I Am a Forest/Fire

On Mitski & being mixed-race

 

1

wild women don’t get the blues, but
lately I’ve been crying
like a tall child

The first song by Mitski that I ever heard was “First Love / Late Spring”. I was sitting at my desk in my dorm room in Shanghai. It was the summer of 2016, early June, the sky a pale, polluted blue. My air conditioning unit was so powerful that when I used it, condensation formed on the outside of my window. I switched it off and began to listen. I felt the air grow heavy and still in my arms.

I noticed a swelling in my chest and in my stomach like something about to burst. I noticed how her voice lingers on every word. Something sweet / a peach tree.

I’d been scrolling through the tracklist and was intrigued by the forward dash within the song title. In my own writing, I’d begun using ( / ) everywhere, both in poems and prose, to express something essential about myself that I didn’t fully understand yet. Something like an attempt to punctuate myself into existing in two places at once. Also, a way of denoting a line break when setting poetry within a line of prose. A breath, a pause, a sharp shift.

 

2

I don’t think I could stand to be
where you don’t see me

In the dark cinema, I grow more acutely aware of the distance between your skin and mine. Out of the corner of my eye I see your face lit up by silver light.

You are half-Chinese, too, but unlike me, you speak fluent Mandarin and Shanghainese. Unlike me, you talk too much when you’re nervous. Unlike me, you are a man, and as such you are accustomed to taking up space—physical, conversational.

At unexpected intervals you offer me small, deliberate touches. A brush of my wrist, a moment-too-long touch of my shoulder. The possibility of this physical contact keeps me alert, slow-burning along my spine like a live wire.

I notice you seem to loathe Asian women who have white boyfriends. Those girls wouldn’t go near an Asian guy. When you eventually start to ignore my WeChat messages, I entertain the possibility that I’m not Chinese enough for you.

 

3

my body’s made of crushed little stars
and I’m not doing anything

Once, in a stationery shop in Beijing, the woman behind the counter reached out to touch my hair and said, breathless, “混血?” I was buying a gift for my mum. “你是不是混血?” She smiled, her eyes bright. I nodded. I felt pleased to be noticed this way, to be seen. But I wished she had asked whether she could touch my hair.

In China I am always foreign, even though more people recognise that I’m 混血, hùnxuè, mixed blood.

In China, my hair is the most foreign part of my body. It’s thick, wavy, a shade of chestnut brown that gets lighter in the summertime.

 

4

you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help trying to be
your best American girl

I mourned, but in an adolescent kind of way. I was not mourning the loss of a person but the loss of a fantasy. I went for long walks through campus at night listening to Mitski’s Puberty 2. I became more deeply invested in my aloneness. Aloneness, not loneliness.

When I realised that Mitski is half Japanese, I listened again to “Your American Girl” and heard it properly for the first time. In the song, Mitski or maybe a dream-version of Mitski sings to her all-American boy, her doomed love, “Your mother may not approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I think I do.” Her voice starts out strong and whole, then quietens, faltering but intact. After the second chorus the same line repeats but with a different ending: “But I do, I finally do.”

In one of my favourite pieces of writing on the Internet, poet and fiction writer Jenny Zhang writes about why “Your Best American Girl” is so important to her:

Growing up in America, I experienced two puberties. The first opened me up to the possibilities of adulthood. The second reinforced that for someone like me—an immigrant, a minority, an Asian-American—there were limits.

Mitski’s second coming-of-age belongs to her alone, as does Zhang’s. But I wonder whether there are any places where ours might have overlapped—the same questions asked of ourselves, the same feelings of rootlessness and in-betweenness.

For most of my life, though, I have benefited from the privilege of passing as white, or mostly white. Most white people don’t register my otherness straight away until I explicitly reveal it, which I always do—but crucially, in white spaces, my Chineseness is not always on display. While people of colour can often tell straight away that I’m mixed, white people seem less able to detect any racial difference in me, or are perhaps less willing.

 

5

你的妈妈肯定很漂亮. Your mother must be very beautiful.

I smiled and said nothing. In my head I said She is. My mother has shoulder-length black hair that she has always had curled in a loose perm. I have never seen it straight.

Outside the shop window, snow laced with toxic particles fell from pale clouds.

 

6

your mother may not approve
of how my mother raised me
but I do, I think I do

In Shanghai, I often went to the movies by myself. I could buy tickets straight away on WeChat for half the price of tickets back home. I went to see the latest X-Men even though I’d never seen any X-Men movies before. The only thing I remember is Olivia Munn’s body taking up the entire frame, her hair long and thick like mine but with streaks of violet. She is a mutant who can shoot lethal rays of purple light out of her hands. She carries a samurai sword.

Munn’s mother is Vietnamese-Chinese and her father is American. She spoke both Vietnamese and Chinese until she was five, but in an interview in 2014 she said, “my mom was always worried I wasn’t going to fit in, so she didn’t push it on me after a while.”

I cycle home in the dark down the path that cuts through campus. There are fallen gingko leaves everywhere and giant moths fly at the streetlights. I can feel that I am full of purple light, spreading outwards from the middle of me.

 

7

and I’ve been a forest fire
I am a forest fire

So I began to trace for myself a new poetic lineage, one that looked more like my own, made up of multiple languages and art forms, containing several oceans.

In her response to an interview question about the word “half-caste”, mixed-race Māori poet Tayi Tibble said: “When I think of that word [half-caste], I get an image in my head of being split and split again to the point where you just shimmer like glitter.”

Some people want to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. These people are usually white. Can’t you feel the pieces of yourself getting smaller and smaller? How will you carry them all?

In his book-length essay Mixed-Race Superman, British-Indonesian poet Will Harris writes that “with too many heritages or too few, too white or not white enough, the mixed-race person grows up to see the self as something strange and shifting … shaped around a lack.” When I was on the cusp of teenagehood, I made myself forget how to speak Chinese. I pretended I didn’t have a middle name at all, just a blank space where the word once was.

 

8

Artist and curator Talia Smith, who is of Pacific Island and NZ European descent, documented her experience of returning to the Cook Islands in a series of photos, videos and poem-like texts titled The heart is the strongest muscle in the body. One image is of a pastel-pink sunset with blue clouds visible in faint reflections on the ocean’s surface. The sea is a metallic plane of colour. On the horizon you can see a shape that looks like part of a distant island, but it’s not clear. In the deep blue space between sea and sky there’s a thin tear in the photographic paper, splitting everything almost in half. Next to the image, Smith writes:

I wonder if I got my curly hair from my ancestors whose bones are buried on this island.
[…]
Do bloodlines run that deep and long?

Smith’s work is dreamlike and filmic, like watching a string of snapshots from your dreams and sun-bleached memories with subtitles running underneath. There is an underlying sense of loss, and also tenderness. Re-making memories is an act of tenderness, of connecting with the past.

I want to make a map of my grandparents’ back garden in Kota Kinabalu. I don’t know when I will next see it. I don’t know how much longer it will exist. On my last visit almost a year ago, when Po Po was still alive, there were bedsheets and tea towels hanging from the clothesline: candy pink and blue gingham, unmoving in the heat. Through them and through the gaps between them I could see vines clinging to the neighbour’s metal fence. A green lizard, two dragonflies, a hornet, and in the distance, a white egret.

I point to a crumbling pile of tree roots. “Is this where the mango tree was?” I ask Gung Gung, who speaks with me in English. “Yes, no more now. Look, the egret.”

A white egret. Two tall coconut palms, thick vines, a yellow flame tree. I want to lie down in the spot where the mango tree stood, where my mum and her brother used to gather the hard little fruits with dark skin and suck their sourness. There would be an imprint in the long grasses, a gap in the shape of my body.

 

9

“It’s like I was inventing punk music in front of them,” Mitski said in an interview with Kristen Yoonsoo Kim for Billboard, talking about the young fans who saw her open for Lorde in 2018.

When I saw Mitski play in London, a pair of teenage girls stood close to me in the crowd. It was like Mitski was playing for them and them alone. And to them, in that moment, in their reality, she was. I watched them scream and cry and dance holding each other and I could tell there was only the sound, her voice, their voices, the pink and gold lights, their bodies, their arms, themselves. One of the girls took out her phone at the beginning of each song not to take pictures but to note down the setlist. I watched while Mitski invented punk and indie rock and love and loss for them before their eyes over and over and I knew that if I’d found Mitski when I was sixteen, I’d be just the same.

I was experiencing something holy and intimate, too. But for me it was different. I feel a sense of closeness with Mitski’s music—I sometimes feel it existing in close proximity to my own work—but I couldn’t claim to know or understand her as a person. I deeply admire Mitski, but she’s not my idol. Maybe it’s because we’re close in age or maybe it’s because I’ve read about how realistic she is in terms of her career, about making it sustainable, about surviving long-term as an artist. We are both trying to exist in the world, making our art, making it work.

 

10

your mother may not approve
of how my mother raised me
but I do, I finally do

Mitski’s band shares the stage with her for all but two songs, but I almost don’t notice them. It looks like she is in her own world, moving inside her own halo of bluish light.

When she begins to play “Your Best American Girl”, an emotional reaction takes place first in my body, somewhere deep at the base of my spine, then in my stomach, then in my hands and wrists which begin to shake. I try not to cry; I just want to watch Mitski’s performance; I wish my throat didn’t feel so tight.

I think of my own writing and how sometimes making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s also separate from myself, distinct, new.

 

11

“Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” musician Michelle Zauner asks in her essay “Crying in H Mart”, published in the New Yorker. Zauner is half Korean and goes by the alias Japanese Breakfast. As with Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl”, ever since I first read this essay, I’ve been carrying pieces of it somewhere inside me. Like Zauner, I’m not fluent in the language of my mother’s side of the family. When I was growing up, our language was also one of food.

My mother’s love is practical, physical. Are you warm enough? Have you had enough to eat? Did you sleep well? We are clumsy when we try to put our love into words, but we know how to enact it: folding down the edges of curry puffs about to go into the oven, untwisting the purple wrappers from salted dried plums.

When my grandmother died I couldn’t fly to Malaysia for her funeral. I wanted to know where she would be buried, but I didn’t ask. I still don’t know the answer to this question, but sometimes when I speak to my mum on WeChat video call, I almost say it. I see the question shooting across the atmosphere over to where she is now, in a different city on a different continent. I watch the words settle in the air around her, falling in slow-motion in layers of glittering dust.

 

12

In London I signed up for evening Mandarin classes. Since leaving Shanghai a year ago, I could feel the language slipping further away from me each day. I am left with scraps and pieces. At unexpected moments the words are on my tongue, ready to spill out of my mouth: 中秋节, mid-autumn festival. 经济发展, economic development. 华侨, overseas-born Chinese. 你吃了吗?, a text from my mum.

That morning, I practiced writing my Chinese name so that when the teacher asked me to write it for her, I’d be ready. If I don’t practice, there are always one or two strokes in the second character of my name, 雅, that I’ll forget.

明雅. Bright elegance. I split the word in half, then each character in half again.

Bright 明 / Elegant 雅.

A sun 日 next to a moon 月, a tooth 牙 next to a bird 隹.

In Whereas, Native-American poet Layli Long Soldier writes of the burden (and gift) of beginning to teach her young daughter the Lakota language:

What did I know about being Lakota? […] What did I know of our language but pieces?
Would I teach her to be pieces.

 

13

Chinese names can sound poetic and literary when translated into English, but all these layers of meaning aren’t registered when someone uses your name in everyday conversation. But as a newcomer to the written script, trying to find my way home through a language that’s never actually been my home, all the composite pieces are there in plain sight.

The way I taught myself how to write it was by writing it piece by piece. Sun, moon, tooth, bird. Sun, moon, tooth, bird.

What is a name? At the sound of your name you stop, you look up, you run, you call back. It is a sound your body knows instinctively how to move towards.

In Shanghai, from at least eight in the morning until two in the afternoon most days, I was not Nina but Mingya. Before then, my middle name had only ever been a middle name, a word I hardly ever heard spoken aloud or said aloud myself. Now my teachers used it all the time, calling it out in class and greeting me with it in the corridors. I began to turn my head instantly at the sound. In it, I no longer heard just pieces.

At the evening class in an office building in London, no one asked for my Chinese name.

 

14

In 2015 Sarah Howe won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry. Loop of Jade charts her journeys to and from Hong Kong, where she was born. Her mother is Chinese and her father is British. In “Crossing from Guangdong”, she writes:

Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else.

When I first read this poem I was about to leave one home in search of another.

If I could, I would ask Mitski where home is, though for me it’s a question with an impossible number of answers and for her it might be, too. I think of my parents’ garden by the sea where a kōwhai tree grows next to a lemon tree, both filling my hands with yellow. I think of a window in Shanghai full of pink light.

 

15

I can’t breathe
please don’t say you love me
胸がはち切れそうで

In an interview with The Line of Best Fit, the white male interviewer asks Mitski “if she’s writing her explicitly personal songs from an Asian American perspective.” He paraphrases his own question without quoting it in full. I try to imagine what I would say if a white male interviewer asked me, “are you writing from a mixed-race Chinese New Zealand perspective?” As if I could consciously separate out all these parts of myself. Mitksi’s answer has the feel of someone who’s tired of having to explain herself.

[…] when I’m writing songs I’m not conscious about my position as an Asian person. I’m not writing politically about being an Asian person. I write personal stories about relationships, and living in this world and being a human being … but I happen to live in a world which views me as an Asian American.

Not everything I create has to be about my identity or my politics. My existence as a mixed-race writer does not always have to be fraught or complicated. Mitski makes work that comes from within herself but also reaches far beyond, channeling imaginary personas and dream-versions of her real life, often surreal and strange.

Mitski briefly sings in Japanese in “First Love / Late Spring”. Even though it’s been one of my favourite songs for years I realise I’ve never known what the words mean. Not trusting the translation Google has given me, I send a Twitter message to the writer Nina Li Coomes, who is half Japanese half American, whose work I’ve been following for a long time. I ask her if she can tell me the meaning of the line. A few hours later she replies with this translation:

胸がはち切れそうで
my chest is close to bursting / will burst / may burst

When I ask her whether she has any particular attachment to this song, she responds, “My sister and I like to scream this at the top of our lungs […] It reminds me of all the times I’ve been in moments of emotion, where my internal monologue is something like this chorus, a series of Japanese and English phrases strung together.” Mune ga hachikire-sōde. My chest is close to bursting.

 

16

I am the fire and I am the forest
and I am the witness watching it

New Zealand-Japanese artist Jem Yoshioka’s online comic Visits recounts her first ever trip to Japan as a teenager, then returning as an adult. In Japan she “feels more and less at home than ever.” She illustrates the little objects she’s collected along the way, physical proof that another home exists: a pair of green lace-up boots, a red scarf, a keyring. Her story reminds me of travelling back and forth between New Zealand, China and Malaysia all my life, each time feeling both more and less at home. Back in New Zealand she experiences “a deep feeling of homesickness for somewhere that has never been home.”

The cover of Visits is a line-drawing of the artist’s face and upper body. Her outline is filled in with layers of patterned origami paper in sky blue, forest green, pink and gold. The patterns reminds me of a piece of Japanese cloth inside a perspex case that I saw at the V&A Museum—navy blue silk threaded with a flock of gold-embroidered egrets in mid-flight, wings overlaid with wings.

What do I know but pieces? All at once. Half sun, half moon. Half tooth, half bird. A blue lantern, a jade heart, a peach-pink melamine bowl.

The shadowy space in me shimmers like glitter. I feel its burn and glow. It is a kōwhai forest in a southern-hemisphere summer. It is bloodlines, it is threads, it is pieces of cotton hanging up to dry under a coconut palm, sheets of white and pink and blue.

 

 

Songs & Source Texts
(by section)

1. “First Love / Late Spring”, Mitski, Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014)
2. “Francis Forever”, Mitski, Bury Me at Makeout Creek (2014)
3. “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”, Mitski, Puberty 2, (2016)
4. “Your Best American Girl”, Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)
Jenny Zhang on “Your Best American Girl” from the series “25 Songs that Tell Us Where Music is Going”, New York Times Magazine, 9 Mar 2017
6. “Biracial Celebrities on Being Mixed: Olivia Munn”, mixedremixed.org
7. “A Burning Hill”, Mitski, Puberty 2 (2016)
“Tayi Tibble on Poukahangatus and Decolonising the Mind”, digital-serum.com, 13 Sept 2017
Will Harris, Mixed Race Superman (Peninsula Press, 2018)
8. Talia Smith, “The heart is the strongest muscle in the body”, windowgallery.co.nz, Oct 2018
9. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, “Mitski on How Growing Up and Dreams of Settling Down Inspired New Album ‘Be the Cowboy’”, Billboard, 3 Aug 2018.
11. Michelle Zauner, “Crying in H Mart”, The New Yorker, 20 Aug 2018
12. Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017)
14. Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015)
15. Andrew Hannah, “Tall Child” (Mitski Interview), thelineofbestfit.com, 11 Jan 2016
16. Jem Yoshioka, Visits, jemshed.com/comics/visits, 2017

About the author
Nina Mingya Powles is a writer and poet from Wellington, New Zealand, of mixed Malaysian-Chinese descent. She is the author of field notes on a downpour (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2018), Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017) and a collection of short essays on food forthcoming in 2019. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, and in 2018 was one of three winners of the inaugural Women Poets' Prize.