Of dumplings, magnolias and pomelos: Alice Hiller on travelling in the imagination with Nina Mingya Powles.

This spring and summer, when travel of any distance has been more or less impossible for most of us, I have consoled myself with words that do the journeying for me.  Two books which have drawn me back again and again are Nina Mingya Powles’ debut collection, Magnolia, published by Nine Arches Press, and her collection of essays, Tiny Moons, which move between Shanghai and Wellington and Malaysia, published by the Emma Press.   Within their pages I can cycle through the swamp-hot summer nights of the deserted student campus in Shaghai, or climb into rain forests, or swim in the freezing, exhilarating Southern Ocean and warm myself afterwards with a bowl of dumplings. 

Nina’s description of tearing the papery inner skin from the pink flesh of a pomelo, and the sweet sting of the flesh inside, encouraged me to buy my first fruit, in a beautiful printed wrapper which felt like a journey of its own even before I peeled open the yellow globe of the fruit. 

As an act of thanks for this, I’m reprinting the review I wrote in harana poetry for Nina’s now sold out pamphlet, field notes on a downpour. This is one of the segments of her debut Magnolia, currently on the Forwards prize shortlist. I’ve included a photo I took of a magnolia in Golders Green just before lockdown last spring. For all of us with dual or multiple heritages Nina’s work is a place where we can find and understand ourselves, and know that being made from many places can gift us with a richness that is also strength. 

From harana poetry, issue 1. 

For her pamphlet field notes on a downpour, self-proclaimed “mudblood” Nina Mingya Powles travels out of English back towards her mother’s Chinese mother-tongue.  Powles previously wrote about this process in prose about living in Shanghai. Neither the narrator, nor the city, of this eight page pamphlet are directly named, however.  Instead, their identities accrete over time within the pages, like the Chinese characters whose processes of formation and signifying Powles explores. She begins:

The first character of my mother’s name, 雯 wen, is made of rain 雨 and language 文. 
According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.”

Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark.  To stop them from slipping I write them down. 

By hearing, and seeing, the sound “wen” transliterated into English, followed by its Chinese character, and then the two characters from which this is made up – rain and language – the process of signing simultaneously enacts and undoes itself.  We recognise the dashes which mark the rain within the ‘rain’ character.  We then experience the “mouthfuls of rain” which the words become as they enter mouths that speak them, and minds that think them, before mutating through the cloud imagery into “her hydrangeas in the dark”.   

This could be Katherine Mansfield territory, about whom Powles has previously written – except that everything is taking place in a city where “old/ buildings are crushed to pieces” and “the subway map rewrites/ itself each night”.  The second page introduces a second unnamed character, whom the speaker connects with a modern form of illumination – and also something rooted in the past: “Not long after we met I learnt the word [ ] neon, which is both a type of light, and a/ type of memory.”  Attempting to come closer to each other through language on the third page, the pair find it multiplying and sliding away from them, towards the bodies in which we imagine they may also meet: 

One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost 鬼 from between two trees 林.  A ghost that rhymes with a path between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin blood vessels.  

The fourth page opens itself onto watermelons and rain, and the complexities of a tonal language where “More than a hundred characters share the same sound.  //  ‘zong.’”  Their meanings include a variety of mark-makings – “footprint, trace” and “the uneven flight of a bird”.   The fifth page uses the gaze of the “the lady at the fruit shop” to let us see the poet’s “half Chinese” face – “(She points to my hair).  We come up against a word I don’t know.  She draws a character in/ the air with one finger and it hangs there between us.”

总  assemble, put together / always
踪  footprint, trace
翪  the uneven flight of a bird

The sixth page runs into cracks in the ceiling – not unlike the strokes for characters – through which rain water drops onto the “you” and the “I”.  Afterwards the poet notes that “two hundred white tundra swans were found dead beside a lake in Inner/ Mongolia.”   Doubling the hundred-plus meanings of “zong” – the rupture which this collective swan death entails also visits itself on a jar of honey which “shattered softly, the/ pieces melting apart in my hands.”

On the seventh page, the differences between animate and inanimate dissolve, within “ming”’s refractions of meaning and sound, all rhyming with “the first part of my Chinese name”.  Powles, who has through this part-named herself, discovers  “I am a tooth-/like thing.  I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus/ leaves.   I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.”

On the luckiest eighth and final page the word “honey” migrates into a “honey pomelo” being sliced by a man with “a faded tattoo of a knife on the back of his hand,/ the blade adjacent to his thumb” – as if he were the human equivalent of a written character, with his meaning marked onto him.   Building and collapsing houses of word cards, field notes on a downpour reaches through language towards the images which it evokes in our minds to ask how we exist to ourselves and others, within and beyond the ways in which we communicate. 

To read the whole review, which also talks about works by Belinda Zhawi, Raymond Antrobus, Mary Jean Chan and Lila Matsumoto, please follow this link to harana 1: 

You can buy Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shaghai here: https: //theemmapress.com/shop/tiny-moons/

You can buy Magnolia here: https://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/magnolia.html

You can buy pomelos in specialist grocery stores and greengrocers. 

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Alice Hiller

Activist writer and poet working with words to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood while writing 'aperture' and 'album without photos'.

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