Mary Jean Chan
Mary Jean Chan
© The Poetry Society
BiographyMary Jean Chan is a poet, editor and critic whose work is at once incisive and nuanced, intimate and international. She came second in the 2017 National Poetry Competition and was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A selection of Chan’s poems were published in Carcanet’s New Poetries VII, and her ignitionpress pamphlet, A Hurry of English, was the 2018 Summer Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice. Her debut collection Flèche is forthcoming from Faber & Faber in July 2019. Exploring themes of multilingualism, queerness, cultural history, psychoanalysis and familial relationships, her poetry has been described as “taut, intellectual but with heart” (Glasgow Review of Books).
Living in and in-between languages is central to Chan’s debut pamphlet A Hurry of English. The fact that Chan speaks and writes in English is the result of having received a colonial education, but English also offers the opportunity for queer exploration and expression:
“What does it say about me, this obsession written in a language I never chose? My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze. How I typed ‘Shakespeare’, then ‘homoeroticism + Shakespeare’ into Google, over and over. My mother did not understand the difference between English words, thus she let me be.” (‘How It Must Be Said’)
For Chan, language is both complex and full of potential. This is one of the foundational tensions in her work, as is that double-meaning in that title – the need to speak and the ways we might safely do so.
In 2017, Chan was chosen as a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic, and her reviews have been published in the Guardian, The Hong Kong Review of Books and The Poetry Review. She is a co-editor of Oxford Poetry and sits on the advisory board for the Poetry Translation Centre. Chan’s critical and editorial work act alongside her poetry as part of her “ongoing practice as a queer BAME poet”:
“I believe that minority representation is crucial in a multi-ethnic and multicultural society, and that one must be willing to assume the mantle of multiple minorities (queer, BAME…) if one is to attain a kind of visibility that can easily be lost. With hate crimes on the rise both in the UK and the US (two places I’ve called – and in many ways continue to call – home), I believe in the power and necessity of intersectional discourse […]” (Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society)
Chan takes her cue from other poets – notably Adrienne Rich, Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo – who write existence as a form of resistance. But while these influences are evident, Chan’s approach is distinct. In A Hurry of English she mines personal experiences to create a narrative arc through intimate lyrics: “a story of salvation, a testament to the pain and possibility of a life lived between duties to oneself and obligations to family, between cities and countries […]” (Jun Pang for Still/Loud).
In her forthcoming collection, Flèche, Chan expands on these themes. Concerns of language(s) remain central. In ‘Written in a Historically White Space (I)’ Chinese characters are included unglossed:
The reader stares at my 皮膚 and asks: why don’t you write in 中文?
I reply: 殖民主義 meant that I was brought up in your image.
This forces the non-Chinese reader to reach for translation tools, to take part in an act of reciprocity not usually required from the privileged position of a monoglot (white) reader. And whether the reader recognises the characters or not, the intrusion of another tongue illuminates language’s power to simultaneously admit and exclude.
In Flèche, issues of colonialism and bilingualism work in tandem with the personal. The preface informs us “This is a book of love poems”, and relationships of all kinds are at the heart of this collection. Most prominent perhaps, is the difficult relationship between a mother and a queer daughter:
[…] tell the one who
detests the queerness in you that dead
daughters do not disappoint, free your
sore knees from inching towards a kind
of reprieve […]
The mother’s personal history, and that of preceding generations, is also explored throughout the collection. A history of trauma, violence and dislocation haunts the present, with the spectre of the Red Guard looming. ‘Wet Nurse’ is dedicated to “the woman who raised my mother” and speaks from her perspective, having abandoned her own baby to retain her job of feeding another: “Now, when the baby smiles up at me, / another brushes my breast with its lips.”
Through the use of the second person, we are continually positioned and addressed as “mother”, which creates the effect of intimacy between the reader and speaker:
You sieved my tears, added
an egg, and baked a beautiful cake.
You said Let us celebrate, for today
you are reborn as my beloved.
(‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’)
Chan plays with expectations regarding the authenticity and directness of her lyrical persona – expectations which are exponentially greater for a queer woman of colour. The phrase 母 親 的 故 事 is used as a break or marker throughout the book. It can be translated simply as “Mother’s story”, but its repetition leads us to wonder whether this is the story of the mother or a story for the mother, and whether ‘mother’ is a particular individual or universal figure:
when I say mother I mean
all those mothers I have
witnessed or envisioned
mothers of history and
mothers of our present
historical moment all
desperately trying to love
their children […]
(‘This Grammatical Offer of Uniqueness is Untrue’)
In Flèche, casting and recasting, framing and reframing operate on multiple levels. Sections take their names from fencing terms, which is also the origin of the book’s title. “Flèche” is an offensive technique for an épéeist, but also acts as a pun on ‘flesh’, with its connotations of desire, vulnerability and familial ties. More literally, it means ‘arrow’ in French, pointing to the ways a poet may use words to direct and deflect. In the title poem, Chan delineates a “strategy” which we might also use to explain her poetics:
You never duel against the same person, even if it is the same person. On the piste, once the blades are tilted upwards to signify respect, you re-calibrate to thwart their every move. She was disarmed by my tears, a timeout to breathe through the yellowing bruise on my pale, yellow skin.
It is such range and subtlety, coupled with a precision and purpose, that has made Chan’s work popular and influential already. Perhaps what draws so many to her writing is a search for beauty, love and hope, which continues to confront the violence and trauma of colonialism, oppression and prejudice:
Every day I try to love the world, until my
joints inflame, ache, resenting me for it.
(‘Written in a Historically White Space II’)
With the arrival of her first collection and the continuation of her work in and around poetry, Chan’s prominence and importance as a poet looks set to grow.
Interview with the Poetry Translation Centre
Video: in conversation for Manchester Literature Festival
Chan on the Carcanet blog
TEDxSwarthmore talk ‘A Tapestry of Narratives: Conversations through Poetry'
An essay for Wild Court ‘Meeting Point: on being a Chinese poet writing in English’
Young Poets Network conversation
Spread the Word interview
© Emily HaslerA Hurry of English (ignition press, 2018)
Flèche (Faber, 2019)
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère