Nina Mingya Powles' launch speech for All Who Live on Islands

I first met Rose in Shanghai in 2016. I was studying Chinese there and Rose was on her big China trip—the very same trip mentioned in this book. I’d gotten a Facebook message from Eamonn, a mutual friend of ours, who said he had a friend named Rose who would be coming to Shanghai soon. So, me and Rose and another Wellingtonian, Hamish, who also happened to be in Shanghai at that time, met up at Din Tai Fung inside a huge mall in the centre of Shanghai. We ate xiaolongbao and wontons with chilli oil and it was such a relief to be surrounded by New Zealand accents again—a relief I hadn’t known I needed.

We bonded immediately over the weirdness of visiting a place that half feels like home, and of trying to keep up with the locals’ Mandarin. After dinner we walked in the Shanghai rain to a nearby KFC and tried a bunch of really weird limited edition KFC desserts. On the subway back home we talked about casual dating, our travels, and our deep love of Uniqlo. We hugged goodbye and I had a feeling I’d just met someone who would end up being very important in my life.

This is starting to sound like a wedding speech, so I’ll stop being soppy and turn to this extraordinary work that Rose has brought out into the world. When I finished All Who Live On Islands a few weeks ago, on a grey, damp London day, I felt so warm and full of light. I didn’t yet know how I could begin to explain my love for this book, only that reading these essays felt like I’d jumped into very cold water and come up laughing. It felt like my heart had been opened.

Without thinking too much, I scribbled down some words that came to mind: bright, glimmering, incisive, loud, soft, unflinching, unafraid, alive.

In All Who Live On Islands, Rose flat-out rejects our hierarchy of languages where we place English at the top and all others in italics to mark out their foreignness. As she writes in the “Note on Language” at the back of the book, this privileging of English over other languages simply doesn’t make sense for those of us who come from multilingual, immigrant, or indigenous backgrounds. It is refreshing and deeply inspiring for me to see a writer set this out so plainly within their work, and to have Hanzi, Pinyin and English typeset side by side. In the opening essay “穷人店,富人店” I delighted in being able to read two of my own languages at once, in a book published in NZ, which has never happened to me before.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for me if this book had existed when I took my very first undergrad creative writing workshop when I was 19. There had been Asian-NZ writers published long before, but I didn’t know yet how to find them.

I would have been less afraid to write about my Asianness. I would have allowed myself to exist in that workshop space unapologetically as the only Asian in the room. An amazing writer, Jessica J. Lee, who is Taiwanese-Canadian, once told me: there are now so many brilliant new writers who are just going ahead and writing the books they wished had existed for them when they were starting out. Rose is among this new canon of Aotearoa writers who are writing their lives into the fabric of our history and our literature, where we couldn’t see ourselves reflected before, in all our complexity.

This is the crux of the incredible title essay. China at first looms in the background as a distant memory, like a blurry photograph. Slowly it comes into focus and its colours become sharper as Rose returns to travel solo through the country. What once felt like a binary (China or New Zealand?) becomes not one or the other, but both. If I could tattoo a line from this book on my body it would be this:

I became more assured about being from Aotearoa and being from China—something I repeatedly had to explain to my Pākehā friends, who saw my cultural identity as a needle wavering between the two places. At one point I had seen it that way too, but now I view it as a symbiotic relationship, two twinned vines growing in tandem.

Rose writes luminously and precisely about the world around her, like in the addictive, carefully paced essay “Five-Five” where the author goes tramping solo in Nepal, and in “Yellow Fever”, where meditations on the cultural history of the colour yellow are deftly interspersed with excerpts on love and sex, some of which made me scream, in a good way. The piece that closes the book, “Tiger Cub”, is an exercise in quiet empathy, in slowly learning to tell your own story. It chimes with a line that comes very early in the book:

In our family we lack the vocabulary to speak about things that are so delicate, to wade through the overlap in our mutually intelligible language to find the nuance for questions like this.

So much of this book is about searching for the right words. And in reading these essays it’s become clear to me that often the language we need isn’t verbal at all. It’s the language of going shopping for fruit, the language of smacking ginger with a cleaver, of travelling alone, of WeChat and MSN messages, of navigating teenage life in rural New Zealand. And when the words are said out loud, they move across and between dialects: 普通话, English, 崇明话, te reo.

Thank you, Rose, for making this work, for showing me and all of us all the messy, wonderful possibilities of language. Congratulations. 

All Who Live on Islands p/b $30