Flèche Mary Jean Chan
Faber & Faber
The title is an offensive move in fencing and although fencing terminology is used metaphorically, the book’s focus is on making a peace with a status as an outsider when pressurised to pass as conforming to society’s expectations and not wanting to disappoint a mother. Mary Jean Chan is bilingual, grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in the UK. Her poem, “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far”, explores her sense of needing camouflage,
“Do you know what camouflage looks like on a day-to-day basis?
Checking the coast is clear before opening a single tab (and multiple decoys) on a screen
Surreptiously reading Shakespeare (the scene where Cesario woos Olivia)
Watching my parents’ faces for a sign to hold a tidal wave back.
A daily prayer for the strength to confess nothing at all times.
One day, it becomes a choice: to walk out of this life, or to begin living mine.
I left half of my language behind to escape my impeccable persona”
At some point most of us have done at least one of the things on her list. However, it’s the cumulative impact that is the focus here: you might have hidden what you were browsing, you might have disguised what you were reading, you might hide secrets from parents, but the layered effect of doing all of those allows a false persona to cover the real person at the risk of the latter becoming buried. Prioritising the wants of others, particularly when relying on external validation, only leads to dissatisfaction and possibly disassociation because becoming someone else means leaving yourself. A central section, “Versions from the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars” explores how far (adult) children can go to please their parents. The original is a Confucian text written during the Yang dynasty 1260 – 1368 which sets out how sons should behave. In “He Lay Down on Ice in Search of Carp”, a boy, to please his stepmother, “sought out the frozen lake and thawed ice with his hands”, to bring home two fish.
“Years later, I wonder why my mother did not mention
hypothermia or the possibility of drowning, did not
invite me to wonder at the boy’s lack
of self-respect, did not consider how his body
deserved its own morsel of warmth, how his fingers
should never have been bait.”
In the poem the now adult child queries why the fable did not come with warnings about maintaining the child’s safety or what duties parents might owe their children. The adult is able to recognise that parents should not exploit their child’s desire to please, driven by a need for safety and care.
Not all the poems are from a child’s viewpoint. In “(Auto)biography” the poet’s mother speaks,
“The time my daughter told me she was in love with a
woman and I lied and told her it would be OK. What
does three years of famine teach a person? Nothing.
Except that there is such a thing as perpetual hunger,
loss pounding on the windows like rain. Except that
my father loved me, and that he came back – as soon
as he could – in the swallowtail butterfly that fluttered
around the flat, in our pet Papillion, in my beloved child.”
Mary Jean Chan acknowledges her mother’s hardships and reasons for her desire for a child to be proud of. But also disappointment that her child has deviated from the parent’s plans and wishes. There is friction but also a possibility of love despite the deviation. Elsewhere salt becomes a motif for loss and famine – the mother was a child during the great Chinese famine and raids the fridge at midnight – but also hard won wisdom from life’s experience. Living brings pain but also survival.
“Flèche” is an exploration of the masks worn to survive and the boundaries created by a child growing independent of parents, the gap between a parent’s fantasy of what their child will become and reality and growing to accept vulnerability as a part of love. To be able to show someone your true self, the self you want to be loved, is to take off the armour and be real, which is a huge ask from someone used to concealing, presenting only certain facets of character to fit in as a foreigner, as a queer, as a daughter struggling to reconcile parents’ desires with reality. It is also an exploration of how the central figure is seen by others and a reach for understanding others’ viewpoints. It’s this seeking of understanding that gives the poems the feeling of looking outward, not just inwards, that widens their appeal. “Flèche” builds on Mary Jean Chan’s earlier pamphlet “A Hurry of English” (a couple of poems are repeated) to create a solid foundation for a debut collection.