Nina Mingya Powles’ exciting new collection, Magnolia, 木蘭, is a celebratory exploration of languages, and the cultures, experiences, and worlds that lie within them.
Nina Mingya Powles’ debut collection, Magnolia, 木蘭, is a tender exploration of existing in-between languages, cultures and homes. This is a book of multiplicities where disparate aspects of her upbringing in New Zealand and her Chinese-Malaysian heritage are given space to exist side-by-side. Many of these prose-poems were written whilst she was living and studying in Shanghai; and many consider the loneliness of being locked outside of a language, a word, or even a single Chinese character. Her fragment-poem on Chinese writer, Eileen Chang, titled ‘Falling City’, describes “reading her stories in translation” as:
“…trying to see her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.”
This nod to the impossibility of translation and the accompanying feeling of loss reappears in many guises in the collection. In ‘Dreaming in a language I can’t speak’, the child-narrator attempts to hold onto fragments of language and words “from disappearing rooms inside disappearing homes”.
‘Mother Tongue / 母语: A poem in two voices’ can be read as two poems on one page, with each poem reading down the left-hand or right-hand column respectively. The poem on the left describes a memory of sharing food with relatives and not being able to converse with them due to a language barrier, whilst the poem on the right imagines her mother never leaving her home country, so the narrator would now be fluent in her relatives’ ‘tongue’. This imagined (im)possibility is described in the last lines as a dream “where I am not trapped / in any language”. Powles’ refusal of one mother tongue by asserting that the poem is for two voices is reminiscent of Vahni Capildeo’s assertion that the ‘mother tongue is an evil myth’. ‘Evil’ as it is predicated on a false idea of purity, which can cause lifelong pain to those who are irreducible to such colonial, hierarchical categorisation. In another of Powles’ split-form poems, ‘Origin myths’, cold, bureaucratic questions are answered by a wide-open space on the page and then bracketed poetry. “What is your mother tongue?” is ‘answered’ with “(Watching small volcanoes erupt slowly in the distance)”, suggesting that poetry is more of a home than any standard answer to that question.
Powles’ exploration goes beyond simply the limiting effects of language as she re-appropriates Chinese, mining meaning out of Chinese characters as she goes. The mid-section of the book, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’, is particularly lucid in revealing the hidden poetries within a specific Chinese character or word. Here, words hide within words in an endless unfolding. Indeed it is her outsider, traveller perspective that allows her to perceive new worlds afresh. In the opening poem of the book, the narrator describes watching the film Mulan in Chinese with English subtitles and only catching some of the words. Following this lament, the narrator goes on to focus on other details in the film with a hyperreal vividness as if the limiting effects of language have propelled her into heightened perception:
“When Mulan returns home the colours change from greybluegreen to pinkwarmyellow/ there are plum blossoms floating in the stream”
Out of fragmented meaning comes the power to perceive more through the bodily senses. To say this is a book that celebrates colour is an understatement. Powles’ ability to see colours within colours gives the impression of someone tuned into the variousness of existence. Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Snow’ comes to mind, not least for the amount of peeling and portioning of ginger and garlic in Powles’ food-odes, but for her celebration of the world being, in MacNeice’s words, “incorrigibly plural”. In this collection, food is often the social glue that transcends language barriers.
Powles also finds empowerment in the in-between state of being both familiar with a language and distant from it when she pulls words into bodily sensation. In ‘Dialectical’ the narrator lets her:
“teeth rest on the edge of a word / not quite crossing over into / what does it taste like”
and in ‘Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, 2016’, the Chinese word for persimmon is cut open and tasted. Powles savours the joy of learning a language as if it were one of the steamed dumplings that populate many of her poems. This synaesthesia arises from being nowhere and everywhere all at once; it is in this rootlessness that experience pours forth to overwhelming effect. This leads to both existential anxiety and an appreciation for multitudinous worldings in which nothing is taken for granted, and everything could be otherwise. Her use of forward-slashes (/) in many of her poems give the effect of setting up two ‘either/or’ statements side-by-side, reinforcing her poetics of hybridity and fluidity across cultural boundaries.
Out of all the experiments with form within Magnolia, 木蘭 , the fragment-poems and split-poem form are the most effective at exploring the importance of the space travelled between cultures, languages and home. The final poem in the book, named after a native tree of New Zealand, ‘April Kōwhai’, is another of her fragmentary poems, with each fragment resonating with the next, just as memory works:
“I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages so that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth can only hold so much.”
Powles knows only too well the limitations of language, yet it is in the empathic attempt to reach out to others that is the work of being human, and a great poet. Magnolia, 木蘭 is a celebration of languages not simply as representations of the same thing, but languages as bearers of whole worlds and ways of seeing, and, of course, tasting.
This review was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages