Disturbing the Sacred Stories: The Lives of Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee

By Cho, Min-Ah | Magistra, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Disturbing the Sacred Stories: The Lives of Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee


Cho, Min-Ah, Magistra


The ambivalent potential of the hagiographical genre has been discussed by a number of feminist scholars within and across the field.1 As the case of Margery Kempe testifies, it was a familiar phenomenon in medieval Europe that women creatively interpreted the vitae for their purpose and used them as empowering exemplars.2 However, hagiography also heavily draws upon the clerical and ecclesiastical purpose of promoting a model of chastity, humility, silence, and contempt for flesh which would rather constrain women's agency. Whether empowering or disempowering hagiographical narratives that draw on them can make the readers, the value of the genre depends on the readers' ability and intention to find inspiration. Thus, while understanding the saints' stories within their historical context is important, how to read them and how to apply the stories to our context is equally crucial.

This paper introduces an innovative way to read the stories of saints presented in the book Dictée, written by Korean American performance artist, filmmaker, and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982).3 Published in 1981, Dictée is a mixture of translation exercises, poems, photographs, official documents, and personal journals. The nine chapters of Dictée combine images and motifs from classical mythology, Korean history, and Roman Catholicism.4 Weaving through narratives taken from those various references, Dictée illuminates the female agencies erased from patriarchal/colonial discourses and calls forth the immigrant lives fragmented and suppressed by cultural estrangement.

The fifth chapter of Dictée, titled "Erato/Love Poetry," is dedicated to Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) and Joan of Arc (1412-1431). The quotations and images of the two saints generate notable ironies and tensions as the author deliberately put them into a play with the story of an immigrant woman who is surrendering herself to an unhappy marriage. This paper discusses how Cha complicates the hagiographical presentation of the two female saints' stories and reshapes them as a space for sharing women's narratives across time and space. Through its unusual structure and style, its thematic challenge to patriarchal ideology, and its creation of a female narrative bonding, Cha' s portrayal of Sts. Thérèse and Joan gives the readers fresh insight into how to make the female saints speak and live today.

First, the structure and style of the "Erato/Love Poetry" chapter will be analyzed. Employing a cinematic technique, Cha links the separate events of the three women and arranges their narratives in a non-lineal, cyclical way. This unique composition of the chapter is critically noteworthy because it reflects Cha's reading of women's hagiography as a shared, if non-universal, narrative. Analysis of the structure and style of the chapter leads to the second point of this paper, about how Cha utilizes the conventions of hagiographical storytelling as a tool to challenge patriarchal assumptions implicit in women's narratives. Through her experimental writing, Cha establishes a female narrative bonding through which women, both past and present, create a space to share their life stories, envision a new future together. Cha further invites the readers to participate in the space and perform together.

"Erato/Love Poetry" presents three women's stories, each in a different time and culture: the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun who desired littleness and nothingness before God throughout her life; the story of St. Joan of Arc, a virgin martyr who received great admiration from St. Thérèse; and lastly the story of an indefinite woman who is an immigrant in an unhappy marriage and is sacrificing her life for the sake of her daughter. The structure of the chapter expresses the relationships among the three women: how they interact with each other through their narratives, how they become shaped and reshaped by the influence of other women's stories, and how they create a space for sharing. …

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