“Bright Fear” by Mary Jean Chan

Mary Jean Chan Mary Jean Chan

Issues of identity take center stage in Mary Jean Chan’s new poetry collection Bright Fear. Chan’s poems deal with a variety of uncomfortable personal experiences: growing up queer in a Chinese household, dealing with racism and racial prejudice when moving to the United Kingdom, and grappling with learning—and then eventually writing in and making a career out of—the “colonial language”, as Chan puts it, of English.

But Chan also makes clear that to understand a poet solely through the lens of lived experience is to deny the work its multi-dimensionality, to flatten the poem into simple autobiography. Visualizing the act of composing poetry as the creation of a series of nested folders on a computer, Chan writes: “The poet opened a clean Word document, titled it POETRY, then saved it / in a folder titled NONFICTION, then saved it in a folder titled FICTION.” It is a cheeky warning to readers: take everything you think you know about me with a grain of salt.


Bright Fear, Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber, August 2023)
Bright Fear, Mary Jean Chan (Faber & Faber, August 2023)

Bright Fear, the follow-up to Chan’s Costa Book Award-winning debut Flèche, is as much about Chan’s life as a queer, Asian, immigrant poet as it is about resisting the impulse to essentialize a poet to their identities. In understated, lucid writing, Chan illuminates the small moments in one’s life—good and bad—that come to form a whole self, as well as the complicated people, places, events, and emotions that contribute to that self-conception.

The opening section of the book, “Grief Lessons”, feels the most timely, with poems set during the Covid pandemic. Chan describes the daily experiences of lockdown—washing hands, watching the news, attending Zoom meetings, and taking long walks along the river. Within this quotidian landscape, Chan hones in on pockets of particular discomfort. “EDI for Migrants (I)” recounts a racist incident at, ironically, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training session:


in a pixelated sea of    faces mine remains conspicuous    the mere sight of me
is sufficient to warrant commentary      the moderator says my name      asks if
I am the Chinese partner     joining the call from China     there is a momentary
pause    I tell her I am a senior lecturer    who teaches poetry   at this university
she laughs     says it’s good to check one’s assumptions!      our training begins
no one else      is invited      to introduce themselves on-screen      the following
minutes are a blur       my mouth a familiar closet        I have locked myself into
my sudden shame     a subcutaneous blush      truthfully speaking      I am tired
of speaking into an expectant silence      weary of having to wield     this tongue
forcefully to ensure my words land        softly and politely to let her off the hook


Other experiences of marginalization haunt Chan in this section of Bright Fear, such as in “Sestina”, when a white person asks Chan “why is your English so good,” and in “Answer”, when someone in a cafe “stared / at me from across the room / and asked, are you a man or a woman?”

Chan always responds to these incidents with a certain level of restraint, never speaking up too much as to make the other person uncomfortable. This is a quality Chan attributes in “Sestina” to both the difficulty of “existing in a historically white space” as well as an inherited cultural value system: “A Chinese / word I learnt as a child, 忍, means to endure, his question / like a blade hovering over a heart.”

Restraint continues to be a theme in the middle section of the book, a series of sixteen numbered poems titled “Ars Poetica”. Here, Chan moves into a more interior realm, exploring the poet’s own relationship to writing, craft, and the English language. The poem—an art form of restraint—feels like the natural medium for Chan, who writes, “I work too well with constraints so I cannot enjoy / the sheer amount of space a prose writer deserves.” In section II of “Ars Poetica”, Chan traces that back to childhood, likening the poem to a queer refuge:


When I was young, I realised my body
was something to be held back or kept
in its place, so I have mastered the art
of observation, how to watch faces for
a frown or grimace: signs of weather.


Once, a teacher came up to me in the
school playground and asked me if I
had any feelings. Your expression is
blank, she added. What could I say?
I knew how to dim any spark within.


Years later, I left home for the poem:
inscrutable house, constructed space,
blue room, how the poets have named
a heaven in which lonely meanings sit
companionably beside lonely children.


In the final and perhaps most introspective section, “Field Notes on a Family”, Chan reflects on the difficulty of being queer in a Chinese family, revisiting painful experiences of conflict with Chan’s mother over clothes, hair, and other ways Chan did not fit in with feminine gender norms, like in the poem “beauty”: “even in our fiercest rage / my mother and I were / devoted we stayed and / fought since we could / not be disloyal always / the same cause a dress / a pair of heels my hair.” The same conflicts continue into Chan’s adulthood in other poems.

For all its pain and grief, Bright Fear also holds within itself moments of hope, love, and peace. In “A Denim Shirt”, Chan comes home to Hong Kong after a long period of lockdown and finally confronts these tacit familial frictions. What results is a similarly unspoken, but knowing, reconciliation between parent and child:


How was I to know that I’d given
birth to a daughter who didn’t like wearing dresses,
you wanted to know. I cried, I explain in a soothing,
quiet voice that only adults are capable of. My tears.
That should have been enough. Then I tell you that
I am busy: work as my shield and song. For an hour,
I just looked at the wild, fluorescent sky. Eventually
you called, and said it was time for dinner. And so it
went until it was time for me to leave. Back home in
London, I find a denim shirt tucked around a box of
Godiva chocolates. For you and J, you said. You did
not mention the shirt, the kind you had always told
me never to wear. I thanked you, for the chocolates.


It doesn’t of course matter whether this relates a true story. In “Ars Poetica”, Chan writes that the queer poem must always look to the future, for that is where the hope for a better life resides. The denim shirt represents that hope for, if not complete understanding, at least acceptance; it is, in Chan’s words, “a wish which stems from a desire.”

Lily Nilipour is Marketing Assistant at Harvard University Press and an Associate Poetry Editor for Narrative.