Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Personal politics and the modern English language: Mary Jean Chan’s ‘Flèche’

There’s too much to praise in Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche: the characterful depths it presents of its persona, the problems they encounter with queer becoming, the gentle lyricism that appears straightforward but is anything but. It is about family, about love—and also about fencing.

Of the topics that I could cover, I’m going to examine Chan’s use of the English language in its political and apolitical uses in Flèche. Chan invites this opposition after writing in the Preface that ‘There are many reasons for my writing in your language. Ask your government, ask mine‘, adding in a footnote:

Cf. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the 1860 Convention of Beijing and the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory following British military aggression towards the Qing government during the First and Second Opium Wars.

Mary Jean Chan, ‘Preface’ to Flèche (London: Faber and Faber, 2019)

This prefatory remark alerts the reader that this is a post-colonial text—written after colonialism—even if not wholly postcolonial—and written in response to colonialism. The remark also makes the reader complicit in the ongoing political pressure that the English language exerts in the text. This is particularly important because some of the poems use Chinese logograms that, for readers such as me, are impossible to read and understand. (I’m sorry I can’t define which of the Chinese dialects, written or spoken, in which the text is written). I am made aware of my own limitations as a reader that are political as much as poetic.

Set against the distancing I encounter when failing to read the Chinese script are the persona’s confessions ‘written in a language I never chose’. These are sexual confessions ‘dressed […] in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze’—the mother for whom English was a foreign language (‘A Hurry of English’, p. 12). The English language, arriving in China and still continuing its pressure as a political force, is also a means of escape and a form of familial exile for the persona.

Queer Shakespeare is the persona’s go-to linguistic and literary escapism, suggesting that Shakespeare’s English shapes dissident politics. But even simple words like ‘mother’ are politicised. In ‘This Grammatical Offer of Uniqueness is Untrue’, the twin sonnets circle around the word ‘mother‘. In the first, the word ‘mother’ is linked interpersonally to the persona’s mother:

I have never said mother

my entire life she speaks

Shainghainese and Mandarin

and Cantonese knows select

phrases in French or English[.]

Chan, ‘This Grammatical Offer of Uniqueness is Untrue’, p. 44

The persona has resisted saying ‘mother’ in this mode because of the problem of translation and interpersonal communication. However, by the second sonnet, this ad hominem label is universalised:

when I say mother I mean

all those mothers

I have witnessed or envisioned

mothers of history and

mothers of our present

historical moment[.]

Chan, ‘This Grammatical Offer of Uniqueness is Untrue’, p. 44

In his 1945 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ George Orwell explained how through improved and clear written English ‘one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration’.[1] Orwell writes this in December 1945, in the age of master rhetorician Winston Churchill and in the wake of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, largely through the power of his voice and oratorical prowess. Those are the largest scales that apply to the nexus between language and politics, and it would be tempting to apply these ideas to Flèche that, in the preface I quoted above, cited macro-political treaties and colonial aggressions in the history of the poet’s own adoption of English.

However, Flèche stubbornly resists the domination of the political English, and always counterposes the personal. I think the personal wins, especially as the collection offers eight poems voiced from the mother’s perspective. They are signalled in the collection by a vertical series of Chinese logograms that translate as ‘Mother’s Story’. In ‘let them know’, the mother is made to feel an outsider in Hong Kong with, in particular, ‘your Shanghainese accent / not fit // for those enamoured / of the Queen’s English’ (p. 52).

Likewise in ‘what a poet (my mother) might say (1)’, the mother’s voice is repeatedly erased as a result of political censorship:

that she had scurvy as a child

that i don’t understand hunger until I can describe what a drop of oil tastes like

that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy

Chan, ‘what a poet (my mother) might say (1)’, p. 27

Yes, this is political and thus confirms Orwell’s focus on language shaping ‘political regeneration’, but it is also (and I argue primarily) about the mother’s silencing. It is the reason that ‘This Grammatical Offer of Uniqueness is Untrue’, in which a personal–political division of mothers is established, is untrue because the unspoken personal mother of the first sonnet is identical with the universal mother of the second. The personal comes to dominate the political, whilst never erasing it fully.

For reasons other than these, the mother is a controversial figure in Flèche, but I think it’s worth keeping the language issue in mind when we ponder how the persona treats her mother. It definitely seems to be more complicated than it might seem at first.

[1] George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1945), in George Orwell, Essays (London: Everyman’s Library, 2002), pp. 954–67 (p. 955).






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