I received a copy of this book from the publicist in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.
I’m a sucker for poetry and metaphorical writing. I’ve had Flèche on my TBR ever since it first released and was convinced further when it was longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Here’s a book I really hope wins it because it certainly won my heart!
Flèche (the French word for ‘arrow’) is an offensive technique commonly used in fencing, a sport of Mary Jean Chan’s young adult years, when she competed locally and internationally for her home city, Hong Kong. This cross-linguistic pun presents the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable (‘flesh’) and weaponised (‘flèche’), and evokes the difficulties of reconciling one’s need for safety alongside the desire to shed one’s protective armour in order to fully embrace the world.
Central to the collection is the figure of the poet’s mother, whose fragmented memories of political turmoil in twentieth-century China are sensitively threaded through the book in an eight-part poetic sequence, combined with recollections from Chan’s childhood. As complex themes of multilingualism, queerness, psychoanalysis and cultural history emerge, so too does a richly imagined personal, maternal and national biography. The result is a series of poems that feel urgent and true, dazzling and devastating by turns.
Before we delve into the actual contents of this collection, shall we take a moment to appreciate its title? Like the synopsis says, flèche is a pun about the non-white body and how it is both vulnerable (“flesh”) and weaponised (flèche, an offensive technique in fencing, a sport the poet took up in their childhood).
This is a powerful collection of poems that explores queerness, being bilingual, imperialism, and the poet’s own strained relationship with her mother. Chan had me right from the Preface with this quote:
“There are many reasons for my writing in your language. Ask your government, ask mine.”
Many of these poems discuss how the poet must battle against her identity being suppressed in white spaces and her queerness in her own family.
The writing is powerfully alliterative — the kind that deserves to be read out loud to fully savor the beauty of it. And Chan’s dynamite writing voice makes it hard to believe this is a debut work!
“To curse our bodies for denying us rare gifts of sons, despite offerings reserved for deities disdainful of another prayer.”
As a bilingual, I particularly loved how some of the poems explore identity through a bi-/multilingual lens. They speak of how speaking different languages is much like having two different identities/selves.
“Tonight, I forget that I am bilingual. I lose my voice in your mouth, kiss till blood comes so sorry does not slip on an avalanche of syllabeles into sorrow.”
Chan also talks about how problematic stories of yore about filial piety can be. Respect is a huge deal in Asian culture, especially towards parents. And I’ll be the first to say it — it’s almost always a one-way street.
“Once more I detect
how dispensable the child’s body is, how right it is that he
suffers an ideological wound, how his parents
might have slept fitfully that night, roused by their child’s
cries as mosquitoes encircled him, or perhaps
blocking back a tear while thinking how good
the boy is, how proper this bloody
business of proving one’s love.”
In all, Flèche is a powerful collection of poems about identity, language, and the queer body. It’s a book I know I will keep going back to over and over again because poetry like this deserves to be re-read.
Rating: 5 out of 5