Craft Episode 1 Transcript: Nina Mingya Powles
By Wasafiri Editor on December 1, 2021 in
Welcome to Craft. Each month we bring you one international writer talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, Nina Mingya Powles talks about her food diary and travel memoir, Tiny Moons. Nina is a poet, writer, and maker from New Zealand currently based in London.
So this is actually from the very end of Tiny Moons and unlike the rest of the book it kind of takes – it kind of takes place in New Zealand where I grew up and where I’m from whereas the rest of the book is more of a Shanghai diary but this is after that:
When I chance upon a Chinese grocers or any Asian supermarket anywhere in the world I fall into a trance. I sway in front of aisles packed with hundred different brands of instant noodles. I become giddy at the sight of all the snacks my mother loves, dried plums in bright purple packets, rice crackers, dried peas, pungent vacuum-packed salted cuttlefish. I resist the urge to stroke the green-gold papayas and mangoes. I head for the freezer section where the dumpling skins are stacked according to national variety. For Korean mandu, for Japanese gyoza, for Tibetan momos. In London’s Chinatown in the middle of winter, I once bought a kumquat tree just because they were there and because my parents had a kumquat tree on the balcony in one of the many houses where I grew up. In her essay ‘Crying in H Mart’, the American musician and writer Michelle Zauner, who is of Korean descent, describes her local Korean supermarket as a kind of sanctuary and magic portal. Sitting in a Korean food court in suburban Philadelphia, she wonders who else around her is missing home. What memory are they reliving? Where are they trying to reach? Who are they desperately trying not to forget? If she saw me, she might know. Where I live now, the nearest Asian supermarket is a bus and a train ride away. This means I must teach myself to make my own dough for the jiaozi pi dumpling skins, something I always thought was beyond me. A school reserved only for the most experienced Chinese aunties and grandmas.
The first time I try, I’m cooking for one. There are only two ingredients: flour and water. I make a well in the flour with a spoon and add lukewarm water. Different recipes call for different temperatures. Cold water makes for a stiff dough, making it better for fried dumplings, hot or just boiled water creates a softer, more malleable texture. Better for sealing the jowls, the edges, tightly before boiling. The dough is soft and pliant. I pull the ball into two halves and then in half again. I roll them into cylinders and cut them into small, gnocchi-like chunks before shaping the chunks into balls by rolling them between my palms. I press down with the heel of my palm to flatten each ball into a disc, leaving an imprint of my palm lines. The jiaozi pi shouldn’t be perfectly flat, unlike sheets of pasta rolled out to make ravioli. The circle of dough for jiaozi should be thicker in the centre and thin around the edge. This means the center can hold the shiu, the filling, without breaking, while the edges can be tightly sealed. I use the edge of a rolling pin to flatten the edge of the circle, rotating it with my other hand. It’s the kind of swift movement that I never thought I’d be capable of, but now it comes easily to me, even though I’m uncoordinated when it comes to speed and rhythm. When cooking, my body falls into a natural rhythm I didn’t know I had. I take a small spoonful of the chopped filling, I place it in the center of the circle, then seal it with two or three folds on each side so that the curved outer edge is moulded around my fingers. Each homemade jiaozi looks like this; formed inside a cupped hand, pressed shut by firm fingers. Each dumpling holds the shape of my skin.
It started as a blog, and I’d never done any blogging before, but basically I moved to Shanghai after I just finished my Creative Writing Masters, and I did poetry so I’d just finished quite a full-on year of writing poetry and just finished a manuscript for a book, and then I kind of thought ‘OK what should I do now?’ and applied for a scholarship to study Chinese in China, which was something I had always wanted to do anyway and I had studied Mandarin at uni as well so it seemed like a good time and I didn’t know what else I was going to do, so really didn’t think about it too much and just went for it.
But when I got there it was really full-immersion language classes like Monday to Friday; most of the day was in language classes and it was very much doing, like, memorisation and grammar – kind of like one side of my brain. I was really missing reading and writing poetry but I really couldn’t get into it very easily, and also just being in a new environment, being quite homesick, I wasn’t able to write. But I decided I would each month write a record of favourite snack or favourite meal that I’d eaten in Shanghai, so it was partially to get myself writing again also to keep track because I was discovering a lot of really amazing new particularly, like, Shanghai street foods, and I wanted to keep a record. So that’s how it happened, and it was called Dumpling Queen and I think I kept it up for, like, six to eight months, which for me is pretty good for a new project, and each month I picked a dish or an ingredient. And the very first blog that I wrote actually is what ended up as the first chapter in the book as well, and I don’t think it changed very much actually.
The blog started five or six years ago, and then it was only kind of a couple of years after that, I moved here to London and saw that The Emma Press had a call-out for prose pamphlets which I found really intriguing because it wasn’t something I’d never heard of before. I’d never seen a submissions request for prose pamphlets and I was already really taken with poetry pamphlets and had published some of my own, and was actively trying to do more poetry pamphlet publishing, but, yeah, the possibility of a prose pamphlet suddenly seemed quite exciting because it was meant to be short and I cannot write long things, or just find that really, really hard. I think they were open to fiction and non-fiction so I decided to compile a few of the pieces from the blog and I think also submitted a rough table of contents, kind of a proposal, and that’s how that happened.
When the blog first came out it was being shared by my mum on Facebook and my mum’s friends. I think that was my main re-share, so I think it was in a way speaking to people who were not in the same place I was and it was originally a way of keeping in touch with them and letting them know what I’ve been eating.
There were some pieces that I think it was apparent weren’t really relevant, and I was writing very short entries on the blog as well — I think each one might have been around 800 words, which at that time for me was a really nice short length, but I remember the overall word count for this was going to have to be around 11,000/12,000 words. Now that to me is not very long as now I’ve written a longer book, but that felt really impossible, so actually it was a matter of filling in blanks and adding pieces or reshaping to make them a bit longer and I think making the pieces a little bit more consistent, so similar lengths. I did really lengthen everything, so it wasn’t so much about cutting but making it bigger, which I found really challenging. I always have and still do, writing long things, I guess because I prefer poetry and read a lot of poetry, and have a short attention span. It really helped me break it down into parts, and it was from reading another memoir called Turning by Jessica J. Lee that I came up with the idea of structuring it by the seasons which she does in her memoir, which is about swimming over a year in Berlin. Fifty-two lakes in a year, so each part of the book is a season, and apart from that being really beautiful and very symmetrical, very balanced, I felt it worked really well because the seasons, they often were coming up in my writing about Shanghai, which has just got really loud and colourful, very delineated seasons which was a new experience because in New Zealand we don’t have that — it’s kind of just cold!
So when I was young I never really learnt Mandarin or Cantonese or Hakka formally at all but I did grow up with all the soundscapes of those languages, so I’m interested more recently in my writing of exploring other types of fluency beyond just conventional modes of levels of fluency that we think of. So like, memory and the body, and how these languages are a part of us even though we may not necessarily speak and understand them. Mandarin, though, is a language that I have, for many years tried to properly gain proficiency in. But there was always this feeling like fluency was just a tiny bit out of reach, or like, it might just slip away at any moment if I don’t do my homework next week, which is now very ridiculous to think about but it definitely felt that way, and now of course I’m not using it every day. I’m using it hardly ever so it really has slipped away from me in a big way, so just language-learning in general for me and I know it’s quite a common thing but it’s certainly wrapped up with belonging and identity and I think I definitely went to Shanghai thinking if I go and become fluent in Mandarin, I’ll become more Chinese, or I’ll understand some core part of myself. I don’t know if I really believe that but there was certainly a hope that might happen and obviously turned out to be a really slow process and very complicated, and the people around me as well were learning Mandarin for very different career reasons, or things like that, so it was also in some ways a bit isolating.
My journey, I guess with using Mandarin and Hakka and Cantonese in my writing, is always changing and shifting and this was a very early — this was an example of very early attempts at how can I, very slowly in small ways, bring in these languages which have always been a part of my world? And just like very slowly realising that I do want to intentionally in my writing decentre English as the main language and decentre, I guess, Western ideas about Asia and Asian languages, but I think at the time it wasn’t something I was conscious of yet.
It’s something I’ve slowly developed as I’ve gotten more confident as a writer, and also very much a political choice I think. At first it was a growing feeling that I didn’t necessarily know how to articulate, but I think when I was living in Shanghai I was reading a lot of poetry online because I didn’t have access to lots of bookshops where I can buy poetry in English. so lots of my interactions with the literary world was literally on Twitter, and so it was, now thinking about it, quite a unique period because it felt like I was in a bit of a vacuum in terms of not being at that time so much part of a New Zealand poetry community, and also obviously didn’t yet have any connections with the UK literary scene, so I was reading most of the poetry online. I found some poems by Safia Elhillo, who is an American poet, and she uses bits of Arabic in her poems and writes really interestingly about heritage and childhood associations with language, and there’s interesting things formally with making her poems into kind of dictionary definitions. I borrowed that form which I found really inspiring, and I think it’s been a really ongoing process and I’m always finding new ways to use other languages in both my poetry and in my prose, and I remember that a couple of years ago I went to a poetry reading organised by Jennifer Wong and it was amazing. It was poets from Hong Kong, and Mary Jean Chan was one of the poets and I was already a big fan of hers, but in the Q&A after the reading she spoke about deliberately not including a glossary in her poetry collection and, you know, not translating words for the reader and she said something about deliberately discarding the white gaze. And this was something I’d already felt in me but to hear her articulate it so clearly was really powerful and I think from then on, there was no stopping me in terms of sticking lots of Chinese into my work and becoming less and less interested in including translations in things. I’m not necessarily interested in capturing someone who from the outset maybe is not interested in reading the work with that openness and curiosity, if they’re unfamiliar with something I’m writing about, so that over the years has really built my confidence as well, and it really allowed me not to think so much about a reader at all when I’m writing, which I think is the easiest way for me to write. But then at the same time, also to think of a community of poets and my friends and maybe also family as my readers, which I find really helpful as well and to no longer worry about alienating someone with these languages in my work because they’re probably not my reader.
This is a travel diary as well as a food diary and I think because food is so deeply personal and so wrapped up in childhood memories for me, and for lots of us, it was inevitably going to be quite a personal book with very much of myself in it. Obviously I couldn’t help writing about my family and homesickness particularly because part of the reason that I found writing the blog really helpful was that at the time I was feeling very homesick, and focusing on food and going out to eat was literally just really helping me stay afloat, and helping me to enjoy my time at Shanghai rather than just missing New Zealand a lot.
It was quite a slow process and now I realise it was also a very hands-off editing process compared to other publications I’ve done since. I recall that it was really just via email with Emma of The Emma Press at the time, and also another editor Yen-Yen was working at the The Emma Press, and they would give me a bit of guidance, particularly about structure, but once I found the structure that I knew was right for the book (which was the seasons) I just kind of ran with that. That was a really useful breakthrough and I really think the editing was minimal — it preserves the intensity and the heightened emotions that I was feeling at that time, so that’s okay, but it did get a lot more collaborative when it came to the production and design, which happened much later. Quite close to publication, we were going back and forth about colours, which I so enjoy. Colours are so important to me, and fonts and things like that, and so Emma, the director of The Emma Press, she designed the cover and painted the dumplings on the cover. They’re so beautiful, and I think she sent me a few different colourways, but it always had floating dumplings on the cover, which was really nice. And then I also didn’t know that she was planning on doing actual illustrations for the interior pages of the book, really, until she sent me a few mock-ups and I remember she sent me the very first one, which was a really lovely drawing of some instant noodles ,and there was some dumplings and Zongzi dumplings wrapped in leaves, and she sent me these and they were just so beautiful and so unexpected. I think I cried because I was so happy. She also understood that punctuation is really important to me, and typeface and font, so it was quite a slow process getting the right font for the Chinese characters which was really important to me, and that’s not something I’ve encountered with any other publisher I’ve worked with, because sometimes with various software it’s hard to get characters to align with the rest of the text or something, but she was really keen to work with me to find the right font for those. Also she found a really, really cool – I’m not sure what a word for it might be – but basically the paragraph separator symbol, and she put little tiny moons in it, which was lovely, and that’s not something that I put in, so that was amazing as well.
Some parts I find that I will never really read them at an event or something. Some parts really make me cringe and that’s okay I think. Lots of us have that relationship with older things we’ve written. It was a really lonely time and quite a painful time and so there are parts I don’t look back on and read again, but that said I wouldn’t want to take them out or anything, because I think it was a book that captures a really intense and particular time of my life, and that’s okay, and just I think recognising that kind of shows ways maybe I’ve grown as a writer which is quite nice.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri Magazine and Queen Mary University of London with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music is by Josh Winiberg, our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji, Tom Wilson does our editing, Peter Falconer does our sound design, interviews and the introduction are by me, Malachi McIntosh, and Afsana Nishat does everything else. See you next month.