple
(female) self is able to find voice and home
in the very gaps and silences of the
scattered text.
III. The Past as an Uncanny
Trespasser—David Marshall Chan’s
“Goblin Fruit”
• “I want this all to be a fiction, something I
made up, something entirely of my own
• “I want to wake up and have the past
eighteen years be just a dream.”
-- “Goblin Fruit” (39)
• a. The “Same” Hollywood dream of fame.
• b. The frustration of an “Other” imposter.
• c. The living pain of being an “Analogous”
a. Show business
• “[…] the only work I read for requires an accent:
Japanese businessmen I’m too young to pull off,
or Korean grocers or Chinese restaurant delivery
boys […]” (28).
• “The only roles I ever get, it seems, are all in
martial arts flicks, minor one-line parts […]” (43).
• “Why is my life like the plot engine of an old
Bruce Lee film?” (43).
The World of Suzy Wong
• “And the bad roles and bad haircuts and stifled
careers of the Asian American actors of the 70s
and 80s and before, I sometimes feel all that
history ought to have created a better place for
actors like me. Our passages should have been
paid, for a world without the Charlie Chans, the
Suzy Wongs, the kowtowing maids and butlers
and delivery boys. What happened, I want to
know? How did that older generation let it slip
through their fingers?” (44)
“everybody was too busy kung fu
• “The old-timers—the Chinese who first
came to America—hid their true names,
adopted false ones; I read this in college in
an ethnic autobiography. They did this to
elude their enemies and American officials,
all those who were potential threats to them”
b. “I’m invisible”
• “I’ve stolen my brother’s name. I’ve lost my
own name and replaced it with a dead boy’s. I
no longer call myself D., but am now M.
around town, some people recognized me for
the imposter I am. Others—casting agents,
cameramen, other former child actors who’ve
worked with my brother—become unnerved
upon seeing me, mistaking me for the original
M., or perhaps not wanting to remember how
my brother died. To most people, though, I’m
invisible” (23).
Goblin Men
• “[…] we’re pitching it as the dark side of
the E.T. story—like Honey, I Shrunk the
Kids meets Aliens meets the Persephone
myth as written by Clive Barker” (34)
• read pages 34-35.
c. Dream of a dead brother
• “He’s [M’s] been trespassing in my dreams.
He’s taken residence in my thoughts. Maybe
he’s made that I’ve stolen his name” (46).
• “Maybe M. doesn’t know that I mean him no
harm, that all of my success is his own, all of it
achieved in his shadow. He reduces me to a
phantom of himself—his legacy, his memory”
• “Their floodlights shine through to the dark
corners of the room, revealing nothing, no
ghosts” (47).
The End
Thank you!

Faces of Modern American Literature—a Transnational and