Small Bodies of Water
by Nina Mingya Powles
Published August 2021
The world has shrunk. At the moment, the only bodies of water I see are Merri Creek, winding north; Coburg Lake (I cycle past the island dotted with ibises); the pond at Princes Park where my ex-best friend’s dog nearly pulled me in many birthdays ago, when I didn’t know yet how much things would, or even could, change.
I think of the other bodies of water that have meant something to me, places I can no longer access: Half Moon Bay, where I held the hand of someone I was falling in love with as we watched the sky turn from blue to orange. Brunswick Baths in the summer, curled on the grass with a book, swimming laps with chlorine-slicked limbs. The pool in my parents’ backyard where, as a child, I raked leaves from the cold floor with my clawed hands. Avoca Beach, South West Rocks, Merimbula: places we went camping as a family each year, my father waking early to fish.
Bodies on the water: my parents, refugees, in a nine-metre boat drifting from Vietnam to Malaysia over ten days. My father remembers that the sea was like a swimming pool, still and blue; it only became rough when the boat was intercepted by fishermen-pirates.
Alone in my apartment in lockdown, water fills my mind. It carries adventures I once had, of stories from my life and other lives, of homes, dreams, memories. Vast and unknowable; endless and opportune.
‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind,’ writes Nina Mingya Powles. In Small Bodies of Water, the London-based, New Zealand/Aotearoa-born writer muses on identity, race, family and the nebulous, shifting idea of home – ‘a slippery word’ – largely through the lens of the natural world.
The sixteen essays in this lyrical collection brush gently against one another as Powles explores her liminality – as a mixed Chinese-Malaysian woman, as an expat, as a non-white settler. She stitches together personal experience, natural history and the books, films and music she loves in a mesmerising intertextual patchwork. It’s an ambitious collection but Powles’ assured voice, and the constant presence of water, makes it feel like a dreamy downstream journey.
‘How do we write about nature without writing an elegy?’ a classmate of Powles’ ponders. Powles ruminates on the answer, writing, ‘I never really intended to write about ecological loss, but I also don’t know how to avoid writing about it.’ Elsewhere, quoting the writer Kyo Maclear, Powles floats the idea of ‘anticipatory grief’ as she contemplates the reality of catastrophic events, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and the impacts of these events on loved ones and places.
Indeed, climate-induced anxiety permeates these essays, but to call Small Bodies of Water elegiac wouldn’t be accurate; it is more of an act of preservation, documenting both the nature Powles moves through, and what it means in her personal and family history. It is also an account of the author’s constantly evolving understanding of the world around her – she recognises small moments of complicity in the slow destruction of habitat and wildlife, such as a childhood obsession with orcas, which she realises as an adult is contributing to the exploitation of the species.
Powles’ position as a writer of colour in this genre is significant – as the nature writer Kathleen Jamie observed in 2019, this is a field which is dominated, at least in the mainstream, by middle-class white men. The popular women writers of the field are, too, often middle-class and white. But there is rising visibility for contemporary diverse nature writers: The Willowherb Review exclusively publishes nature writing by people of colour, and closer to home, writers such as Fatima Measham have written on making conservation more accessible to all communities. As Willowherb founding editor and writer Jessica J Lee said, ‘I’m excited to be finally witnessing a shift in who we imagine a nature writer might be, and who we think may be reading their work.’
Thinking about nature helps Powles make sense of her own positionality, but her work is at once nature writing, creative nonfiction, research and memoir. This collection contributes to the decolonisation of nature writing, and what she does especially well is write about nature in an accessible manner, executing a delicate balancing act between the historical and the immensely personal. Through her writing, one illuminates the other.
Powles unpacks colonisation and displacement beautifully in the essay ‘Where the Kōwhai Blooms’. Aotearoa’s national flower serves as a springboard for a wider exploration of place and identity, as Powles discovers the plant upon moving to London. She writes of the plane trees in Shanghai, planted by French colonisers to make the streets resemble Paris. I’m reminded of the Argentinian-Australian artist Fernando do Campo, who told me he felt a similar affinity with birds when he moved to New York City and realised that he was surrounded by colonially-introduced species, which ironically made him feel more at home.
Powles wrestles with such contradictions in the book, acknowledging at one point that ‘this colonial history is part of what has shaped me’. Later in the collection, she muses on the dialectical position of being ‘part coloniser, part recent migrant’, writing that ‘both my whiteness and my Chineseness are immigrant identities’. This is further complicated by the tricky history of the Hakka ethnic group from which Powles is descended, and its relationship with colonialism: ‘the history of my ancestors is a history of migration, displacement and transience,’ she writes.
In this essay, and more broadly across the collection, Powles is in conversation not only with herself, but with writers and thinkers of the past. She shares an anecdote about the poet and scholar Anna Jackson, who while reading the diaries of the writer Katherine Mansfield in Wellington, found a ‘single perfectly preserved kōwhai flower pressed between the pages of one of the notebooks from 1908’. Powles then goes on to ponder whether Mansfield’s description of a mānuka flower in her 1922 short story ‘At the Bay’ was, in fact, a misidentified kōwhai. This meeting of the tactile present and the documented past is a lovely touch that gently reinforces Powles’ ideas about natural connectivity. The kōwhai is a recurring motif throughout the collection, a point of return for Powles’ often meandering thoughts.
Powles’ reflection on family is most moving in the collection’s sprawling final essay, ‘In the Archive of Waterfalls’, in which she reveals that her grandfather, Chin Phui Kong, was an ichthyologist – a field concerned with the study of fish. The writer had intended to travel to Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia to further explore the connections between that landscape and her heritage and family, and to write about the bodies of water that her grandfather once saw. With lockdown scuppering these plans, she instead gets to know this part of the world through intimate and intense reading sessions at the library that bring her closer to her family’s stories. It’s a wonderful mirror to the experience of reading Small Bodies of Water itself, and an especially deft interweaving of personal lineage and both natural and world history.
Literature about women swimming – really, the act of women swimming itself – is a reclamation, and celebration, of both the body and public space, both of which have often been controlled by patriarchal structures. The British-Canadian-Taiwanese writer Jessica J Lee swam 52 Berlin lakes over a personally tumultuous year, recounting the experience in her 2017 memoir Turning. ‘There’s a kind of offering in the generosity of water holding you afloat. In the way water holds feeling, how the body is most alive submerged and enveloped, there is the fullness of grace given freely,’ Lee writes. Powles refers directly to Turning in her own essay ‘Ache’, chronicling six weeks of swimming, reading and feeling.
Natural bodies of water and public pools sit side by side in Powles’ writing, each offering a different experience. The essays ‘A Girl Swimming is a Body of Water’ and ‘We Are All Dreaming of Swimming Pools’, in particular, explore Powles’ relationship with the public swimming pool – the first body of water she ever experienced.
Powles writes of the privileges of access to swimming lessons and swimming pools. Quoting the Australian essayist Ellena Savage, she points out that these are spaces that have upheld hierarchies, ‘the anxiety-inducing rules of high school PE class’ and exclusionary practices. Yet Powles writes of the safety she feels once she is in the water there – ‘a stronger version of myself’ – a safety that is not, she acknowledges, available to everyone.
These rules and exclusions can also be translated to public bodies of natural water, such as the Ladies’ Pond in London’s Hampstead Heath, which Powles describes as ‘a sacred place in many women’s lives’ where ‘the only sure thing is my body’. Reading this, I think of McIver’s Baths in my hometown of Sydney, which came under fire earlier this year for having trans-exclusionary rules; a similar thing happened at Hampstead Heath several years ago.
I think of the accounts I read from trans women who wrote so beautifully about why McIver’s mattered to them: ‘It was like a vision of heaven in there,’ Joni Nelson wrote. ‘I went for a swim and left quietly a few hours later, glowing. I felt so seamlessly accepted, so safe… secure in the identity I fought long and hard for.’ I can’t imagine how it must have felt to have that threatened or taken away.
I think of the privileges we take so often for granted; of what these bodies of water mean to different people, and the many truths they contain. Of spaces set up to escape the patriarchal gaze, only to then reinforce it in their own ways. As with all nature, bodies of water are a neutral space until they are colonised and weaponised by human beings.
Throughout the collection, Powles is concerned with the construction and limitations of language, and what this reveals about identity. By transmuting the terminology of nature specifically, she proves the malleability of language and its ability to shapeshift in order to explore different meanings, identities and experiences. This is shown at various points in the collection: in ‘The Language of Waves’, she translates the pain of puberty through the terminology of water – tides, deepwater, shallow water, seiche. In ‘In the Archive of Waterfalls’, she is interested in the etymology of colour names and their relationship to colonialism. She concludes that ‘our language for colours shifts according to our own experiences and memories’ – and then she delves into her own annals for an array of different colour descriptions. Unspooling language in this way is perhaps another act of decolonisation, or an emulation of what the poet Cathy Park Hong calls ‘the unmastering of English’ in her essay ‘Bad English’: ‘To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out,’ Hong writes.
To juxtapose her deconstruction of the English language, in an essay close to the end of the collection, Powles unpacks the ideograms that make up Chinese characters. The absence of translation of the essay’s Chinese title serves to further the distance between the reader and the text, while concurrently allowing Powles to reclaim the language from the colonial gaze. Here, the author’s background as a zinemaker is evident: the text is broken up with gridded pages from an exercise book; the author’s own handwriting stands in neat columns: characters, pronunciation, meaning. Written between first and second person, this essay is one of the book’s most intimate, as Powles ruminates on the disappearing ‘women’s script’ Nüshu and tries to fortify her relationship with her mother tongue. Her fascination with language is evident throughout the book, and is most compelling when she breaks ideograms down to their literal meanings and constructions, block by block. It’s incredibly clever and layered writing that places the reader’s experience of learning beside Powles’ own.
The Japanese-American musician Mitski is the anchor for the essay ‘Crushed Little Stars’– in particular, the usage of the forward slash in her song First Love/Late Spring. Powles writes about how she adopts the symbol in her own writing ‘to signal something essential I didn’t fully understand yet, like an attempt to punctuate myself into existing in two places at once’; for the rest of the essay, she uses the slash to separate sections, as opposed to the wave-like tilde used across the rest of the collection.
The piece itself is a meditation on being mixed-race, seen through the prism of Mitski’s music and microaggressions Powles has experienced from both white and Asian people, leaving her adrift. She speaks also of self-erasure – ‘when I was on the cusp of teenagehood, I pretended I didn’t have a middle name at all, just a blank space where the word once was’ – and I think of my own experience of this, of adopting Western middle names as a child so I could fit in. Only as an adult, in my professional life, have I brought my Vietnamese name back to the fore, demanding to be visible.
The familial language of food, commonplace in many Asian diaspora families, is also evoked here and in the fruit-centric essay ‘Unpeel’, as it is in the Korean-American musician Michelle Zauner’s terrific memoir Crying in H Mart, referenced in the essay. Zauner’s memoir also explores the tensions and unbelonging of dual identity, alongside beautifully describing grief and shifting relationships with family. Powles’ discourse with and through these two biracial musicians in her own writing is like gazing into a pond of likenesses.
Language is a playground for Powles – something to construct and deconstruct, through the process of which she finds and shares truths about both herself and the wider world. Like nature, it is a springboard from which to undertake journeys of further discovery.
In Vietnamese, the word for country is đất nước. Broken down, it is a literal sum of its parts: đất, land; nước, water.
In everyday speech, though, it is shortened to nước. Nước Việt Nam, Vietnam; Nước Úc, Australia.
Water as home.
I started Small Bodies of Water on audiobook – a new lockdown pleasure for me. I walked through the few green spaces in my neighbourhood and listened to Powles’ soft voice, her accent a blend of all the histories she holds. I marvelled at the intimacy of such an experience, especially hearing the author pronounce the Chinese words and names that are otherwise marks I don’t understand.
As my mind drifted in and out of focus, I noticed that I couldn’t tell where one essay ended and the next began. This became most apparent when I wondered what Mitski had to do with earthquakes, periods or tides. All of the essays, all of Powles’ experiences and observations, began to swim into one vast body of water.
I returned to, and finished, the book in its physical format, but I kept thinking about this – connecting one seemingly unrelated thing to another, making disparate pieces fit. The different functions of different forms. This strange, and strangely wonderful, canvas of everything, where all things belong together somehow.
Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition, Profile Books, 2020.
Lee, Jessica J. Turning: A Swimming Memoir, Virago Press, 2017.
Nelson, Joni. The McIver’s Ladies Baths is an Oasis for All Women, Junkee, 13 January 2021.