Alumna Mary Jean Chan wins 2019 Costa Book Award for poetry

24 February, 2020

Mary Jean Chan, who completed the MPhil in Development Studies at ODID in 2014, has won the 2019 Costa Book Award in the poetry category for her collection Flèche.

Flèche (the French word for ‘arrow’) is an offensive technique commonly used in fencing, a sport of Mary Jean’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 20th-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 judges called the book 'a staggeringly beautiful mix of the personal and political'.

Mary Jean is now Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Oxford Brookes University.

The Costa Book Awards are a set of annual literary awards recognising English-language books by writers based in Britain and Ireland. They were first established in 1971 and were previously known as the Whitbread Book Awards. They are one of the most prestigious book awards in the UK.

Previous winners of the poetry award include Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, James Fenton, Alice Oswald, and Carol Ann Duffy, among many others.

Find the book on the Faber website.