Flèche: multilingualism, queerness, and Mary Jean Chan’s search for self-understanding

MAry Jean Chen Fleche Candid Orange charlotte grimwade

Charlotte Grimwade

An exploration of queerness and cultural identity, Mary Jean Chan’s most well-known poetry collection, Flèche, is definitely worth reading. In particular, the collection powerfully contends with Chan’s relationship with their mother, creating poems that simultaneously comfort and jar the reader.  

I hadn’t heard of Mary Jean Chan before discovering their 2019 poetry collection, Flèche, whilst browsing in Gay’s The Word, one of my favourite London-based independent bookshops. I always find myself gravitating towards any bookshop’s poetry section, and this day my spontaneity was definitely rewarded. Flèche won the 2019 Costa Book Prize for Poetry and was later shortlisted for other awards, like the International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2020. Chan’s writing is exceptional. They explore intense and complex themes such as gender identity, sexuality and family, and their words do so in a way that is accessible. 

The linguistics of Flèche

The title of Chan’s collection reveals a significant deal about their sense of identity and experiences as a queer individual. Flèche is a French term most frequently used in fencing, a sport Chan competed in as a young adult. This theme continues throughout the collection, with different sections being called other fencing terms like ‘parry’ and ‘riposte’. However, by naming the title of the collection Flèche, Chan creates a pun that highlights the complexities of the non-white and queer components of their identity. 

In French, Flèche literally means ‘arrow’ and is commonly considered as an offensive technique within the realm of fencing. Meanwhile, its pronunciation to an English-speaker sounds like ‘flesh’, representing the dichotomy within Chan’s identity. They can be both vulnerable whilst carrying great strength, ultimately forming a conflict between seeking security and actively displaying one’s identity to the world. 

Chan is fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, with all three languages featuring across the collection. In poems like, ‘Written in a Historically White Space (I)’, Chan flips the discomfort they have personally felt whilst living in the UK on its head, by making a solely English-speaking reader confused with the frequent use of Chinese characters throughout the poem. 

Reclaiming their linguistic and cultural identity, Chan writes central words like “language”, “skin”, “Chinese” and “English” in Mandarin, making a reader feel the same discomfort they have personally experienced. Initially appearing like a confused paragraph of different languages and outwardly not seeming ‘poetic’ at all, once you start this poem you are engaged from beginning to end, inferring meaning and appreciating the unique rhythm the fluctuations in language create. 

Motherhood and national identity 

Having grown up in Hong Kong, Chan contends with their mother’s sense of national identity throughout the collection. Often concerning the turbulent nature of China’s recent history, many of Chan’s poems deal with complex themes such as tradition and memory. Both Chan and their mother clearly have a troubled relationship when it comes to embracing both past and present. This is evident in one of the collection’s initial poems, ‘Always’. The poem encompasses how, despite their distinct childhoods, both Chan and their mother can “always” find a way to come together. 

In an interview after winning the 2019 Costa Poetry Award, Chan described how “[poetry] allows for complexity without having to reconcile anything”, a point made abundantly clear in their poems about familial relationships. This can be seen through the many ways in which Chan compares their mother’s traumatic experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution and the difficulties they faced coming out as queer. Poems such as ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ convey the challenge of revealing one’s true identity, illustrated through Chan’s idealised simile of a parent embracing their child’s sexuality “as calmly as a pond accepts a stone flung into its depths”. 

However, it is Chan’s poems that incorporate their mother’s imagined voice that are far more conflicting and interesting. ‘Notes Towards an Understanding’ and ‘let them know’ are significantly more effective in depicting the tension and compromise within Chan’s relationship with their mother and their family’s history, as like with the tense duality of a fencing match, questions and answers bounce off each other. 

Occupying queer spaces 

Chan’s relationship with their sexuality is delved into across Flèche, but most notably in the poem ‘Practice’. Reading like a fencing match, the poem moves in couplets, referring to “white dresses replaced by breeches” and how Chan perceived the girls participating as “princes in a fairy tale”. The poem highlights Chan’s comfort in the fencing world’s more ambiguous sense of gender identity. 

One of the most famous poems from the collection, ‘//’, builds on these themes. Commenting on Chan’s experiences bringing home their partner, chopsticks act as a central metaphor, effectively conveying the often-jarring moments when their two separate worlds collide. Referring to how they knew a friend’s sister who “loved a woman for ten years & each word she says to her mother stings like a paper cut”, the seemingly never-ending couplets act as a constant reminder of the struggle to break down harmful preconceptions. 

Flèche’s significance

Despite the often-uncomfortable familial tensions explored throughout Flèche, more than anything the collection acts as a love letter to Chan’s family. It is therefore a poetry collection worth reading, whether it’s to get into contemporary poetry, broaden one’s literary horizons, or understand distinct individual experiences. Though Chan effortlessly jumps between different languages and themes, their writing remains accessible and thoroughly enjoyable for any new poetry readers. Whilst Chan has stated that “poetry is a complex form”Flèche fluidly encompasses the tenderness of conflict in an approachable, unintimidating and extremely impressive way.