Mary Jean Chan talks about being drawn to Anglophone literature as a teenager, and why the Booker Prize is about so much more than the winning novel

Mary Jean Chan is one of British poetry’s fastest-rising stars. Flèche, Chan’s debut collection ingeniously organised around the sport of fencing, won the Costa Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for numerous other awards. Chan’s title poem from the collection won the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, awarded annually by the Poetry Society. In 2019, Chan received a Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award for a collection by a poet under the age of 30 in 2019 and was chosen by Jackie Kay as one of Kay’s ten best BAME writers in Britain.

Publication date and time: Published

Why do you think the Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it?  

The Booker Prize is a cornerstone of contemporary Anglophone literary prize culture due to its history and prestige; it functions as a well of inspiration for readers worldwide. I love how the Booker gives significant weight – and exposure – to its longlist and shortlist, rather than simply celebrating the winning novel. I have loved many of the longlisted and shortlisted novels in the past, to say nothing of the winning titles.  

Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to for pleasure?  

I am usually drawn to quieter novels that are written with great precision and economy of language. I enjoy books which meditate on relationships (familial or otherwise). I also love poetry, memoir, and graphic novels.   

Tell us about your path to becoming a reader. What did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading or that has stayed with you for many years?  

Growing up in Hong Kong, I learnt English from the age of three, but only became a keen reader of Anglophone literature in my teenage years. In my early teens, I remember being deeply moved by books such as Julie Bertagna’s Exodus, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  

Bernardine Evaristo with Girl Woman Other

I hope to offer readers a snapshot of the most ambitious writing from different parts of the globe that the judges have come across this year

Tell us about one of your favourite Booker Prize-nominated books from previous years, and why you like it.  

There are too many to list, but I would like to mention three favourites: Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was magnificent in the way the characters all felt utterly unique and alive to me. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was a gem of a novel that captivated me from the first paragraph with its poetic prose. Lastly, I adored Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North for its philosophical and contemplative approach towards themes such as relationships, history and memory.  

Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?  

I can’t say I have re-read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin more than any other book, as I am someone who tends to re-read novels that I love, but I have always returned to it for its eloquence of thought and depth of feeling. There is a quote within that reads: ‘For nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.’ There are many profound moments like these in the novel, and I especially found the scene between David and Joey to be one that I would revisit time and again: ‘We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find.’ 

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

What are you already enjoying about the process of judging the Booker Prize, and is there anything that’s surprised you so far?  

I am somewhat surprised by how I have found our monthly discussions to be deeply pleasurable and invigorating, despite the intensity of having to read 160+ novels in over six months. Given our different tastes and inclinations as readers, I really appreciate how all the judges are willing to listen to one another’s opinions and even change our minds after each monthly meeting. It’s not easy to realise that a novel you love dearly isn’t someone else’s cup of tea, but I am heartened by how much the current state of play reflects our considered choices and compromises as fellow readers. 

What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?  

I hope to offer readers a snapshot of the most ambitious writing from different parts of the globe that the judges have come across this year, with the caveat that ‘ambitious’ need not mean that a novel must be thematically complex or epic in scope. Sometimes, a short novel can prove to be as ambitious as a hefty tome. Personally speaking, the most important quality I am looking for in a longlisted book concerns the way it is written. The prose must be exquisitely honed, with a unique sense of verve and style that captivates the reader from start to finish.  

Has the experience of judging the Booker Prize changed the way you think about the act of writing fiction? Has it changed the way you read personally? 

As a poet who is keen to try prose someday, I now realise just how difficult it is to write a brilliant novel and am in awe of many of the writers whose work I’ve had the privilege of reading for this year’s Booker. As a reader, I must confess that I have never read so many novels back-to-back in my life! There were times when I had to read two novels per day (punctuated by meals and the briefest of walks); I don’t think I will have the stamina to continue this rigorous regime after the judging process concludes in November this year.   

Anuk Arudpragasam, author of A Passage North