Ingrid Horrocks

The Boundaries Begin to Blur: An interview with Nina Mingya Powles

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Photo credit Sophie Davidson

Nina Mingya Powles is an acclaimed nonfiction writer and poet. Her latest book, Small Bodies of Water (Canongate 2021), won the 2020 Nan Shepherd Prize in the United Kingdom for Underrepresented Voices in Nature Writing. Her poetry book, Magnolia 木蘭 (2020), was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Ockham Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. She is also the founding editor of Bitter Melon, a small press that publishes limited-edition pamphlets by Asian poets. Nina was born in Aotearoa, partly grew up in China, and now lives in London. She’s one of the most exciting new voices in writing in Aotearoa.

 

Ingrid Horrocks: Thank you, Nina, for agreeing to talk to us about your wonderful work and your approaches to writing. Headland is a forum for new and emerging writers. I love that you’re both new and emerging, and already a phenomenally successful writer both in Aotearoa and internationally, and in not just one, but in two genres. 

I thought perhaps we could start there, with the question of genre. Can you tell us a bit about the way in which you move between poetry and nonfiction? Did you always do that?

 

Nina Mingya Powles: I started out writing creative nonfiction but my paragraphs were getting shorter and shorter, and then I discovered poetry, which felt to me like the most playful form of writing, the most spacious and free. But as I grew more confident as a writer, and as I read more and more, I learned that you can shape an essay just as you shape a poem on the page. So the boundaries begin to blur. These categories have gradually become less important to me; I’m more interested in the spaces in between.

 

IH: How do you know when you need to write a poem about something rather than prose, and vice versa?

 

NMP: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently: why some projects I’m working on emerge in prose and others in poetry. I’m still figuring out the answer. I think that in an interview Anne Carson said that she finds the form only after she starts writing, and then she’s got to follow it. I really relate to that: I find a thread and then I follow it, and very often it’s weaving between poetry and prose, because that’s where I feel most myself.

 

IH: How do you describe your nonfiction? Essays? Memoir? As this is the nonfiction issue of Headland, let’s focus in particular on Small Bodies of Water. Would you like to tell us how you came to write this astonishingly beautiful book?

 

NMP: I wanted to write a collection of essays, but I use the word ‘essay’ loosely. I think of essays as having a physical shape or form, much like a poem. Writers like Ashleigh Young, Alexander Chee and Annie Dillard (the three As!) taught me amazing things about the possibilities of the essay form. But Small Bodies of Water also gets called a ‘nature memoir’, travel writing, food writing—it’s all of those things at once.

I had a few strange essays I’d written over the years, some in draft form only, and I had a vague notion that one day I’d love to collect them into a book, but I didn’t know how that might work. Then one day, scrolling on Twitter, I saw the submissions call-out for the Nan Shepherd Prize. You had to submit a synopsis, an outline and a writing sample, which suddenly felt doable. I had never really thought of myself as a ‘nature writer’ before but I realised that if you think of nature writing as encompassing writing about place, about landscapes both urban and rural, then actually I’m never not writing about nature in some way. Water is the thing that I kept returning to; Wellington Harbour, specifically. I was having recurring dreams about the harbour, and realised I wanted to write about them.

 

IH: One of the things that can be a challenge for new writers is building up from individual, shorter pieces, to a book. Can you tell us a bit about how that process works for you? Is it different for your poetry books, versus your nonfiction?

 

NMP: It helps that I’m the type of person who needs a project to get anything done. Every small thing I’m working on becomes, in my head, a fragment of something bigger. I need to know the rough shape of a project before I dive in. That said, I have a short attention span and struggled with the thought of putting together a ‘real’ book. (It’s actually a relatively short book, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write anything as long ever again.) Writing a collection of poetry helped greatly with writing Small Bodies of Water in that I knew that it didn’t have to be chronological and there didn’t need to be a conventional narrative. Each essay could stand on its own; the pieces could be read out of order. But there also had to be a thread for the reader to follow, which was the most challenging part for me to figure out. I learned that I could trust my instinct, and I could also trust the reader. I couldn’t always explain to my editor why it made perfect sense to me to leap from an essay about tofu to an essay about Chinese calligraphy. I decided to trust that the reader would follow me in making that leap. Thankfully my editor trusted me, too.

 

IH: In Small Bodies of Water, you often talk about archives. Family as archive. A personal archive of blue. An archive of waterfalls. An archive ‘rooted in memory, and in our shared habit of collecting things and never throwing them away’ (249). Home as a ‘collection of things that have fallen and been left behind: dried agapanthus pods, the exoskeletons of cicadas….’ (7). I ended up thinking of Small Bodies of Water as a kind of archive too. Does that feel right to you?

 

NMP: Yes, it does. I wanted to collect together my own archive of water and memory. I was thinking of paper collages or patchwork quilts: things you piece together by hand. Maybe it’s fitting that the book is difficult to categorise and made up of pieces of different shapes, because water changes shape and exists in many forms. And the archive is a political space. I work in a library and archive—which is an institution—so I’m always asking these questions: who’s left out of the archive? Who does not have access to the institution? Who is excluded from these spaces?

 

IH: Midway through Small Bodies of Water you write about keeping two diaries: ‘One full of difficult words, gaps and silences; one full of nourishment, roots, sun and rain’ (139). Can you tell us about those two diaries, or two modes? How does that work for you as part of your creative practice? And perhaps also your politics?

 

NMP: I’ve never actually been a regular diary writer, unless I’ve got a project in mind: a garden diary, a sewing diary. But soon after moving to the UK from Aotearoa I frequently found myself in strange social situations where people would make racist anti-Asian jokes and comments—not to me but in front of me. It’s like I was invisible and then, when I called them out on their racism, I’d suddenly be hyper-visible. At first I didn’t know how to respond and for days afterwards I’d be, like, stewing in my silence and rage. I started to keep a record of these instances of racism, like a catalogue, which helped me see them with more clarity and distance. Making this catalogue felt particularly important because I knew how unthinkingly white people said these things; I knew they likely would not remember their own words in the days and weeks afterwards. That they would not be replaying the scene in their minds like I was. Writing down what had happened felt like a small, private act of resistance. At the same time I was just beginning to figure out how to feel at home here in London. I was beginning to plant a small balcony garden, which at first was also a process of cataloguing: recording patterns of sunlight, mapping vegetable plots, labelling seedlings. So these two modes of note-taking became intertwined. To go back to the archive, I think this is where I became conscious of my own archiving, and archiving as a political act.

 

IH: As a follow-up question, how do you work through pain? In one of your essays, you write, ‘It is easiest for me to talk about pain using the language of waves’ (57). And on the other side of that, how do you hold onto, and make, hope in your writing?

 

NMP: The ebb and flow of particular kinds of physical pain is what led me to the language of waves and the language of fragments. I couldn’t find a way to fit pain into regular prose; it had to be flowing, irregular, cyclical. I guess it’s similar with anxiety and loss. The hardest thing is to form it into words, so I start thinking about the white space on the page instead. This is where I turn more towards poetry, because in poetry I feel like there’s more space, more flexibility to hold onto these contradictions and complexities all at once, in a single moment. The spaciousness of a poem gives me hope. On a very practical level, though, I can go on making things and writing things because I’ve got a stable part-time job alongside writing, and because I live with my partner who earns a lot more than me. I wish we as writers would talk about those things more— how we make it work.

 

IH: I’m interested in how these questions work for you as a Nature Writer in particular, whatever that means. At one point you write, ‘I never really intended to write about ecological loss, but I also don’t know how to avoid writing about it’ (45). Nature writing can get too elegiac, too dark or full of lamentation. Do you have ways of approaching this, or suggestions for helping people navigate it?

 

NMP: At first I felt a bit paralysed in writing about climate destruction—how to approach it. I felt that because I’m not a scientist or an environmental historian, there wasn’t anything useful I could add to the conversation, as someone who lives in a city relatively untouched by the effects of climate change. But I also felt there was some value in recording what I felt and saw around me: heatwaves in April, strange weather patterns, catastrophic images on the news. The strangeness of finding comfort and quiet in green spaces in the city while also sensing the imminent loss of other landscapes like Antarctic glaciers and Pacific islands. I can only ever write from my own place and my own perspective, so that’s what I did.

 

IH: To take this in a slightly more nuts-and-bolts direction, how do you go about moving your writing beyond what you call in one essay, the ‘well-researched facts’ (26)?

 

NMP: The historical research part doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to push myself. The period spent researching my grandfather’s papers from his time as a marine biologist was strange: it was August 2020, the city was bright and warm, and it was one of the first times I ventured out into the city after the first lockdown in London. Everything felt surreal and all the colours felt over-saturated. I couldn’t really remember how to interact with strangers. So I wrote about that feeling: how it felt to walk through Regent’s Park into the city (because I was still too nervous to take public transport) and spend the day at a centuries-old library looking at articles my Gong Gong had written, at a time when I couldn’t visit him.

 

IH: Can you tell us a bit more about the Nan Shepherd Prize for Underrepresented Voices in Nature Writing and what it aims to do?

 

NMP: The prize was set up by Canongate in 2019 to diversify the field of ‘nature writing’ in the UK, which has been (and still is) dominated by white male writers. I don’t believe prizes are the answer to everything, but Canongate works to develop a network of support and professional development with the longlisted writers, connecting new writers with agents, so it’s not just the winner of the prize who ends up with a book deal, which is absolutely amazing. I never really saw myself fitting in in this field, and in creative nonfiction more generally, until I encountered the work of Jessica J. Lee, who founded The Willowherb Review, an online literary journal for nature writers of colour.

 

IH: What does this mean to you specifically in the space of Aotearoa New Zealand? Do you have any thoughts on nature writing (or just nonfiction writing) here? And where it needs to go next?

 

NMP: There’s a startling lack of prizes and support specifically for under-represented writers in Aotearoa, though many independent presses and collectives are doing incredible work. I feel very lucky that when I was an undergrad I took a class in ‘creative science writing’ with Ashleigh Young and Dr Rebecca Priestley, two important influences on me as a young writer. But not everyone has the kind of access I did. I am most excited about creative nonfiction in Aotearoa beyond the institution, beyond the confines of genre. I learn the most from interdisciplinary writers, such as Hana Pera Aoake, with their incredible hybrid work A Bathful of Kawakawa and Hot Water (2020). I think another recent landmark text for nonfiction writing in Aotearoa, and for the essay form generally, was All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu (2019).

 

IH: You’ve written about yourself as someone ‘whose skin, whose lineage, is split along the lines of migration’ (245) and you still live a life where you move between different places. How do you think about yourself in relation to different writing communities or readerships? Is this something you consider when you’re writing? Or after? Or, not really at all? Has it had impacts on your journey as a writer?

 

NMP: In order to get words down on the page I think I have to push these questions away. I write for myself and then only later, in the editing process, I might consider: would this make sense to my friend who grew up in Aotearoa? And what about my friend in London, who grew up in three countries?

I think of myself foremost as an Aotearoa writer, but I can’t be in two places at once, which gives me tremendous anxiety! I never thought I’d end up in London and I have weird feelings about it as a nucleus of empire. That said, I am always drawn to cities that are full of people from elsewhere, from multilingual backgrounds, moving to new cities and making and re-making their own meanings of home. Right now I’m reading The Instant by Amy Liptrot, who writes that she feels like she’s a citizen of two nations: the sea and the internet. I think that’s me, too.

 

IH: What next for you?

 

NMP: I want to write something about sewing, and about textile crafts more generally, but I don’t know what shape it will take yet.

 

IH: Finally, do you want to leave us with some writing advice?

 

NMP: In times when you cannot write, remember that not writing is actually part of the writing process. In these times, slow down and remain open to other kinds of creativity: making, drawing, movement. Rest is important. All of this is part of your creative practice. When I can’t write, I try to read as much as I can, which usually unlocks the possibility of writing again.

 

 From Comfort Food:

When we reached the Museum of the Home, the sky was already losing light. I sat next to Pema in a cramped, dim room where a short documentary called Shelf Life was projected on the wall. I was anxiously aware of too many people, some unmasked, in close proximity to me and to each other. The woman in the film was sitting in front of beautiful jade-green kitchen cabinets. She held in her hands a flour sifter that had belonged to her grandmother. There was only the sound of her breathing and the scratchy, rhythmic cranking of the sifter. I focused on her voice and the breathlessness of a small space gave way to a different kind of tenderness at the surface of myself. Something about the woman’s tenderness towards her kitchen and her grandmothers, and something about still not being used to sitting close to my friends. Days later I kept looking at the note in my phone titled ‘museum of the home’. Underneath I had typed the woman’s words:

            My kitchen is a memory kitchen

            My grandmothers are my kitchen gods

 

 

 

 





Ingrid Horrocks

 

Ingrid Horrocks is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at Massey University. In 2021, with Tina Makereti, she co-organised NonfictioNOW2021, which ended up being on-line but was anchored in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Wellington. She has written about Nina Mingya Powles’ work for Lithub: Dissolving Genre: Toward Finding New Ways to Write About the World. Her latest book is Where We Swim (Te Herenga Waka Press, and UQP, 2021).