May Huang reviews a celebrated debut collection of poetry by the Hong Kong writer Mary Jean Chan.
Mary Jean Chan, Flèche (Faber & Faber), 78pp.
The word “flèche,” after which Mary Jean Chan’s debut poetry collection takes its name, contains multitudes: the “flèche” is an offensive technique used to surprise an opponent in fencing, a sport that Chan competed in as a teenager living in Hong Kong. As a duel between two opponents, fencing is a particularly apt metaphor for the clashing beliefs and languages in Chan’s book. “Flèche” also evokes desire and kinship (one’s “flesh and blood”): two central themes in Chan’s writing about her sexuality, her relationship with her mother and how her and her mother’s narratives are intertwined. In other words, Chan has picked a perfect title, one that is as expansive and evocative as the poems that it encompasses.
“Flèche” is the French word for “arrow” – which recalls the idiom “straight as an arrow” – and fencing is an unexpected analogy for queer love throughout the book. “Fencing was the closest thing I knew to desire,” confesses Chan in an early poem. “The girl I thought was beautiful / had pierced my heart.” In poems that mention fencing, the sensuality of the sport is apparent: one is instructed to aim above the “opponent’s left breast.” There is a danger to this physical intimacy, one that the weapons of fencing naturally invite: in the titular poem, “Flèche,” Chan describes how the technique caused her to collide with her opponent and become “a blur of entangled blades.” The sonic similarity between the words “blades” and “bodies” heightens this danger. Fencing ironically creates a safe space for queerness to be explored: “changing into school uniform felt like cross-dressing.” And yet, the risks that accompany fencing and queerness necessitate stealth and secrecy. Just as fencing requires one to wear a mask, the speaker must “[check] the coast is clear before opening a single tab.” It is telling that while the book is named after an offensive technique in fencing, one of the book’s earliest sections is titled “Parry”: a defensive technique, a move to employ when under threat.
Flèche makes clear that part of what Chan must parry are conservative, patriarchal views embedded in her Chinese heritage, which she must both embrace and reject. In the poem “//,” the speaker is having dinner at home with her lover and her parents, whose discomfort with their daughter’s queerness is evident. “My mind was tuned to / two frequencies: mother’s Cantonese rage, / your soothing English, inviting me to choose,” writes Chan. Yet neither choice is optimal. English and London, where Chan is currently based, are spaces where she explores her sexuality yet exists as a person of color in a “historically white space”; Cantonese and Hong Kong, the city where she was born and raised, challenge her queerness and make her otherness visible. “To the Chinese, you & I are chopsticks: lovers with the same anatomies,” Chan explains in “//”. Indeed, the forward slashes that title the poem resemble chopsticks and are slanted, deliberately not-straight. The poem also notes that “chopsticks in Cantonese sounds / like the swift arrival of sons,” an event that many Chinese families find auspicious. Chan has been mistaken for a “Sir” numerous times, despite being regarded as “the prodigal son” her grandmother “wanted / but never got.” In Flèche, the liminal space shared by language, culture, and sexuality is rife with conflict and compromise.
The book also suggests that choosing a side, be it Cantonese or English, does not always necessitate loss. The occasional Chinese characters that appear in the book do not feel like an afterthought, but like memories to protect. “Half my words / have been kept like a key / under a plant / which my mother waters daily,” writes Chan in “speaking in tongues”. Although Chan writes in English, which is the reason readers can “be reading this poem at all,” Chinese – and, in turn, Chan’s mother – is at the root of her work. The book is interspersed with sections titled “母親的故事” (which translates to “mother’s story”), containing poems about Chan’s mother: her experiences growing up hungry, grieving her father’s death and witnessing the Cultural Revolution. In the poem “what my mother (a poet) might say,” every line that describes the mother’s thoughts are censored except for the refrain: “that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy.” Like her daughter, Chan’s mother grew up in a society that imposed certain beliefs and conventions upon her. Like her daughter, she understands what it means to live in a body that is politicized. “the truth is I have carried your shame & you have carried mine,” writes Chan in “sorry”. Both mother and daughter have lived through hunger and oppression of different kinds; perhaps the most moving revelation of Flèche is that they are, despite their differences, each other’s flesh and blood.
It is impossible to separate the book’s different concerns – which span the personal and political – from one another, just as “flèche” becomes a metaphor with many significations. In multiple languages and various poetic forms, Chan’s stunning collection invites us to observe the ways in which conflicting beliefs collide. “You came home with me for three hundred days … to show my family that dinner together won’t kill us all,” writes Chan at the end of “//”. The poem concludes on a hopeful note, as if to show us that compromise requires work, but may offer unexpected rewards. In the risky yet protected spaces created by sport, poems, and family, even the fiercest duels can move beyond loss and approach understanding.
May Huang is a translator, poet, and essayist. Born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, she graduated from the University of Chicago. Her work has appeared in Exchanges, InTranslation, Cha, and elsewhere.