Nina Mingya Powles: “Do I have to explain myself, or can I just be seen?”
The writer on points of connection, holding language in our bodies and being mixed as an invisible disguise
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to poet and author Nina Mingya Powles, the author of Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, Magnolia and Small Bodies of Water. Nina’s work explores her multiple heritages from many lenses, including geography, food, language and more. Her poetry collection, Magnolia, in particular struck a chord with my own feelings about my mixedness. Read Nina’s poetic observations on mixedness, as well as her own story, below.
How do you define your ethnicity and race?
I have a Chinese-Malaysian mother and my father is white. Half-Chinese is the label I gave myself for most of my life. Sometimes I do default to that, but in the past few years I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to use other words like mixed heritage and multiracial, although they are really complex terms and that may change in future. It’s an ongoing journey.
I’ve also shifted to calling myself an Asian woman, whereas previously I might have said half-Asian. That halfness doesn’t take away from the full reality that I am an Asian woman.
Has your sense of self shifted based on your physical location?
I lived in China for three years when I was a teenager with my parents and in that context, I am so clearly a foreigner. In some ways that clarity is refreshing and comforting, whereas in New Zealand or the UK it’s less clear cut.
It’s tiring having to explain myself, I feel the weight of that on some days more than others. After lockdown, meeting people again makes me question what they see when they see me – am I going to have to give them an explanation, or can I just be seen and be myself?
You speak about language in your poetry – is that how you engage with your heritage?
There’s shame and embarrassment wrapped up in not being fluent in a language, but I feel a sense of intimacy and connection to Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka. I can’t really speak or understand Cantonese or Hakka, but the sound of them is very familiar.
My connection to those languages has always been shifting - there have been times in my life where I have dedicated myself to full-time Chinese language learning, and at those times my connection has been at its strongest but it still felt fragile.
In poetry, I became interested in exploring other kinds of linguistic fluency, not the kind we might measure with an exam, but physical memories and the sounds of language, and the way we hold these in our bodies.
Food is something else you talk about in your work – what’s that been like as a connection to your culture?
Food has been a constant connection and felt like a portal into this other side of my heritage, which I was very tenuously connected to geographically and linguistically. It’s been an amazing thing to hold on to in moments of homesickness.
It’s not necessarily something that was completely passed down to me from my mom or grandma, but I do think I inherited my love of eating specifically from my grandma.
You also wrote about not looking ‘fully’ Asian and being told you’re beautiful because of that – what has that been like to experience?
It’s something that was maybe happening around me growing up, but I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it and how disturbing and othering it was until my late teens. I remember growing up in a majority white neighbourhood and school, and while I knew I was Asian, I could pass as white – and still can – and that gave me almost an undercover disguise. You become kind of invisible.
When I lived in Shanghai, I became more conscious of foreigners like me encountering so many white guys who just wanted to get Chinese girlfriends. There’s also this particular exoticisation of mixedness because we’re in between, not quite one, not quite the other. Then these other small comments, like the ones from school, began adding up.
Are there any mixed writers or media you want to recommend?
Jessica J. Lee’s work really gave me permission to write about my mixed-heritage. She’s Taiwanese and Canadian and an environmental historian, often writing about plants and climate change rather than herself. But she writes about being a mixed woman in a particular landscape.
There’s an amazing novelist, Alexander Chee, who is half-white, American and Korean. His novel Edinburgh has a mixed protagonist, and the character might be walking down a street and notice people looking at him. He’ll remark that “looking at me takes longer than looking at other people.” I realised that sometimes that is so true for me. Sometimes I’m invisible, other times I’m hypervisible.
The musician Mitski is Japanese-American, and has been really influential on me recently. Will Harris’s book Mixed-Race Superman was amazing work, too. His revoking of Keanu Reeves and Obama made me think about what my lineage was.
Can you sum up your mixed identity in a word?
Fluid. It makes me think of water, and I think a lot about my heritage in terms of the ocean, the bodies of water that connect and separate the different parts of my family. It’s also about embracing this state of flux, flow and change, and trying to be OK with that.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.