A Conversation With Nina Mingya Powles and Bitter Melon苦瓜
Interview conducted by poetry editor Sean Wai Keung
From 18 March until 30 April, 2020, UK-based indie poetry press Bitter Melon苦瓜 hosted a special Stay Home Diary online. Asian artists and writers worldwide were invited to submit a small diary entry in any form they wish in order to create a completely accessible archive of creative work during the Covid-19 pandemic. I sat down with Nina Mingya Powles, founder of Bitter Melon苦瓜, to reflect on the Diary after-the-fact (and to also talk about food as well!).
SWK: As Bitter Melon苦瓜 is traditionally more focused on limited edition physical publications, what inspired you to create a digital/online space instead for the Stay Home Diary?
NMP: Yeah, I originally started Bitter Melon苦瓜 simply because I wanted to make beautiful, handmade poetry books by Asian poets. When lockdown began in March, I was in the midst of getting ready to publish our latest pamphlet, Bulbul Calling by Pratyusha. There were really inspiring conversations beginning to happen online, mainly on Twitter, about how various publications, artists, art collectives and institutions could start bringing their art to online platforms. The small press Takeaway Press, for instance, ran a call for submissions for online collaborations between artists and writers. It struck me that accessibility would be the keys to finding a sense of togetherness at this strange time. A few years ago I worked for the disability advocates’ office at my university, and later I worked as a copywriter, where a key part of my job was making online texts as accessible as possible. I wanted Stay Home Diary to be as accessible as possible – both in terms of what gets published (there was no editing process; I published everything that was sent to me, as long as the submission met requirements) and the platform.
SWK: Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the submissions you received for the Stay Home Diary?
NMP: I was surprised I got so many submissions! Also, the recurring themes. When I posted the call for submissions, I didn’t have any particular themes in mind; in fact I wanted to encourage submitters not to feel like they had to write about the pandemic, or about lockdown. It could just be a diary entry consisting of anything at all. But there were some strong recurring themes: food and cooking being the main one, but also dreams, longing. Also, many writers chose to recount their experiences of casual and not-so-casual racism they’d experienced, as visibly Asian people during the pandemic.
SWK: The Diary gives a really connected feel to Asian diaspora writing around the world. As a writer yourself with global connections to places including Aotearoa New Zealand and the UK, what was it like to receive so many responses from different cities/countries?
NMP: It was inspiring. I feel lucky to be rooted in several literary communities spread across the world. But it’s hard to feel really connected all the time to all the places you call home. It’s hard to hold many places within yourself all at once, though I believe they’re always there. With Stay Home Diary, it felt like such a space of connected warmth and energy and empathy. It was such a balm for my feelings of isolation and displacement, and lots of readers told me they found reading the entries really soothing. Reading them and publishing them and sharing them online was like an anti-isolation activity, for me.
SWK: This crisis has affected the Asian diaspora in a different way to those who are not, with incidents including the assault of Jonathan Mok in London as well as other overtly anti-Asian attacks around the world causing many to feel especially isolated. How much of the Diary do you feel was a direct response to these feelings?
NMP: Yes, Stay Home Diary unexpectedly became a space to share these fears and to make a record of experiences of racism. People wrote of being stared at in the street, white people moving away from them on public transport, and being verbally assaulted in supermarkets. As well as being a space of warmth and connectedness, Stay Home Diary is also a record, a collective testimony, of our experiences of this time. I think that sometimes to keep a diary, or to keep a record of any kind, is an act of witness, which is inherently political.
SWK: The visual aspect of the Diary is fascinating, both in terms of straight up art entries as well as simply being able to see the kind of fonts/format styles writers choose. The risograph printed pamphlets that Bitter Melon苦瓜 publishes also have very careful and deliberate visual details. Do you think there is something about Asian diaspora writing which lends itself particularly well to the visual? Or am I just overthinking it!?
NMP: No, I think there are so many talented visual artists and comic artists out there from all kinds of backgrounds, but lots of them just happened to come across Stay Home Diary! I do think, maybe, more people gravitated to the visual diary form during lockdown, possibly because, at the beginning especially, it was really hard to focus on anything for a sustained period. I read somewhere that what we were feeling was grief; a kind of anticipatory trauma for the griefs we (or our communities) would soon have to confront. I felt bad that I was having so much trouble reading and writing, but after reading that I was able to be more kind to myself, and let my creative process just go where it needed to. I’m sure that led lots of people to find solace in more visual forms: drawing, collage, comics.
I’m really interested in multi-disciplinary work, especially artists and writers who fluidly move between visual and written forms. I wanted to encourage that as much as possible with Stay Home Diary. Bitter Melon苦瓜 is first and foremost a poetry publishing press, but the visual, physical aspects of poetry are deeply important to me. Poetry pamphlets, to me, should be art objects.
SWK: We have a mutual interest in the representation of food in writing and some of my favourite Diary entries have been those concerning shopping/cooking/eating. Have you noticed any trends or changes in how food is being represented throughout the crisis?
NMP: I love this question! At the beginning, I feel like I kept seeing things like “15 recipes with canned food” or “100 storecupboard recipes” and stuff. That was great, at the beginning: soothing, comforting. That was mainly in mainstream media. Now, the pandemic has brought food inequality into focus. There have been some amazing pieces published by the new newsletter Vittles London on this.
Food and cooking has been a real source of comfort for me during lockdown, but I’m really aware that my experience of lockdown is very different from frontline workers who have been at work this entire time, while I’ve been on furlough getting heavily into making tofu.
It also feels like we are all becoming obsessed with re-creating childhood foods, using our grandmother’s recipes, craving things that require ingredients that are hard to come by even in the best of times, let alone in lockdown. I found an online shop that sells pandan leaf extract and dried lotus leaves yesterday. These are things that, during ‘normal’ times, I wouldn’t necessarily think of buying! But now, I want to make all sorts of ridiculously ambitious recipes, like kuih, and Penang-style zongzi.
SWK: What next for Bitter Melon苦瓜? Will there be any more digital/online projects?
NMP: The next thing is I want to print a physical zine for Stay Home Diary, actually. I’m still working out how I will fund it, because I want to select 30 or so entries for the zine, and I want to be able to pay the writers. For the online version, writers were not paid for their short entries. It came together really quickly and because I intended to publish every single submission, I thought it was okay not to be able to pay submitters, but if I do another online zine again, I’d want to be able to pay.
SWK: How about for yourself? I’m very excited for the release of Magnolia, 木蘭 by Nine Arches Press in July 2020, which has already been shortlisted for ‘Best First Collection’ at the Forward Prizes this year – would you be able to say anything more regarding that project?!
NMP: It will actually be something of a relief when Magnolia, 木蘭 is out in the world. You know when you’ve been sitting on a work for so long that you just sort of need to get it ... out?? Most of the poems in that book were written in 2016 and 2017, when I was a student in Shanghai. I always knew I’d write a “Shanghai book” – the city is very important to me, I partly grew up there. Magnolia, 木蘭 is my Shanghai book, and it feels like it’s been a long time in the making.
SWK: Lastly, would you be able to share a super quick and easy go-to recipe with us?
NMP: Mum’s crispy noodles, for one: cook 100g of thin egg noodles (has to be egg noodles) in boiling water for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, heat one tbsp of vegetable oil in non-stick frying pan or heavy wok. Drain the noodles, chuck them in the pan and spread them out a bit. Let them cook for about 6 minutes on medium heat until they’ve got a crisp, golden bottom layer. Top with sliced bits of Chinese omelette (two eggs beaten with a handful of chopped spring onions and a pinch of salt). Or, top with stir-fried prawns or chicken or minced pork or tofu puffs. Stir in a little chilli oil, a little dark soy sauce, and eat.
SWK: Sounds incredible! Thank you so much!
You can read the full Stay Home Diary archive here: https://bittermelon.weebly.com/stay-home-diary
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Aotearoa New Zealand, currently living in London. She is the author of a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press, 2020), and several poetry pamphlet collections including Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017) and Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014). In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Women Poets' Prize, and in 2019 won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon苦瓜.