Nina Mingya Powles' essay collection "Small Bodies of Water" just might change the way you see the world. While this lexical scrapbook cataloging her memories and dreams, her influences, interests and fears, is far too personal to ever feel preachy, her writing is so considered and deeply held that you'll likely find yourself thinking about your own family, your ties to nature and your preconceptions about those whose backgrounds differ from yours.
Powles was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and is mixed-raced, "white and Malaysian Chinese." This heritage, this "otherness" as she occasionally names it, is central to her identity and to her writing. One fundamental experience, touched on throughout the book but explored more profoundly in the searching standout essays "Crushed Little Stars" and "Falling City," is her return in 2016 to Shanghai, a city where she spent several years of her childhood, to study Mandarin as a young adult.
Powles is also an award-winning poet, and she examines language with the same precision and contemplation that she applies to her own life, parsing Mandarin words and phrases into their constituent Chinese characters to open new avenues of understanding or possibility.
Rather than staid linear essays, she develops larger ideas through juxtaposition, presenting related ideas or impressions discreetly, a paragraph or two at a time, so in a single page her mind might leap from a piece of forgotten fabric, to her grandparents' house in Borneo, to memories of the color blue.
An adolescent's air of ingenuousness can settle in at times, such as while growing comfortable eating out alone, but Powles' lyricism and craft make it all engaging regardless.
She is a devoted swimmer, and water is a constant in these essays and her life. "I think of the last bodies of water I have touched sustaining me, connecting me to places I can't reach." She writes of growing comfortable in the water as she grows increasingly comfortable with herself. At age 10, in Wellington, "I can't stand having my body out of the water, exposed to the wind, to other girls' stares." Then in her 20s, at the Hampstead Heath Ladies' Pond in London, "I lower my body into the water quickly, not thinking too much. I have recently discovered that I'm often capable of doing things that scare me if I don't think too much."
With few exceptions, such as the gray London winter, Powles sees a riotous world of color around her. "Our language for colors shifts according to our own experiences and memories." Food is sumptuously described, like a "jewel-pink" honey pomelo. Her pain is "Emerald green gnawing. Crimson pulling. Dark pink pushing." And the petals of the kōwhai tree, "dark yellow like melted butter," are so redolent of her parents' garden in Wellington that she lovingly plants one in a pot after moving to London in 2018. You will look at everything, from foliage to food and even your emotions, in a different light after reading her, even if you are not moved to genuine introspection.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
Small Bodies of Water
By: Nina Mingya Powles.
Publisher: Canongate Books, 272 pages, $26.