I adored Nina Mingya Powles’ first full-length work of memoir, Bodies of Water, when I read it in the summer of 2021. Afterwards I was, of course, very keen to read her small, and previously published book, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. Published by The Emma Press, the physical book is a vibrant thing of beauty, and features several illustrations by Emma Dai’an Wright, The Emma Press’ founder.
Tiny Moons is a ‘collection of essays about food and belonging’, and it encompasses many of the expanded themes which can be found in Bodies of Water. Here, Powles moves between China, Malaysia, and New Zealand, all three countries in which she grew up. On this journey, she was particularly interested in tracing ‘the constants in her life: eating and cooking, and the dishes that have come to define her’, in order to try and ‘find a way back towards her Chinese-Malaysian heritage.’
In Tiny Moons, Powles has focused on the city of Shanghai, as the title reveals. She moved there from New Zealand with her parents when she was twelve, and attended an international school on the outskirts of the city. In her early adulthood, she returns to take up a Chinese government scholarship to study Mandarin for a year. Here, as she reacquaints herself with a city which has changed so much, food becomes a real comfort. It allows her to ward off homesickness and loneliness, however briefly: ‘I order my noodles and eat them in peace and, for a little while, I feel less like an outsider.’
Powles reveals throughout how removed she has often felt from the Chinese part of her culture. In her introduction to the volume, entitled ‘Hungry Girls’, Powles writes: ‘But there came a time, when I was about five, when I started to hate my weekend Chinese classes… None of the other kids looked like me. None of their dads looked like mine. The languages and dialects they spoke with their parents sounded familiar to me, and I recognised a few words, but I wasn’t able to join in… Eventually my mother stopped using Chinese at home, so maybe I just stopped listening. Words vanished, along with the sounds.’ She goes on to demonstrate that preparing food and eating gave her part of this connection back: ‘I starved myself of language, but I couldn’t starve myself of other things. Wonton noodle soup, Cantonese roast duck, my mother’s crispy egg noodles and her special congee.’
Powles also explores her place within the world, and the wider context of what it means to be a woman. She writes: ‘It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness… To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, in a radical act, of love.’ Bound up with this is the way in which food, and the act of eating, makes her feel. In a dumpling shop in Shanghai, she tells us: ‘I take a bite and my worries melt away. I’m here and also far away from home, in one bite.’
I really admire the way in which Powles speaks about her own identity. She writes: ‘Sometimes I feel like I have no right to claim any part of my Asian-ness, given that I mostly look and sound white. Living and travelling through Asia as a half-Asian woman means moving between different versions of myself: Western tourist, foreign student, writer, language learner, a person trying to understand more about her heritage. I now know there are many different ways of travelling through the world. Some of us are more prone than others to leaving bits of ourselves behind.’
Tiny Moons has been split into five sections – ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Winter Again’. Each separate, short piece within each chapter is titled with the name of a specific food item, from ‘Pineapple Buns’, to ‘Chinese Aubergines’. The structure works incredibly well, and I appreciated the glossary which has been included, allowing one to compare the Chinese characters and Chinese and Mandarin translations of particular foods.
I had a feeling that I would love Tiny Moons, and I did. It encompasses just 86 pages, but each reveals so much, and has a great deal to share. Despite its brevity, Tiny Moons goes rather deeper than merely a ‘food diary’, as it is called on the back cover; it is rich, and culturally fascinating. Powles is an excellent writer, and I was struck throughout by the sensuality and opulence of her highly evocative prose. So much of her writing here resonated with me, and this is a volume which I will definitely be purchasing in future, and treasuring each time I reread it. Tiny Moons is a tiny work of art, one to really savour.