There are so many things I am trying to hold together. – Nina Mingya Powles (‘Field Notes on a Downpour’)
Often, I wonder if the motivations that have fueled modern globalization are human beings’ need to connect with one another.
Not connections related to business, but connections related to emotional matters of the heart.
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” – Toni Morrison
Nina Mingya Powles is of mixed-race Chinese-Malaysian descent, was raised in Aotearoa New Zealand, and currently lives in London.
I am someone of Taiwanese and Indonesian descent who was raised in the U.S. and currently lives in Greater Seattle.
Chen Chen, whose Instagram I actively follow, shared a photo of Powles’ Magnolia, 木蘭 in the early summer of 2020.
Against a magenta backdrop, the collection’s cover art captured lush pink, red, yellow, and white flowers above a jade necklace resting atop a marble tablet.
I question the notion that a (literal) book shouldn’t be judged by its cover; the visuals of Magnolia, 木蘭 ’s cover reflects the beauty of the ordinary that is depicted in its poems.
After I sensed the specialness of Powles’ first full collection upon seeing Chen’s IG picture, I looked up the Nine Arches Press’ website to order a copy of the book from the UK.
I remember the sound the sword made / when she cut off all her hair
This is the first line from ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles,’ the opening poem in the first of three sections that Magnolia, 木蘭 is comprised of.
The acknowledgment of the specific sensory detail of the sword’s sound reminded me that a brief moment can be life-changing. Having watched Mulan as a child, I remember feeling my eyes widen at the swift movements of the sword. The scene lasted about five seconds, and the act of Hua Mulan cutting off all her hair was a significant radical act: a woman living during the Han dynasty was defying gender expectations by removing her long hair so she could join the Imperial Chinese Army, which had been exclusive to men.
Mulan is one of several Asian pop culture references imbued in the book’s first section. ‘Miyazaki bloom’ likens the emotionality of witnessing sakura petals being blown by the wind to a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli film. ‘Wolfgirl’ explores the acts of making supper and planting spring bulbs through the perspective of Princess Mononoke, the titular character in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The section’s other notable references include film actress Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai’s prominent In the Mood for Love and late Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu (fun fact: Maggie Cheung portrayed in Stanley Kwan’s biopic Center Stage!).
From what I’ve observed, the cultural identity of many children (myself included) of the East Asian diaspora is greatly influenced by the films / stories produced in Asia. Reading Powles’ poetic meditations on these films in relation to commonplace sensorial experiences (haircuts, the wind moving sakura petals, planting spring bulbs, etc.) makes me proud to be of a cultural heritage that is attentive to activities that often come off as mundane. This kind of attentiveness is reflected in the narratives of the Asian-produced films that Powles’ writes about.
The poems utilizing those film references serve as a reminder to slow down and be present to the life events that, although not sensational, are truly extraordinary.
Remember if you hadn’t relearnt how to speak you would say ‘scallions.’
Various foods make delightful appearances in Powles’ poems like ‘Spring onion pancake,’ where the line above is derived from. One of my favorite aspects of Asian cultures is the significance of food in people’s lives. Along with ‘Spring onion pancake,’ another poem about food that struck me in the third & final section of Magnolia, 木蘭 is ‘What we talk about when we talk about home:’
peeling ginger in the sink
my hands feeling for the biggest softest lemons
waiting here under the kōwhai
scent of báicài fried in ginger, garlic scent of crispy chicken rice wine steam
I love that these different types of food are equated to “home.” Also, I deeply appreciate that Powles added the pinyin to kōwhai and báicài so that their pronunciations are honored.
As a writer, I understand the power that language holds in its ability to comfort. Like a lot of children of the Asian diaspora, I’ve developed an interest in learning more of my parents’ native languages. Perhaps reacquainting myself (a monolingual person) with Hokkien and Indonesian gives me a sense of belonging amidst the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in America as the pandemic has persisted for a year.
“Home” and “belonging” can cause confusion when growing up in a place that doesn’t have resources related to one’s cultural background. Throughout my entire K-12 education in the suburb of Greater Seattle I grew up in, I met just one Taiwanese classmate and one Indonesian classmate. As a result of having very few peers who could relate to either or both sides of my ethnic heritage, I resisted claiming an Asian American identity. It wasn’t until 2019 that I began familiarizing myself with writers of the Asian diaspora who also struggled with their multicultural experiences that I realized, “Being Asian is not a monolith. Being Asian can be multitudinous. I can learn to embrace the messiness of my Asian experience.”
Many poetry collections by Asian writers living in the West engage in heavy intellectualism related to identity politics. Poetic works that intellectually investigate these lived experiences are important, but I want to read more poetry that sits with the tender moments of the Asian diasporic experiences. The personal is political, and the tenderness of the ordinary moments in our lives have much to inform us about what it means to be in this world.
Nina Mingya Powles’ Magnolia, 木蘭 succeeded in connecting my heart to those moments.
Winston TL (he/him/his) is 25 years old, gaysian, & interested. He attended Seattle University & studied Interdisciplinary Arts, and he is currently an MFA in Creative Writing student in Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. His writing has been published by The Lit Pub, The Waking (Ruminate’s online publication), Papeachu Press, FUMEC-ALC, and The Spectator (Seattle University). His published work includes poetry, essays, and reviews & has been translated into Spanish. Interests that complement his love for art include health, social sciences, and comparative theology & philosophy. Learn more about him here: http://about.me/winstontl!