The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press, 2021), 96pp, $25; Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Seraph Press, 2021), 82pp, $30
Now that the glitz, commotion and hype of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are over for another year, readers are left to the books themselves. By now we know those that made the longlist, those that made the shortlist and, undoubtedly meritorious also, those that didn’t. In this last category one might whisper—or, post-literary appraisal, can one say roar?—authors and titles such as Kay McKenzie Cooke’s uplifting third collection Upturned (The Cuba Press), Rata Gordon’s Second Person (Victoria University Press) and Oscar Upperton’s tremendous New Transgender Blockbusters (Victoria University Press). This, of course, is the nature of any prize-giving beast—subjectivity. It is also the nature of the review and the reviewer. The celebrations and commiserations roundly completed, it falls to me to bring my subjectivity to two books that made the illustrious shortlist category in the aforementioned awards: The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia and Nina Mingya Powles’ much heralded (both nationally and internationally) Magnolia 木蘭.
Tusiata Avia’s fourth collection is an astute and powerful postcolonial poetic sequence. The forty-one poems here confront colonial history with force and aplomb. The early poem ‘250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand’ bars no holds, thematically and linguistically:
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.
The colonised speaks back to the colonist, and the conversation isn’t comfortable; but then, as Avia reminds us here and elsewhere, whenever was it so?
You’ve got another woman
in a headlock
and I’ve got my father’s
in my fist
and we’re coming to get you
in your Revolution
and your fucking Freelove
Watch your ribs, James …
Given its enduring legacy, colonialism’s contemporary impact is also the meat for the author’s critical eye and caustic prose. ‘The Pacific solution’, for instance, focuses on the atrocious Australian offshore asylum centres and their devastating impacts upon the illegally interred:
Put all the refugees on Manus
They will sew their mouths up red
Kill themselves on concrete floors
There in Pasifika mecca.
The censure of colonial Australian policies visited upon Pacific nations is no less potent and persuasive elsewhere, in poems such as ‘Burnt Australian fair’, ‘Fucking St Barbara (i)’ and ‘Fucking St Barbara (ii)’.
If this all sounds fierce, its language uninhibited, its tone and line of examination challenging, even (some might say) provocative and combative, that’s the point. The concept of the ‘savage’ (present in the title of this book) is one defined by the coloniser and visited upon the colonised. Enforced by brutality, economic exploitation and legal injustice, it becomes normalised and subjugating, a process of definition and designation from the top down. In her latest collection Avia constantly reminds us, however, that the apparent normalisation of colonisation is anything but normal, and that the only way to challenge it is to embrace the adversary’s provocativeness and combativeness.
That said, Avia’s analysis is more nuanced than a straightforward poetic like-for-like. This is perhaps most evident in the longer meditation upon the March 2019 shootings at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, ‘Massacre’. Here, across four sections, the author offers a series of deeply layered narratives that evoke wider historical intersections of race, relationship, place and protest. These same powerful thematic meeting-points are also explored and realised elsewhere in poems like ‘Martin Luther King Day’.
From a pantoum to prose-, concrete- and free-verse, Avia uses multifarious poetic forms to commendable effect. She borrows traditional narrative structures, then subverts them to offer back her deconstruction and criticism of the colonial process and its legacy. The opening poem, ‘Savage coloniser pantoum’, illustrates this process:
This is a dumb game.
You can only lose.
You will die later in the night
you are a savage coloniser.
You can only lose.
The power of the word lies not only in its meaning but in its delivery and its defiance. Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book might reflect on and riff off the power of the word ‘savage’, but it’s made up of many, many words, which in turn construct many, many poems, all of them offering not just a series of meanings but a chorus, commanding in its defiant delivery.
Before it arrived on the long- and shortlists of the 2021 Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the New Zealand Book Awards, Nina Mingya Powles’ Magnolia 木蘭 had already achieved the kind of success rare for contemporary poetry collections by authors who originate from Aotearoa. That is, it had claimed international literary award recognition through its 2020 shortlisting for the Forward Prizes for Poetry (UK) Best First Collection, and its 2021 shortlisting for the RSL Ondaatje Prize. The latter, an award for a work that evokes the spirit of place, gives readers a steer towards the content of Mingya Powles’ latest. Here then we find her poetically breakfasting in Shanghai:
for the morning after the downpour
Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly
opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of dòufu
huâ, literally lotus flower, slips down in one swallow. The
texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down
fast and washed the city clean.
The author has written of cuisine before, most notably in her exquisite recent food memoir Tiny Moons: A year of eating in Shanghai (Emma Press, 2020). As then, and so too in Magnolia 木蘭, nutrition isn’t exclusively purposed as a physical (i.e. digestive) entity, but as a medium into psychological, memorial and emotional realms of existence. Here, we are—as we so often find ourselves in Mingya Powles’ work (Luminescent, 2017)—traversing borders of mind and body, not just of geography. As the poem ‘Maps’ reminds us:
The woman sitting next to me folds the map into a flower the size of her palm … She stands and holds the paper flowers out to me but as I try to take them from her they tumble to the floor, the bright lines of the city unravelling inside each one.
We are, the author reminds us, never where we think we are; and by extension, she suggests, nor are we who we think we are. This territory of belonging and extrication familiar to all migrants and exiles (this reviewer included) is a never-ending inheritance. The early narrator’s exploration of how food is a portal into her familial and ancestral attachment to and detachment from birthplaces continues through poetic instances in which she bites into perfect persimmons, slices mooncakes and enjoys ramen and hotpot.
Always, though, there is a sense that the protagonist is an interloper, out of place in a heritage homeland. This is perpetuated throughout the collection by orality: the food of ‘elsewhere’ shifting into the languages of ‘elsewhere’. This shift blossoms most evidently in the book’s third section, which opens with the poems, ‘Mother tongue’, ‘Origin myth’ and ‘Mixed girl’s Hakka phrasebook’. This last demonstrates the narrator’s concern with languages that elude her:
Phrases I know in Hakka:
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Sit down. It tastes good. Please. Thank you.
Phrases I don’t know in Hakka:
How are you … Have you ever, Have you ever been, Have you ever seen, Have you ever felt …
Other poems in this section which evocatively counterpoint the tongue and the brain, the word and the thought, the present and the absent include ‘Dreaming in a language I can’t speak’, Conversational Chinese’ and ‘Alternate words for mixed-race’.
It would be wrong, however, to think the exploration of identity in Magnolia 木蘭 is confined exclusively to food, language and landscape. The artist and artistry are also examined. In the poem ‘Falling city’, Mingya Powles summons the parallel artistic lives of authors Eileen Chang and Robyn Hyde as well as thespian Ruan Lingyu. Here and elsewhere, as in the materialisation of another distinctive actress in ‘Maggie Cheung’s blue cheongsam’, the author’s melancholic quest for the kind of connection that simultaneously reinforces her disconnection is strong:
Maggie Cheung’s blue cheongsam appears in doorways, in windows, half in shadow, never in full view. Now it hangs in my bedroom. At night, I can see it from the street below, flooding the room with warm-blue belonging.
Like Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book, Magnolia 木蘭 is a resonant and relevant work that speaks to our contemporary sensibilities about who, what and why we are.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is a migrant author of eight books, including the poetry and creative nonfiction collection Ghosts (Otago University Press, 2021), and Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014), which won the Kathleen Grattan Award. She was awarded the 2020 New Zealand Society of Authors Peter & Dianne Beatson Fellowship, the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems, the 2019 Robert Burns Poetry Prize and the 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction, US). Recently her work has been published in the anthologies Best of Auckland (Writers Cafe NZ, 2019) and Feminine Divine: Voices of power & invisibility (Cynren US, 2019) as well as the international journals Asia Literary Review (HK), Griffith Review (Aus) and Stand (UK). She is a lecturer in creative writing at the Centre for Creative Writing, AUT, where she holds a PhD in Creative Writing.