Poet Nina Mingya Powles has been back in one of her many homes – Wellington – off the back of being shortlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the Ockham Book Awards. Her poetry volume Magnolia 木蘭 explores her identity as a Chinese-Malaysian-Pākehā, weaving in language, nature and pop culture references. She talks to the Asia Media Centre about her work.
Home is constantly shifting for poet Nina Mingya Powles.
She’s found a sense of home in many cities – not just in Wellington, but in Shanghai and in London too, where she’s normally based. The downside of finding your home across multiple cities is when Powles is in one place, she's often homesick for another.
Her latest poetry collection – Magnolia 木蘭 – covers her reflections on belonging and on loneliness as she navigates her identity as half Chinese-Malaysian and half Pākehā through a tangle of food, language, and pop culture.
Many of the poems in Magnolia 木蘭 were written while she was living in Shanghai for 18 months. She’d lived there as a teenager years ago with her family, but returned on her own years later, on a scholarship to learn Mandarin.
During her time there, she started capturing the city through small notes.
“I carry a notebook - it's not so much like a diary, but it's a place basically where I take notes and make lists of things I want to remember. That started properly when I was in Shanghai. It was a record of the places I'd been and how I was feeling,” she says.
Those notes became the foundation of many poems in Magnolia 木蘭. They covered the food she ate, the streets and colours she saw, the language she was learning and the flowering magnolias around the streets of the city - which is where she found the name for her poetry collection.
“[Magnolias] were always an important motif and it felt like a fitting title,” she says.
Magnolias connect two of her homes: Shanghai, where they are the official flower of the city and Wellington, where she can’t help but notice how magnolia trees pepper the streets.
But there’s also more to the title than that: in Mandarin, ‘magnolia’ translates to 木蘭, which is pronounced ‘mùlán’ - the name of the Chinese folk heroine, Mulan.
Mulan - and specifically the 1998 animated film Mulan - features throughout Powles' poems. The first poem, Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles, reflects on the animated film and what it meant for Powles to watch it.
“I think I loved it especially because there were a lot of cultural things in it that felt familiar.”
“I just couldn't not write about my childhood memories of movies like Mulan. It was a starting point in writing about my experience growing up mixed race,” Powles says.
Pop culture is a point of reference – a “touchstone” - for many people, she says and these touchstones appear throughout her poems. Not just Mulan, but Studio Ghibli films and even Blade Runner 2049.
Within her little Shanghai notebook, she would take notes about the food she ate – a self-confessed food lover, the dishes she ate became the core of how she experienced the city.
“The focus of my day was 'what sort of amazing food can I eat?'. Living there alone, going out to eat alone and becoming comfortable being in the city alone was really an amazing thing.”
From the zongzi – the sticky rice wrapped in leaves with a “soft heart” of duck yolk” - to the act of making spring onion pancakes - “chop finely with your mum’s best knife” - the food she ate and the food she makes, even after leaving Shanghai have become a part of her.
Powles says food is undeniably a part of her cultural identity and more than that, food is a touchstone for her when it comes to relating to her family and her heritage.
“[Food] is the main thing that ties me to my Chinese family, to my Malaysian-Singaporean family,” she says, “I'm constantly failing at mastering the different languages that they speak and so [food] is just a really constant connection.”
Language is something she’s struggled with, not only in relearning a complicated language like Mandarin but figuring out how it fits into who she is.
She’s arrived at a more comfortable place with her language skills – her time in Shanghai was part of her trying to relearn Mandarin.
“I want to offer reassurance to anyone who partly grew up with other languages and who lost them. It's really hard to come back to it, especially with languages like Mandarin which are so hard to learn. It takes a lifetime.”
“Maybe in the book is my way of asserting belonging without needing to have that fluency,” she says.
“It’s kind of like saying the language is in my body and in my blood.”
- Asia Media Centre