Mary Jean Chan

(1990 - Present)

Poet, critic, and lecturer Mary Jean Chan was born and raised in Hong Kong. The daughter of a television scriptwriter mother and a doctor father, she was encouraged by both her parents in her youthful hobbies of reading and writing. Chan grew up multilingual but was drawn early to English literature, whose subtexts of queerness she connected with. She began college at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School before transferring to Swarthmore College in favor of its less restrictive liberal arts curriculum. At Swarthmore, Chan wrote her first poems and began her exploration of writing, tacking an honors minor in English on to the BA in Political Science she received in 2012. After graduating, Chan sought out further education in the UK, completing an MPhil in International Development at Oxford in 2015 before achieving both an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Chan’s poetry first received recognition for its deft invocations of psychological and cultural complexities while she was still pursuing her creative writing degrees. In 2016, she won the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and the following year, she earned second place in the National Poetry Competition. She was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, making her the youngest poet thus honored. In 2017, she won the Poetry Society’s Anne Born Prize. 2018 saw the publication of her first pamphlet, A Hurry of English, with ignitionpress, which won an Eric Gregory Award and was selected as a Poetry Book Society Summer Pamphlet Choice. Her poem “Flèche,” later the title poem of her first collection, also won the Poetry Society’s Geoffrey Dearmer Award.

In 2019, Chan once again made the Forward Prize’s Best Single Poem shortlist and was named by Jackie Kay as one of the 10 Best BAME Writers in Britain. Chan’s debut full-length, Flèche, was published that year by Faber & Faber, winning the 2019 Costa Book Award for Poetry and multiple other accolades, including being listed as a 2019 Book of the Year in The Guardian, The Irish Times, and The White Review. In 2020, Flèche made shortlists for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, the Jhalak Prize, and the Seamus Heaney Centre First Collection Poetry Prize, as well as the longlist for the Polari First Book Prize. The collection’s title, Flèche, is both jargon for an offensive move in fencing and a homophone for “flesh,” anchoring the collection in related questions of conflict, desire, body, and race, which Chan frequently explores in her work.

Chan has written articles for the Guardian Review and criticism for The Journal of American Studies and The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. She served as guest co-editor at The Poetry Review in spring of 2020 and was a Ledbury Poetry Critic. Chan is currently Lecturer in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University and lives in London.


Learn more about Mary Jean Chan

Video: Chan discusses her full-length collection Flèche

Audio and text: Two poems by Chan at The Scores

Text: Chan’s article for The Guardian on poetry through illness and crisis