Ephemeral Gestures of Care and Self-Compassion: On Nina Mingya Powles’s “Small Bodies of Water”

February 15, 2022   •   By Bryony White

Small Bodies of Water

Nina Mingya Powles

NINA MINGYA POWLES’S Small Bodies of Water, a memoir made up of interconnected essays, is one of those books I read ravenously, consuming the vast majority of it on a plane to Cyprus, tired, ears thick with altitude. I am glad I read it in this suspended state, between countries, held in the air. At first, this felt like an encumbrance on the experience. There are lots of places and things in Small Bodies of Water — a city in southern China called Guilin, a wild swimming spot called Slippery Stones in the Peak District, the mountain ranges of Kota Kinabalu, the poem-like texts of artist Talia Smith, pungent Rafflesia flowers — that I had the urge to Google. I wanted images and Wikipedia pages and definitions.

Small Bodies of Water is a book that offers a kaleidoscopic taxonomy: of plants, colors, landscapes. More specifically, it is a book that asks what it might mean to anchor ourselves in the mercurial slipperiness of language — of Mandarin, of Hakka (Powles’s grandmother’s native language), of English. It is about borders and the violence of linguistic and cultural imposition; the way that there are words that don’t express the right texture of “skin and the practicality of wrappings.” Powles masters the impossible, complex beauty of language’s slippery articulation, its ever-unfurling displacement and surrogation; words from childhood, like “hazel, yew, ash” become “mythical,” and with her grandmother, who doesn’t speak English well, their shared language is food.

Powles is all too aware of the pernicious implications of empiricism and categorization, two of the potential banes of nature writing. The memoir form is arguably a salutary undoing of the taxonomic impulse, an injection of the affective, lived experiences into the factually given. As a genre that has typically aligned itself with privileged perspectives — traditionally and historically male and middle to upper class — nature writing has often contributed to colonial and heteropatriarchal worldviews. In recent years, interventions have begun to emerge. Take, for example, the journal The Willowherb Review, edited and spearheaded by writer Jessica J. Lee, which “aims to provide a digital platform to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour.” Jini Reddy’s 2020 book, Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape, which was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize, promises a journey in search of the magical and ephemeral in the UK’s landscapes while offering glimpses of the author’s Canadian childhood and her Indian parents’ struggles in apartheid-era South Africa. In Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist (2020), we follow a year in the Irish author’s life, from spring equinox to spring equinox, from 14th to 15th birthdays, as he and his family move from their home in County Fermanagh to the Mourne Mountains in County Down. As a young child, McAnulty was diagnosed with autism, a condition he sees as profoundly connected with his love for nature — for insects, birds, and plants.

Such stories have begun to rewrite what it means to have access to nature and land: land as property, as a signifier of nationhood and empire, of access, equity, and ability. In her own writing, Powles is all too aware of the imperialist methods that write the natural world into being, that shape and delimit it. She writes with an awareness that speaks to this dispossession and the way it has impacted Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand, where she primarily grew up and went to school. Powles quotes the Aotearoa writer K. Emma Ng, who asks, “How can we belong here, become ‘from here,’ without re-enacting the violence that is historically embedded in the gesture of trying to belong?” Such questions about borders and belonging, migration and travel, twist throughout the book; geopolitical stakes in Small Bodies of Water are always present, lingering in the same way as the threat of climate change and the movement of the sea.

In such an uneven and precarious world, swimming, in the various bodies of water Powles sketches, is a way for the author to ground herself. She writes, “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.” Swimming is a quiet, methodical pleasure that offers an unspoken consciousness of the fracturing politics of land. At the beginning of the book, Powles asks, “Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours?” This is both a centering and a decentering question, one posed in the full knowledge that, as she writes, “the movements of the land are far beyond the realm of my control.” It can be hard to grasp and manage our place in the world geographically, because our own subject positions are always subject to seemingly distant and often nefarious political forces. Instead, Powles uses food, family, the ephemeral gestures of care and self-compassion as ballast against the uncertain shifts of territory.

In London, Powles carves her own ephemeral map, “connecting,” for example, the places where she has spotted “kōwhai trees blooming in and around the city.” In 2018, she moves and gets a job at a Chinese community center; on her lunch breaks, she wanders the suburban streets of Bounds Green, “where tall hollyhocks and foxgloves [sway] in neat gardens.” It is during this time that she discovers a kōwhai tree “in a garden in suburban London during an April heatwave.” Trees native to New Zealand, they seem, in this garden in London, “unreal.” The uncanniness she experiences, like the trees themselves, is literally rooted in the history of colonialism: “In 1774, the seeds collected by [Sir Joseph] Banks were planted at Chelsea Physic Garden in London, then known as the Apothecaries Garden.” Banks took part in Captain James Cook’s first great voyage (1768–1771).

Powles’s own grandfather — Chin Phui Kong, whom she calls Gong Gong — was a marine biologist who was born in Sandakan, Sabah, in 1923. Toward the end of the book, Powles sketches Borneo’s history of European trade and colonization, and specifically that of Mount Kinabalu, which Gong Gong studied, “collecting and cataloguing samples of freshwater fish from the mountain streams” for his 1964 book, The Fresh-Water Fishes of North Borneo. Before the pandemic, Powles had intended to climb the mountain, but as her travel plans unravel, she decides instead to turn to the Linnean Society Library, “established almost solely for the cataloguing and archiving of Empire.” Alone in the stacks, she is “submerged” in the “flora and waterways of Mount Kinabalu,” while still being conscious of the archive’s founding violence as an authoritative perspective on who and what matters.

Powles deals deftly with the violence of colonial expeditions, with their collection of botanical and other natural specimens, making clear that the study of the natural world is not neutral; like everything else, it is caught up in colonial world history. Yet she also reads through the fixity of these categories, marking a political shift from the macro to the micro. And she finds other ways of cataloging: “I’d begun cataloguing the varying pinkness of the Shanghai sky with my phone,” she writes, insistent on the fact that there is “no standard catalogue of colour.” Small Bodies of Water reveals the quieter, more localized stories that lie beneath the generalizations of geography, seeking out colors and life forms that exist elsewhere. Powles tells us that her “markers of home are rooted in plants and weather,” and she lists things that share the color yellow, including “ripe mangoes” and a “racist slur.”

Food is another powerful form of connection across shifting boundaries. When Powles spends time with her extended family, they eat “together each night. There was always a combination of Cantonese dim sum and Malay favourites on the table: satay, spicy char kuay teow, fried fish, egg tarts, siu mai and bao.” Powles is skilled at painting the joy of food as a language of connection, its interpersonal pleasures and vulnerabilities, as well as its complex consumption, its labor-intensiveness, and, in some cases, its abject horror.

The epigraph of the chapter “Unpeel” is taken from Jane Wong: “[P]eeling fruit for someone is a sign of tenderness, love.” Powles depicts her mum peeling mandarins and “ribbons of orange peel,” then describes how “[t]he cutting of a honey pomelo is a violent, tender process. […] I hear that familiar sucking sound of the fruit’s skin ripping away from the membrane.” She writes about how, when she was tutoring English in Shanghai, she would stay for dinner with the families, “and both mother and daughter together taught me how to use my fingers, knuckles, teeth and tongue to unpeel and eat tiny Shanghai freshwater crayfish.”

Powles plucks and peels, “sucking sweet flesh out of each crimson shell,” and she and her friends buy a “plastic bag filled with mandarins” from “a streetside seller at the foot of Lao Zhai Shan,” where they “feasted under [a] small wooden pagoda, letting the juice run down [their] wrists.” In such scenes, Powles perfectly depicts the visceral joys of food, the way eating becomes an alternate marker for the passage of time: “February had been the month of baby mandarins. March would be the month of ugly oranges.”

When Powles moves to London, she is confronted by the city’s grayness, its sky “like sheets of cellophane”; she is not used to “this much grey.” She fights the lack of color, buying “pink claw-hearted tulips from the flower market,” and at “the Vietnamese grocer on Kingsland Road,” she buys a small kumquat tree. The bright energy of such gestures lies at the heart of this book, the desire for small, unmediated acts of pleasure — quiet, joyous moments in galleries alone, or slurping phở in the middle of the day, the steam rising from the bowl, or the taste of salt after a walk on a cold beach. Often, these tender experiences are flanked by hostile outbursts of racism, acts of cruelty and ignorance, whether tacit or explicit. When a relative posts a racist meme in her family WhatsApp group, the moment troubles and exhausts her (she eventually replies, “this is not OK”). But in the next moment, Powles is dreaming of dòufunao, a Chinese breakfast sweet, and its “wobbly texture.”

Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz has written extensively about direct and explicit modes of resistance for minoritarian subjects. These overt tactics aren’t always the easiest ways to respond to an unjust — a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, transphobic — world; sometimes, Muñoz writes, we need to do whatever is “comfiest” in order to feel safe. Such gestures can risk seeming depoliticizing, but Powles’s work manages to be robustly political while also being sensitive to the way comfy pleasures can ground us in a hostile, shifting world.


Bryony White is a writer and academic based in London and Glasgow.