Conversation with Mary Jean Chan

By Yue Chen.

“This is the first live poetry reading I’ve attended since shit went down in 2020,” I tell my coursemate as we sit down in the lecture theater at our Oxford college, in January 2023. I look around at the influx of undergraduates. The event in question, organized by the university’s poetry society, features Hong Kong-Chinese poet Mary Jean Chan, author of Flèche (Faber & Faber, 2019) and senior lecturer in creative writing at Oxford Brookes University. Chan read from Flèche and from their upcoming collection, Bright Fear, due from Faber this August.

Though I’m squinting, horribly nearsighted, and boiling beneath my mask, I am distracted from the hard wooden bench, the intimidating atmosphere, and looming deadlines. The lines cut through air and bite into me, transporting me to a locker room, a fencing piste, anywhere but Oxford University, where I have been slowly but surely losing my mind. “I would head back home with a deepening / sense of dread, my bruises fading to quiet.” (‘Practice’)

The next time I meet Chan, it is in the courtyard of Oxford Brookes. Having grown up in California and attended undergrad in the middle of nowhere, I struggled with Oxford’s confounding local bus system and arrived barely on time to our appointment.

It is March 9, the day of Sine Theta’s seventh birthday party at Morocco Bound in London. At that party later that night, co-founders Jiaqi and Lis would reflect on how far we’ve come as a publication, and I would find myself thinking about community and witnessing, about things that matter and things that matter.

But before all that, in the morning, I enter Chan’s office nervous with anticipation—this is my first in-person interview for Sine Theta—but, just like at Chan’s reading back in January, I quickly relax into their presence.

It occurs to me that I don’t ever notice how on edge I am in this self-contained town’s swarming universe until the tension goes away. That only happens when I am with people with whom there is a certain validation; a mutual understanding of our respective self-locations in the world. Twentieth-century French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang, 1981) about the “punctum,” a detail in a photograph that “pricks” or “pierces” the viewer so that they resonate with the image personally. I believe that there are puncta off the page, too; in conversing with Chan, I found that recognition, that release—a corporeal regrounding in a place made to destabilize and unsettle.

Even Chan’s first book’s title, Flèche, is a legion of bodily invocations. Flèche is French for ‘arrow,’ which pierces and kills. In fencing, it is also an offensive technique used with foil and épée that Chan describes to me as “a failed attack more often than not:” a hail mary that frequently ends with both combatants colliding with one another. However, with the flèche, the potential for failure and hurt is mirrored by an equal and larger potential for success. From the fleeting jab of the blade to the abiding ache of balancing a calligraphy brush for hours on end, various pains from Chan’s adolescent activities described in their poetry take on new retrospective meanings and reshape the present. Chan comments, “I think pain was part and parcel of the rewards that were inherent in the things that I was doing: fencing and calligraphy.”

If Flèche works through metaphors of an individual’s physical pain, Bright Fear touches on the widespread affliction and mourning of COVID-19. Chan’s father is a doctor who also worked through the SARS period, and this proximity of COVID’s mortal threat is referenced in one of the collection’s titular poems, ‘Bright Fear (II).’ The poem also includes a dream Chan had, in which Chan was in a room with unmasked friends, that echoed a day-to-day fear. Chan ends the poem ‘London, 2020’ with “sacrifice, sacred, and scared,” explaining, “These words were intermingling in my head, but linguistically, they were also linked… I was like, how do you bring these very different ideas together, but in a way that people can understand? Sometimes, we understand things at the level of language—the level of sound—and maybe later on, we return to the meaning,” they reflect. “That was one way of talking about these sometimes very gnarly subjects.” In that line of the poem, linguistic play provides an aperture, an opportunity to tackle the fraught topics affecting our world on a slant.

Chan and I discuss relating to the world through language, a thorny, uncontainable concept mired by geopolitical histories. Flèche opens with a preface containing the directive, “A poet I admire once told a British audience: we must call out monolingualism, since the world has forever been multilingual.” An immigrant positionality’s multilinguality is a double-edged foil; on one hand, it cements connections between those who share those tongues, and on the other, it transmits different hostilities in different spaces.

Chan tells me that Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love is their “ideal kind of reconciliation. In the world of the film, my languages come together seamlessly.” They describe moving smoothly between Cantonese, Mandarin, and Shanghainese with their mother, and engaging with friends in diasporic communities in different languages. As Chan’s poetry shows us, our languages are inseparable from the ways in which we interact with the world. “English, in certain spaces, keeps me safe,” Chan says.“I can fashion myself into someone who has the right references, who knows certain terminology, can speak essentially… in a way that uses English as a shield. But it's also something I have fallen in love with, so its creative, liberating possibilities have been apparent to me since the beginning.”

For Chan, English is a language of creative and academic production, though it is also the language of microaggressions. Cantonese, in the meantime, can feel like home while also eliciting memories of verbalized homophobia. Chan concludes, “Multilingualism, I suppose, is my way of reconciling the kinds of ways in which language can hurt but also heal. I've tried to find the spaces that would allow me to feel comfortable using and embodying all these languages.”

Language also unlocks new perspectives and allows us to detach from crystal-clear, immediate representation. During our interview, Chan mentions ‘Wet Nurse,’ a poem that took at least seven major revisions. During the process, its point-of-view bounced from Chan’s own voice, to the voice of their mother, and finally to the voice of their mother’s wet nurse. The relationships in the poem are complex and intimate, but the poem’s voice holds the reader at a distance. Chan admits that autobiographical work inevitably runs up against factual inconsistencies. “But,” they say, “I think poetry is not documentary. It's not memoir. Poetry is necessarily both fictional and nonfictional.”

They came to this realization, sparked by advice from Jo Shapcott, while completing their PhD in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London from 2016 to 2019; after that, they began “writing freely.” And it meant reckoning not only with their own voice as a poet, but with metanarrative—especially when it came to retelling stories they’d heard from their mother. “Maybe certain things were emotionally so much more significant,” Chan says. “They took up more space in her life. That's how we remember.”

Chan calls Flèche a “complex love letter to my mother.” Psychoanalysis influenced how Flèche delineates the figure of the mother, and Chan cites Ronald Fairbairn, Melanie Klein, and D.W. Winnicott’s theories of object relations. Chan tells me they were also influenced by Alison Bechdel’s seminal 2012 graphic novel Are You My Mother?, which combines autobiography with an account of Winnicott’s life and practice. Chan’s poem ‘Tea Ceremony’ directly invokes these psychologists when the speaker reflects on having to learn how to carry their mother’s grief: “As a child, I dreaded / her desperate need, my hand resting / on her forehead, unable to let go. / Even now, with Winnicott and Klein / as bedside reading, I can only invite her / to the table: Look, Mother, your hands / are beautiful. Look, our tea is ready.”

The pressures to be a perfect mother are felt not only by the mother, but also by the child. Winnicott’s notion of the ‘good-enough mother,’ Chan says, became a reference point. Winnicott contends that mothers can fail every once in a while, as opposed to asking women to sacrifice themselves to uphold impossible standards. Mulling on the role of the housewife, Chan considers, “It took me much longer to realize unremunerated economic work was still work. I then realized that, in many ways, she was a very good mother… in the ways in which she nurtured me. Imperfectly, but still.”

After a moment of frenzied Googling, Chan and I discover that, yes, it was also Winnicott who posited the mother is the child’s first mirror—her countenance, verbal expressions, and visceral reactions are a baby’s whole world. This idea was especially pertinent to Chan, an only child. Growing up, Chan recollects, “I started seeing the world through [my mother’s] eyes, and I started seeing myself through her eyes, first and foremost. As a queer person, that was quite difficult. If, at that point, she was not seeing me in a way that was affirming, I could not see myself in a way that was affirming. I had to let go of that mirror.” As Chan imagines the evolving, inverting relationship between a mother and her child in English, they translate a fraught moment into creative output.

I ask Chan for their thoughts on the pressure for minority writers to produce autobiographically-informed content. In some cases, there is a clear personal pulse girding a text; other times, readers project a personal note onto minority writers’ work. Chan and I chat about surviving in a haunting and hostile world, in which our identities are always read against the grain, against history and its powerful norms. Chan pushes back against this occlusion: “Ted Hughes had a very specific identity. But why is his ‘I’ universal, while mine is seen as parochial or specific?”

And what does it mean to be ‘legible,’ anyway? In a 2020 academic article on British Chinese poet Sarah Howe, Chan discusses the critical controversy stirred by Howe’s poetry debut, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015). Howe’s work, Chan writes, was both “odiously applauded for its ‘oriental poise’” and misread as “‘intellectually abstruse poetics.’” It seems the racialized poet can’t win. This was partly why Chan insisted on calling their book Flèche: “a title that was not immediately legible—even that felt like an act of resistance. A French word, not immediately transparent,” Chan says. “People might think, ‘Wait, Mary Jean Chan, French word… What?’” Since the book’s release, though, Chan says readers have enjoyed the title and its sonic resonances, rather than feeling daunted by a word with a little hat over the ‘e’. But, Chan affirms, “I was ready to turn people away. These are choices we have, as creative people, and we need to find people who will support our vision.” The double-bind of having to write “smartly” but “accessibly” disproportionally burdens creatives from minority backgrounds: we are tasked with airbrushing our lives onto the page in a way that is digestible for all, but still intellectually radical.

Just as we can choose to refuse complete legibility, Chan points out that we can also refuse the denigrating, somewhat racist label of ‘inscrutability.’ Returning to their study of Howe’s work, they identify Flèche as less intricate and involved than Loop of Jade. “My work comes across as quite transparent and direct,” Chan says. Although Chan has experienced anxiety that they aren’t “pushing” themself hard enough when it comes to literary theory and experimentation, in Bright Fear, they put down those concerns to instead chase whichever stimuli feel most generative. Rather than worrying over achieving perfect transparency or consciously giving their work analytical complexity, while writing their new book, Chan found themself “being less apologetic about having diverse influences.”

Such inspirations include philosopher Sara Ahmed and fellow poet Billy-Ray Belcourt. “It can be in anthropology, it can be in politics,” Chan says, “as long as that thinking fuels my thinking, I’m going to try to bring it into my poetry.” Bright Fear’s triptych structure is also “cleaner and simpler” than Flèche’s braided one. It contains a central sequence of 16 poems about poetry’s role and importance in their life, entitled ‘Ars Poetica,’ which is framed by a section on each end: ‘Grief Lessons’ and ‘Field Notes on a Family.’ Ultimately, Bright Fear celebrates the fact that Chan “managed to find [their] way back to language” after the ruptures of 2020. It “brings the journey of Flèche full-circle.”

This personal exploration is accompanied by a desire to contribute and draw attention to the broader impacts literature can have on queer communities. In 2022, Chan co-edited, with Andrew McMillan, an anthology entitled 100 Queer Poems (Vintage) that places contemporary voices in conversation with luminaries of the past, and examines what a “queer” poem can be. Chan considers helping people “find themselves” to be a motivation behind the anthology. Flèche, too:“I wanted to write it for myself in the beginning, but also realized that there were so many moments of connection with other people. The most touching thing that often happens… A lot of parents would come up to me and say, ‘My child has come out as queer, as trans, as lesbian, I want them to read this…’ For me, it's a gift. It’s a sign that this might help someone, make them feel seen and supported. That is when I realize: maybe I did something worthwhile.”

Connections built around queer and diasporic identities require attention and care in inhospitable and sometimes actively antagonistic surroundings. Discussing ‘Fully Human,’ a poem from Bright Fear inspired by Korean-American writer Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings (One World, 2020), Chan says: “I reckon with how racism in this country sometimes makes me just want to pack up and go home”—by which they mean Hong Kong. “Home is difficult, too, but there's a reprieve from this feeling like I have to perform, or overcompensate, or flatten in some way.” Because of that, Chan has become increasingly fascinated with notions of friendship, even if that’s a little “fluffy,” as they say. “Friendship, where people can hold the complexity of who you are, and love it,” Chan muses. “And genuinely enjoy you.”

It may not matter what the white Western poetry establishment thinks, but poetry is powerful precisely because it helps to build community. Poetry strengthens trans-generational understanding and reworks paradigms for our shared queer and joyful existences. ‘Being seen’ doesn’t need to be a big-picture idea. Instead, it’s about small intimacies, instant moments of recognition that fill you with a larger sense of belonging and compassionate discernment. I recall that, at Chan’s reading I’d attended, the ending of their poem ‘The Importance of Tea’ had made me laugh. “Days later, when a waiter / brought us white sugar for our Oolong / tea at a cafe, I caught your gaze. We / laughed and left the sachets unopened.” Something in a poem as easily missed as a parenthetical, an inside joke, rises from the page, resounding in and with real life. (FYI, Chan’s favorite teas include tieguanyin, pu’er, and oolong.)

The character 忍 is funny, too, Chan and I discover: it means to endure, but visually, it’s a knife hovering over the heart; the heart lives through every day, despite the thousand little cuts. One of Chan’s sestinas from Bright Fear refers to this image, and it also reminds me of a line from the Flèche poem ‘Wish’ that has stayed with me: “the world divides me endlessly.” I ask Chan: how do we inhabit this enduring dissonance? “A poem is a moment in time,” they answer. They no longer feel the same exact way they’d felt when they’d written that line. “In many ways, I've moved beyond that. But the world still divides me endlessly,” they confess. “I don't have an answer to how we survive that; I think we just have to find ways through.”

What’s important, at the end of the day, is “to find connection in these moments of profound disconnection,” Chan comments. There are so many types of love. Together, we Google the Greek types of love and read them aloud—agápē, érōs, storgē… Chan nods. “I think love is the most profound thing on earth.”