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‘Small Bodies of Water’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

Nina Mingya Powles is an author whose work I have been interested in since reading her excellent essay in At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here). Her first full-length work of non-fiction, Small Bodies of Water, appealed to me on so many levels. Even had I not heard of Powles before, the quotes written by Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee on the book’s cover – all non-fiction authors whom I highly admire – would have drawn me to it. Small Bodies of Water won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and was published in full in August 2021.

Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and the United States, and now lives in London. She has also spent an extensive time in Malaysia, where her grandparents live. As she so aptly writes, ‘Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans.’

Small Bodies of Water is an exploratory memoir, about what home and family mean, and about belonging. The book presents a series of interlinked essays, woven together from ‘personal memories, dreams and nature writing’. The topics which she writes about are many and varied. Powles weaves in her own experiences of swimming around the world with myths and legends, earthquakes, food, wildlife, other literature which has struck her, notions of pain, waves and tidal movements, her difficulties in communicating with her grandparents, music, and Miyazaki movies, amongst many other things.

There are whole sections devoted to swimming, something which I personally love to read about. Focus is placed upon the ‘small bodies of water’ which ‘separate and connect us’ in which Powles has spent time. She learnt to swim close to her grandparents’ home in Borneo, where her mother was born, and where her grandfather studied the island’s freshwater fish for a living. Throughout her life, there have been many more bodies of water, from the ‘wild coastline of New Zealand’ to the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, northwest London.

Throughout, Powles’ descriptions are evocative and expansive. In the first essay, she recalls the act of swimming with her cousin in Malaysia: ‘I hover in a safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds, a watery rainbow. I can see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface… I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.’ I love the way in which she writes about water, and its constant movement. Later, she describes: ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines a liquid light beneath the surface, across our bodies. We felt the way our limbs moved, lithe and strong and brand new.’ As she grows, she considers the way in which the water was sometimes the only place in which she did not feel self-conscious about her changing body. She also writes that water is something which always makes her feel grounded, no matter where in the world she finds herself: ‘The heat can’t touch me: a girl swimming is a body of water.’

Food is something which also makes her feel at home. Whilst she writes about this in far more detail in her excellent short pamphlet, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, here, she writes about eating and cooking in sensuous language. Food is a way to connect for Powles, and to have something of a communal experience even in a new place where she is alone: ‘In the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in east London, we – all of us women in our twenties and thirties, all of us slurping pho in the middle of the day – warm our cheeks in the steam that rises from our bowls and coats the windows, shielding us from the gaze of passers-by. We don’t speak to each other, or to anyone else. We wrap scarves around our faces and step out into the melting snow.’

Powles discusses cultural identity with a great deal of insight, and muses about the meaning of belonging from the outset. She asks poignant questions, such as: ‘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 hits somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ Later, she tells us: ‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind…’.

She goes on: ‘My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.’

I was thoroughly impressed throughout by the scope of Powles’ prose. She writes in a manner both detailed and poetic, and notices every single thing around her. She explores at length not just what it means to belong, but what it means to be a woman, and to be believed, and to have mixed heritage. Of the latter, she asks: ‘Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?’

I loved the structure in Small Bodies of Water. Each essay is composed of short, vignette-like sections, which work wonderfully here. Powles adds so many layers to her memoir throughout. She considers what it means to write, and the effects which it has upon her: ‘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 separate from myself, distinct, new.’

Small Bodies of Water sings. Powles has created such a beautiful and thoughtful work of non-fiction, which will stay with me for such a long time. I admired the huge variety of topics which have been included, and the way in which she considers each with such attention. The author has so much to say, and does with astonishing beauty. Small Bodies of Water is tremendous, and I found something to ponder on every page. I cannot wait to read whatever Powles brings out in the future.