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New Poetry Collection Explores Mixed-race Experience

Magnolia , the new poetry collection by Wellington writer Nina Mingya Powles (27), has now been shortlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry as part of the Ockham NZ Book Awards.

Last year it was shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The UK edition was published by Nine Arches Press in 2020, with the New Zealand edition due to be formally launched on 13 March 2021 by Powles’s local publisher Seraph Press.

“It’s been fabulous to see the excitement for Nina’s work in the UK, where she has been living for the last few years, but her enthusiastic local audience has been very keen to get their hands on this new collection,” says Helen Rickerby, Seraph Press Managing Editor.

“While Magnolia continues the interests of Nina’s previous work – such as the lives of real and fictional women, and a sensuous engagement with food and nature – there is now also an exciting exploration of her experiences of being mixed-race and trying to find her way through multiple languages: English, Mandarin, Hakka, Māori.”

Powles says, “Magnoliais a title that contains layers, which will be obvious to any Chinese speakers. ‘Mùlán’ () means ‘magnolia’, which is also the official flower of the city of Shanghai, where most of these poems were written. I spent a year and a half there studying Mandarin.

“Shanghai is one of several places in the world that I call home, so I always knew that one day I would have to write a ‘Shanghai book’ but I didn’t know what form it would take. The end result is partly a collection of love letters to Shanghai, but it’s also about loneliness, and about trying to retrace your steps back towards a language you’ve lost.”

Poet Alison Wong says: “This is a book of the body and the senses, whether the million tiny nerve endings of young love; the hunger that turns ‘your bones soft in the heat’; the painterly, edible, physical colour of flowers and the fabric lantern in the pattern of Maggie Cheung’s blue cheongsam; or ‘the soft scratchings of dusk’. These are poems of ‘warm blue longing’ and understated beauty, poems to linger over, taste, and taste again. As Powles searches for home she leaves an ‘imprint of rain’ in your dreams.”

The cover of Magnolia features a striking image by Wellington artist and designer Kerry Ann Lee.

Powles, who is of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese descent, was born in Aotearoa New Zealand and did most of her growing up here, but has found many places to call home, and many places to be homesick for.

In the few years that she has been living in London she has been making a splash in the literary world, winning competitions and prizes such as the inaugural Women Poets’ Prize in 2018 and the 2019 Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing. In 2020 her food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai was published by the Emma Press; and in 2021 her collection of essays, Small Bodies of Water, will be published by Canongate Books.

Powles began writing seriously while studying at Victoria University of Wellington, where her MA creative writing portfolio won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon , a risograph press that publishes limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian writers.

Seraph Press is a boutique publishing company founded in 2004 by award-winning Wellington poet Helen Rickerby. It specialises in beautiful New Zealand literary books.

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