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The book is not attempting to explain the details of a biographical life in the way it is traditionally perceived in either the East or the West, but rather is an emotive rather than an intellectual rendering of identity fragmented by a meeting of multiple cultures. This paces it firmly in the postcolonial tradition, where identity is almost entirely based on a negotiation of traditional ethnic identities with Westernized stereotypes and perceptions of these identities.
At the same time, the construction of the text itself -- its multiple voices and times without any solid reference points, the fragmented sentences, and perhaps most of all the inconsistent yet regular use of the second person which demands a knowledge or understanding of the reader that the reader simply doesn't possess -- all mark the book as a work shaped largely by postmodern tendencies and attitudes (Spahr). In this context, the very concept of identity is a near fallacy, if not an utterly nonsensical notion. There is certainly a great deal of postmodern meaninglessness observable throughout the novel, much of it related to the sense of self that the central figure of the novel seems in constant undirected and unconscious search of -- she is grasping randomly at the straws of her life and finding nothing solid.
The construction of the book into nine sections, each supposedly devoted to a specific Muse from the ancient Greek mythology of artistic inspiration, is itself emblematic of the struggle to define identity in the book. By rooting the work in that of the ancient Greeks, Cha is tying her text directly to the foundations of Western civilization and literature, but at the same time the text of each section does not always have a clear and definite resonance with the Muse to which it is dedicated. In this way, Cha is both paying respect to and utterly ignoring the mores and standards of Western literature, both literally and figuratively. This is highly similar to the identity of her protagonist, which understands, succumbs to, resists, and is confused by the various external forces attempting to shape and direct her all at once, in a confused an amorphous blob of identity.
Postmodern and Postcolonial
The elements shared by Where Europe Begins and Dictee far outweigh their differences, at least insofar as their constructs of identity are concerned. In both books, the central figures are generally shown as uncertain of their identity -- uncertain of its consistency over time, uncertain of the sources of its formation and/or inspiration, and uncertain even of its concrete existence. This is a distinctly postmodern view of identity, and is also an outgrowth of the Western postcolonial period and culture in which these two Asian female authors lived and wrote. The similarities in heir perspectives are doubtless related to the similarities in their experiences of assimilation, and of failing to assimilate.
There are also significant differences in these books, however, that also stem from the differences in the experiences of these two women. The highly structured German society of which Tawada was a part -- especially when confronted with the equally yet very differently structured society of Japan from which she came -- lends a tone of formality and polish to her works, and to her narrators' senses of identity. There is always a conscious awareness of the negotiation and minute-by-minute creation of identity in Tawada's stories, likely as a result of this formal consciousness of culture and identity. Cha's background is somewhat more chaotic, and her story greatly reflects this fact; her characters seem far less consciously aware of the significance of each moment (whereas the simple and mundane becomes highly significant in Tawada's stories), making for a more unruly yet equally honest and more emotionally evocative search for identity.
There are at least as many ways to go about forming an identity as there are people in the world. Each formation is an individual and ongoing process. The works of authors like Yoko Tawada and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha question whether the process is ever even really begun in any meaningful sense; the complete fluidity and uncertainty of identity demonstrated in Where Europe Begins and Dictee makes it seem at once an essential yet automatic and uncontrollable facet of human existence. Different times yield wildly different views on the subject, but these athours are united in their experience.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2001.
Cheng, Annie. "Memory and Anti-Documentary Desire in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee." MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Winter, 1998), pp. 119-133. Accessed via JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/467831
Fachinger, Petra. "Cultural and Culinary Ambivalence in Sara Chin, Evelina Galang, and Yoko Tawada." Modern Language Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 38-48. Accessed via JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30039806
Spahr, Juliana. "Postmodernism, Readers, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee." College Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Oct., 1996), pp. 23-43. Accessed via JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25112272
Tawada, Yoko. Where Europe Begins. New York: Penguin, 2002.[continue]
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