“I can only write about art in terms of intimacy, or a lack of it,” writes Nina Mingya Powles in Small Bodies of Water, a distinctive and elegant blend of memoir, art criticism and nature writing. The through-line of this book is water – specifically bodies of water in which Powles has swum. The simple pleasure of the theme gives rise to an easy lyricism – “In the bath, my knees are small islands rising from the ocean floor” – as well as more fraught and complex ideas: those of belonging, of language, of how to exist across cultures. Throughout, Powles writes with a startling clarity.
Powles is a poet and zine-maker: Small Bodies of Water follows her food memoir Tiny Moons (The Emma Press) and poetry collection Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press), both published in 2020. Born in Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand – Powles includes the country’s Māori name alongside the Dutch one – she spent parts of her childhood in New York and Shanghai, and now lives in London. “I am white and Malaysian Chinese, though not everyone can tell this straight away,” she writes, both matter of fact and contemplative. Her intellectual inquiry into the nature of belonging is direct, but full of nuance and feeling: “Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer lies somewhere in between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.”
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Swimming, Powles suggests, is as miraculous as it is ordinary, a beautiful yet practical skill. As a child she learnt to swim in a pool while visiting her grandparents in Borneo, watching her splashes make “spiral patterns” on the concrete, admiring “watery rainbows” through her goggles. As she grew older, she learnt to appreciate the remarkable geological shifts that created her homeland and the sea surrounding it: “To swim in Wellington Harbour is to swim in the deep seam between two tilted pieces of land that have been pulled apart over time,” she writes. Later, in an essay titled “Ache”, she tracks the coming winter at the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath as she swims through October, becoming more aware of the strength – and limitations – of her body as the water temperature draws closer to freezing.
These essays, collated from several years’ worth of diary entries, were honed in 2020, when Powles was confined in London. She had cancelled a trip to Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, where she’d hoped to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, a marine biologist, and write about waterfalls. The prose in Small Bodies of Water is often fragmentary, evoking Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Heather Christle’s The Crying Book. Such a form – spacious and not given to over-explanation – suits Powles: she writes with an innate poeticism that gives shape to feeling.
A sighting of a kōwhai tree – the flowers of which, “dark yellow like melted butter”, are New Zealand’s unofficial national flower – in London reminds Powles of her parents’ garden at their house by the sea in Wellington. The appearance of such a tree on the diagonally opposite side of the globe, “where the seasons are upside down”, inspires a re-evaluation of what is past and what is present, and which objects we use to mark the passing of time and the distance between places. “I have to begin again,” she insists, when a participant in a poetry workshop asks: “How do we write about nature without writing an elegy?” “I begin again with the glowing kōwhai,” she concludes, “since the tree is where I begin and where I end.”
In her attentiveness to the physical, it is as if Powles thinks and writes with her whole body. In “Crushed Little Stars”, a phrase borrowed from a song by the Japanese-American songwriter Mitski, she considers her experiences of being a person of mixed heritage. “Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-16th,” she writes, “I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?” In another essay she recalls an experience of casual racism by a friend’s mother. She acknowledges the “good intentions” of the remarks but is left wondering how to “carry them within my body”. These experiences weigh her down, anchoring her below the surface when she wishes to swim.
In the final essay, “In the Archive of Waterfalls”, Powles looks into her family history and interrogates what it means to be a “guest” in Aotearoa, “part coloniser, part recent migrant”. She is “tauiwi”: non-Māori, non-indigenous. Some New Zealanders can’t accept being called a “guest” in their home country, Powles writes. “But being tauiwi doesn’t mean I’m left drifting, rootless, untethered to an ancestral homeland. It means tracing the threads back to the roots of my history, my colonial history, and holding all the pieces in my hands. It means always looking for the sea.”
Small Bodies of Water
Nina Mingya Powles
Canongate, 264pp, £14.99