Theresa Cha

this is not even what I set out to say

We drive down to the beach house of a friend in the thin gray light.

It rains all day and the wind is relentless through the long limbs of beach roses, the lilac branches. White sailboats bob on the dark water.

Bach is the soundtrack for our time in this house. The Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos. All through the afternoon.

Outside, the wind, the rain, the sky smeared gray and milky white, the frothy waves of the bay.

I bring Anne Carson and Theresa Cha, steadfast companions but find it difficult to concentrate. The wind, the view of water, the tall masts of sailboats, green horizon line of trees on a distant shore.

The rain picks up, rinsing the windowpanes. It is like a dream.

We have come here for years now. We have brought friends and family. We have celebrated holidays at the long dining table, tea lights scattered down the length of it.

We have walked the path down to a strip of beach and climbed the rocks there. We have watched as morning mist burns away to wan yellow light. We have seen afternoon fade into evening and then to darkness. Shrouded in a quiet that at home it is so easy to forget.

Cha, from Exilee, Temps Morts, Selected Works:

back and forth conversing

what if
i say
in saying that
for the heart of the matter is
if i should
none the less
in a way
in such a way
that would
that could
in other words
none less than
another possibility
an other way
only one way possible
the only other way possible
by that
it is already
being said
all along.

I wake in a white room that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Bright morning light. The faint scent of bleach from the warm white sheets.

In Korea, white is the color of mourning, Theresa Cha reminds us again and again and whiteness and mourning suffuses her work in her writing, her video and film, and her performances.

From Dictee:

One morning. The next morning. It does not matter. So many mornings have passed this way. But this one. Especially. The white mist rising everywhere, constant gathering and dispersing.

In the stillness, we whisper about how the day might unfold. I am aware of my knees aching, as if I have been running for hours.  

Theresa Cha was born in Korea in 1951 and emigrated with her family to Hawaii and then later to San Francisco. She went to Catholic school and studied French. At UC Berkeley, she studied comparative literature and art.

She works in film and video and performance art. She meets Richard Barnes, a photographer who she will later marry.

In 1980, she moves to New York.

In May of 1982, she and Barnes marry. In November of that year, she is murdered in New York, in the basement of a building in SoHo. She is 31 years old.

I was writing the story of my mother’s death (in a white room in a small town in upstate New York) struggling with it when Carole Maso, with whom I was then studying, gave me Dictee.

As a document, Dictee was like nothing I had seen before. Fragmented and nonlinear. A collage of history and autobiography and image and text. About displacement and memory; about language and loss and grief. It kept me company while I struggled through my own writing.

My mother in her white bed in the white room in a white house with black shutters. Little house on a hill. Little village near woods.

The cemetery where she is buried lies behind a train station. It was a cool morning in October. The trees were starting to turn. It was my birthday. I was 21.

That I am compelled to return again and again to that white room, to that morning in October more than twenty years ago shames me at times. My grief – if that is what it can be said to be – embarrasses.

What more, after all is there to say about the death of one’s mother? A loss that most of us will experience in our time.

This is not even what I set out to say this morning, in this light. As the white clouds give way to slivers of blue.

Cha, again from her notebooks:


writing conscious-unconsciously. in delirium  it’s fiction. its fiction
from left hand corner to the right hand corner. from left to right.
what abound. n’importe quoi. mere it said. sea and boundary.
wall dividing. sea and boundary. fingering through and through.
some absent touch bound to be somewhere. a new line curve a page
a possible chapter. it’s unseen. as soon as it is invisible
as soon as. retaliation. retreat. into. excerpts. pittlings.
pittance here and there scattered ashes bits towed by wind invisible.