The pronouns for he, she, and it are phonetically the same in Cantonese (my mother tongue), as well as in Mandarin Chinese. As a bilingual speaker, the notion that I would check someone’s use of my pronouns only makes sense within an Anglophone context. I am exploring new words and ways of being: most recently, what it might mean to be non-binary. I identify as queer, in all senses of the word in English. In Chinese, there are other names, ones which I seldom use, because those words and their specific connotations do not evoke the ways in which I have become – and am still becoming – queer. This discovery takes place within language, rooted in the tongues I speak.
Recently, I came across these lines by the Martinique poet, novelist and theorist Édouard Glissant in his Caribbean Discourse (trans. Michael Dash, 1992):
If one continues to compel the Martinican child to have a French experience in school and a Creole experience at home, the process of collective irresponsibility that afflicts the Martinican community will be reinforced. The principle of multilingualism increases the child’s learning capacity because he is free from the kind of dissociation that emerges as inhibitions, complexes…
I have written elsewhere about growing up in Hong Kong just as the colonial era was drawing to a close, but I am only beginning to plumb the effects this has had on my psyche. I was seven-years-old when Hong Kong was officially handed back over to China as a Special Administrative Region. As the last British governor Chris Patten waved a ceremonial goodbye aboard the HMY Britannia, the city I was born and raised in assumed its postcolonial identity.
As a student at an Anglican school founded by British missionaries from the age of six till eighteen, I accepted the implicit rules of this historic institution – which only began to change incrementally in the years after the British left. The primary school entrance exam (a written test administered in English to a group of overwhelmed six-year-olds, followed by a lengthy interview with the junior school Headmistress) had impressed upon me the gravity of the situation. I began tutorial lessons at the age of seven with Ms. Laity, a retired English teacher who had taught at an international school in Hong Kong for most of her career.
I remember sitting in her apartment on Friday evenings, completing grammar exercises, answering her comprehension questions, then – my favourite part of our two-hour meetings – the chance to read a story I had chosen from her overflowing bookshelf. I recall sounding out the English words phonetically, the book usually too hard for me to fully comprehend, but Ms. Laity would read aloud with me, correcting my pronunciation when and where necessary. I enjoyed her calm demeanour and gentle approach, and particularly relished playing with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel as she poured me English breakfast tea and offered me shortbread (always Walkers) during our ten-minute breaks.
What might my relationship to English have to do with my relationship to queerness? Since English was a colonial language, I had always equated a better grasp of English with ‘success’. English was rooted in linear time – the longer I worked at it, the better I would get, and the more ‘successful’ I would become. That simplistic mentality ensured that my English did improve, but I was also facing a quandary in terms of the self-discoveries I was making in this increasingly familiar tongue.
To this day, Twelfth Night remains my favourite Shakespeare play, because it provided me with my first glimpse into the multiplicity of queer desire. The way it was taught during the HKCEEs – our equivalent of the GCSEs – ensured that the play remained firmly within accepted moral boundaries. The gender-bending was explained by my teacher as a consequence of the ‘Twelfth Night’ of Christmas, during which the ‘normal’ social order was turned ‘upside down’ for a day of fun and revelry. The play’s ending, where all the couples engage in heterosexual marriage, does lend itself somewhat to this socially conservative reading.
However, I could not help but read the text queerly – there was Viola/Cesario who had fallen hopelessly in love with Duke Orsino (whilst wearing her dashing military uniform), and their passionate conversations about the true nature of love made me question who it was I found myself increasingly drawn to – Viola, Cesario, or both? Sir Trevor Nunn’s brilliant film adaptation of Twelfth Night brought all these characters vividly to life: the passionate courting of Olivia by Viola/Cesario was a scene that mesmerized me for months, and the tenderness with which the sea captain Antonio treats Viola’s twin brother Sebastian made for palpable homoeroticism on screen.
In order to make sense of these emergent feelings, I subsumed my queer desires into linear time, and made them an integral part of my ongoing quest to perfect my grasp of English. If reading more Shakespeare made me a better student of English, then I could read about queerness without compromising who I was at the time: a good student of English Literature, and a dutiful child who wanted to please my Chinese parents. This was a delicate and emotionally difficult balance to maintain: a precarious way of living as a closeted teenager. Eventually, a kind of splitting emerged: for every five books I read in English, I read one book in Chinese. The ratio gradually widened. Soon, I could no longer reconcile the two worlds that were (in my mind) drifting slowly apart – my emergent self (who loved Shakespeare) and my mother (who spoke only different Chinese dialects – Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese and Shanghainese – and who insisted that I declare my allegiance to China’s extensive literary canon). As a form of compromise, I diligently read classical Chinese poems set to strict rhyme and meter, often committing multiple poems to memory at a time as I savoured their soothing cadences. Even then, poetry (in both English and Chinese) provided an emotional anchor within the flux of my life which kept me sane.
Years later, during my time at university in the United States, I discovered a poet whose visionary work would change my life. Adrienne Rich became the writer I turned to for a sense of self, poetic inspiration and solace. Her collection The Dream of a Common Language (first published in 1978) kept calling me back to the redemptive possibilities of language. Crucially, Rich’s poems asked me the questions I had been avoiding all my life. One of those was a simple line, in one of her love poems, in which she asks: ‘What kind of beast would turn its life into words? | What atonement is this all about?’ (Twenty-One Love Poems, VII)
At the time, her words struck a chord in me, because they made me realise how much of my life had been about atoning for a perceived failure. In his book The Queer Art of Failure, queer theorist Jack Halberstam contends that from both a Lacanian and Marxist perspective, lesbian desire is doomed to ‘failure’ within a patriarchal, heteronormative and capitalist system, since it is associated with values of ‘non-conformity, anti-capitalist practices, non-reproductive lifestyles, negativity, and critique,’ in contrast to the supposed ‘sociality, relationality, family, sex, desire, and consumption’ that characterises heterosexual relations. Rich’s work was a powerful antidote to the overwhelming shame I felt as a result having ‘failed’ so miserably at being a straight, cis-gendered woman, so I read her poems and essays diligently and slept with her books on my bedside table. I still remember the first time I saw two women holding hands, walking across the lush campus lawn. I couldn’t stop trembling on the sidewalk, out of sheer relief and a hesitant joy.
Since coming out to close friends and family in 2012, I have begun to feel increasingly able to gradually reconfigure my relationship to language – how multilingualism offers a profound way of under- standing the complex historical, political and social contexts that have shaped who I am as a person and poet. I have begun to read more literature in Chinese, and to enjoy Chinese texts translated into English, most recently an anthology titled Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe, 2012) and Something Crosses My Mind (Jintian) by the Chinese poet Wang Xiaoni (trans. Eleanor Goodman, Zephyr Press, bilingual ed., 2014). I am curious about what can or cannot be accurately translated, and what new meanings become possible in the translated text that were not obviously inherent in the source text. I am also curious about what has become newly possible in the translated text of my life, and what meanings I might find in the source text of my past. I am attempting to reject binaries and polarities – and am beginning to marry the broken selves I had compartmentalised and kept apart so well during most of my adult life. I am eager to re-read and re-write my life as an ongoing poem, but no longer in linear time. Linear time suffocates; it forces the now into the future and refuses any meaningful engagement with the past. I want, instead, to inhabit a state of play – a form of playtime – where time dissolves and there is only being, breath, and the myriad of languages we allow ourselves to inhabit and speak.
In November 2017, I flew home for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, and spent an afternoon discussing my thoughts on Anglophone poetry with an American poet who had been living in Hong Kong for a few years. Before the event, we met up for lunch for a lengthy chat about our lives. This time, despite opening up to someone I didn’t know well, in a city which I still feel alienated in despite it being home, I felt a bit less torn between being here or there, closeted or queer. On the day of the reading, I was surprised at how at ease I felt. There were friendly faces in the crowd, attendees of all nationalities who had decide to spend their Sunday afternoon at a fringe poetry event. I felt that day, in that sun-lit café among poetry lovers, as though I had finally been given permission to simply be – to play with languages the way a child might – as if language itself was a safe place in which to roam.
– Mary Jean Chan is a poet from Hong Kong. She came second in the National Poetry Competition and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Her debut collection is forthcoming from Faber in 2019.