On the way home, I’m standing on a bus rammed to capacity and yet somehow, there manages to be just enough space in between each person so that there is no contact whatsoever. As the bus lurches forward, I find myself thinking about a line from a poem I love: “Some seas are colder than others, some bodies warmer.”
“Long Distance” is a poem from Hong Kong-Chinese writer Mary Jean Chan’s debut pamphlet, A Hurry of English (ignitionpress, 2018). It speaks in apostrophe — of geographical, physical, cultural distance between two lovers; of how these make the heart grow softer, fonder. I think of it, too, as evincing the ways in which bodies always find one another in the end, whether or not that proximity is seen as desirable, or not: “It is too spring here for my own / good, too much green in the salad bowl. Too many stories of salvation; earlier, blue beyond belief.”
What is it to be a body always in excess of your surroundings? To constantly feel like overflow — an identity overexplained, and yet still incomprehensible to those that matter most. What is it to be a colonial subject, a diasporic subject, a queer body, in and amidst borders and crossings? Is there a way to just be, rather than to be a body in spite of, because of?
A Hurry of English begins with an epigraph from Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival”: “when we are silent / we are still afraid.” Lorde, a black lesbian feminist poet and activist, and later, a cancer patient, wrote all throughout her life about how existence could itself be an act of resistance for people cast on the margins — about how in a world built of walls of violence and exclusion, survival is enough.
Different racialised, queer existences are survived by Chan’s collection. It is a story of salvation, a testament to the pain and possibility of a life lived between duties to oneself and obligations to family, between cities and countries — perhaps figuratively and literally, given that Chan attended an Anglican all-girls school founded by British missionaries in Hong Kong. One of the early poems in the collection, “Practice” traces the speaker’s flashbacks to her teen years in fencing class. The piece is meticulous in its attention to form; it evinces a straitjacketed longing through careful caesura and deliberate line breaks — an excruciating awareness of the forbiddenness of touch.
all the girls swapping one uniform for another before practice, their white dresses replaced by breeches. I thought we were princes in a fairy tale with a twist, since there were no princesses to be taken, wed. From "Practice"
The beauty of “Practice” is precisely in its adherence to routine — the weekly fencing class, the strict stanzas— in spite of which unknowing adolescent desire still glimmers through. Queerness is not ostentatious, as it is often made out to be in the West— nor does it have to be so in order to be real and true. Being queer means bearing closeness with gritted teeth — in the midst of confusion, feeling “yellow / blooms of ache”.
The act of coming out is seen by the mainstream white Western LGBT+ community as the index event of an authentically queer existence. Such an existence is defined by the pain of secrecy before, and the feeling of vindication after. But for many queer people of colour, the truth does not come so easy; the tensions between familial love and queer love sometimes means that coming out is not possible, because you are never only thinking of yourself, but always of the wellbeing of those closest to you.
The acknowledgement of irreconcilable differences is the first step towards understanding; in turn, it is only through understanding can we hope to one day reach forgiveness. In Hong Kong, however, such acknowledgement is complicated by the fact that the very language with which we describe queerness inevitably bears the imprint of colonial trauma.
In her essay “Meeting Point: on being a Chinese poet writing in English”, Chan writes:
I never chose English; English was thrust upon me. My native fluency in English is a political outcome, wrought from the skeins of colonisation, Christian missionary work, and language policing.
To this day, English remains seen as the language of the whitewashed and economically privileged; it is all too easy, then, for queerness — itself a reclaimed slur — to be dismissed as an artificial importation of the West, a form of neocolonialism come home (notwithstanding histories of queerness in East Asia). At the same time, the Western construction of East Asian women as heterosexual orientalist fetish also precludes the possibility of queer existences abroad.
What does it say about me, this obsession written in a language I never chose? From "How it Must be Said"
Chan’s poem “what my mother (a poet) might say”, from Flèche, her forthcoming 2019 Faber and Faber debut, deals precisely with the necessary omissions that come with a life that is queer — a life that deviates from the conventional, in the postcolonial Hong Kong context. Queerness is the guilt of finding a home in the language of one’s oppression — of being unable to be the type of person that can properly fit in at home.
that she showed her mother-in-law a blood-speckled sheet the morning after that I shall love a man despite his strengththat Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy that she wants to devour me back into herself that I would be ci sin to love another womanthat Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy From "what my mother (a poet) might say"
In the traditional patriarchal Hong Kong household, queerness first casts its shadow on the family in the form of the rebellious, adolescent tomboy; though such queer behaviour is laughed off at first, there emerges over time attempts to rectify it through lessons in femininity and a constant emphasis on having beautiful and healthy sons. To rectify is to make right — to straighten queerness into a uniformity of familial lines. As the Chinese saying goes: “船到橋頭自然直” (“As it reaches the bridge, the ship will naturally straighten its course.”)
Thus, to love a woman, to support democracy and political change, to make a living out of writing — to exist as one wants to — is so often far removed from our parents’ idea of reality.
At the same time, it would be inconceivable for many of us to remove ourselves from our families when our visions collide – to do so would be to turn our back on obligation, duty, heritage. To persist in the haunting refrain — “that Mao wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy” — is to resist the temptation to fully disavow both worlds for the sake of an easier existence (if that were even possible), to preserve the ruptures and crossroads that build towards that long-awaited understanding.
Queer is, as argued by feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, “when bodies meet that would be kept apart if we followed the lines given to us” — when bodies refuse to go in a straight line. Queer life is neither secret nor showcase; instead, it is a life interrogating and dismantling established categories and world views — an existence that by nature queers the world around it. Queerness as a way of reclaiming truths from the margins, of recovering what is crossed out — of course, to speak is not to fully conquer fear, but perhaps it is a first step to navigating it with grace.
The articulation of desire is dangerous; at the same time, it is a source of healing. “At the Castro” is Chan’s dedication to Orlando, Florida — the city where gay nightclub Pulse’s Latin Night was targeted by terrorists in 2016. The poem darts from side to side, combining desperation and longing for a world in which being a queer person of colour is more than probable, but tenable — but it is also a celebration of strength.
the anguished clutch of your lover’s breath the way skin is never an apology but always an act of faith. From "At the Castro"
As people in the world we are constantly thrust into situations of collision with walls and with one another. We prod at our bruises, waking up and wondering how they even got there in the first place. For me, what marks Chan’s work is not pain, but faith and forgiveness — first, on the part of the queer speaker to herself; and second, to the life and family that she does not choose, but eventually learns to live with, and well.
They are gentler because they have grown too knowledgeable to love any other way. From "They Would Have All That"
The coda of A Hurry of English sees the speaker bring their lover home, where old distinctions produce nothing but blur; the gentle footfalls of a return home, a tea ceremony between parent and child, a forcing together of apparently unbridgeable seas; queerness as an expansive ethic of care, of trying to grow kindness — for oneself and for others – in the most difficult circumstances.
In spite of everything, Chan’s poems state defiantly and simply: “I am queer.” In doing so, her work engages in the work of queering the world around us — showing us that true courage lies not in running away, but in loving in spite of it all.
Still / Loud’s Wilfred Chan contributed editing.