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Society for Intercultural Studies


Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

Grafting as Comparative Literature: Vergil's Georgics and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee
Kristina Chew (
Department of Modern and Classical Languages, University of St. Thomas

Vergil's Georgics (29 B.C.) and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee (1982) are two texts which share little similarity: a didactic poem in Latin hexameters written in the last century B.C., a postmodern assemblage of poetry, prose, maps, photographs, French, English, Korean. I will use a reading of these two texts to describe grafting, which can be read as a code word for "comparative literature" as it enacts the reading of literatures separated by language, culture, geography and time. I start with the image of grafting in Book 2 of Vergil's Georgics. The Georgics is a didactic poem on agriculture, and a poem about poetry that moves in analogical arcs from farming to poetry, and back. Using technical knowledge acquired with difficulty, with pains (curae), farmer and poet attempt the physical alteration of the world, with tools, with words. Grafting is used to describe both the art of farming and an unarticulated art of writing. Through an interpretation of the Georgics's own terms and specifically those of Book 2, I will describe a theory of writing and of reading the poem, a theory based on how Vergil speaks of his own ars of writing. I will particularly emphasize the need to evaluate the poem's language and formal structure.

I will then put Vergil's idea of grafting into play by reading Cha's Dictee as an exemplary example of literary grafting. Cha represents the displaced person's experience by remaking Western culture into her own creation. By unhesitatingly combining Greek literature and mythology, the traditions of Roman Catholicism, and Korean culture and history, Cha stages the Asian American woman's labor to gain her own voice. Dictee is structured into sections named after each of the nine Muses, quotes extensively from L'histoire d'une âme, the autobiography of St. Theresa of Lisieux, and includes photographs of Cha's own mother and Korea patriots being executed by the Japanese. I graft Dictee onto the Georgics as a starting point for building a poetics for reading among different literatures, for reading difference. Dictee compels us to read multiculturally with its unexplained mixing of traditions. It stages a return to the classics through the eyes of a subject situated in the latter half of the twentieth century, in the United States, and with a strong memory of Asia, of Korea. Reading Dictee with the Georgics shows us how close the classics are to our experience today, and how far away they must be. The connections I try to forge are based on these texts' dense poetical quality and intent of teaching the reader a lesson, about farming, about speaking; about how to manage the daily tumult of work and pain and memory that humans live in. In an increasingly globalized, multilingual and hyper-technological world, grafting is a way to "do" comparative literature, the work of writing and reading differently.

Kristina Chew is currently an Assistant Professor of Classics at the Univ. of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has been the Gaius Bolin Fellow in Classics and Asian Studies at Williams College (1994-5), and has also taught classics and humanities at Saint Louis University and Yale University. She received her Ph.D. in 1995 from Yale in Comparative Literature, with an emphasis on Classics and Asian American literature. She is currently writing a series of essays for a book on literature by ethnic and other "minority" writers, including children's books and texts by and about people with disabilities. She has made numerous presentations on the notion of "grafting" different literary traditions together and iscompleting an essay on this topic, "Vergil's Art of Grafting." Her translation of Vergil's Georgics will be published by the Hackett Publishing Company in March 2002. Her article, "What does E Pluribus Unum Mean?: Reading the classics and multicultural literature together," appeared in the Classical Journal (93.1 (1997)), and drew on her dissertation, Pears Bearing Apples: A Comparative Study of the Classics (Vergil's Georgics and Plato's Phaedrus) and Asian American literature (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee)."She is also continuing my work on Classics and Asian American literature by exploring the work of Kimiko Hahn, Chang-Rae Lee, and Gish Jen.

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