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Small Bodies of Water

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Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans. Nina Mingya Powles first learned to swim in Borneo – where her mother was born and her grandfather studied freshwater fish. There, the local swimming pool became her first body of water. Through her life there have been others that have meant different things, but have still been, in their own way, home Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans. Nina Mingya Powles first learned to swim in Borneo – where her mother was born and her grandfather studied freshwater fish. There, the local swimming pool became her first body of water. Through her life there have been others that have meant different things, but have still been, in their own way, home: from the wild coastline of New Zealand to a pond in northwest London. This lyrical collection of interconnected essays explores the bodies of water that separate and connect us, as well as everything from migration, food, family, earthquakes and the ancient lunisolar calendar to butterflies. In powerful prose, Small Bodies of Water weaves together personal memories, dreams and nature writing. It reflects on a girlhood spent growing up between two cultures, and explores what it means to belong.


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Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans. Nina Mingya Powles first learned to swim in Borneo – where her mother was born and her grandfather studied freshwater fish. There, the local swimming pool became her first body of water. Through her life there have been others that have meant different things, but have still been, in their own way, home Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans. Nina Mingya Powles first learned to swim in Borneo – where her mother was born and her grandfather studied freshwater fish. There, the local swimming pool became her first body of water. Through her life there have been others that have meant different things, but have still been, in their own way, home: from the wild coastline of New Zealand to a pond in northwest London. This lyrical collection of interconnected essays explores the bodies of water that separate and connect us, as well as everything from migration, food, family, earthquakes and the ancient lunisolar calendar to butterflies. In powerful prose, Small Bodies of Water weaves together personal memories, dreams and nature writing. It reflects on a girlhood spent growing up between two cultures, and explores what it means to belong.

30 review for Small Bodies of Water

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    4.5 rounded up A truly lovely collection of essays focusing on nature, swimming, self and food. Further thoughts (probably) to come.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Natalie (CuriousReader)

    Will I ever tire of reading nature writing and particularly any writing related to swimming (even though I don't swim)? Probably not. This book is a beautiful collection of essays on nature and swimming but it's also so much more; being mixed-race, connecting with your ancestry through language and food, belonging, anxiety, women artists and thinkers, borders of all kinds. Review: https://curiousreaderr.wordpress.com/... Will I ever tire of reading nature writing and particularly any writing related to swimming (even though I don't swim)? Probably not. This book is a beautiful collection of essays on nature and swimming but it's also so much more; being mixed-race, connecting with your ancestry through language and food, belonging, anxiety, women artists and thinkers, borders of all kinds. Review: https://curiousreaderr.wordpress.com/...

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ellie Kakoulli

    From the wild waterfalls of Borneo, to the unruly coastline of New Zealand and then onto the infamous Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond, Powles weaves together the personal, political and environmental. Exploring themes of migration, food, family and those small bodies of water that can both geographically divide, and interconnect us. Powles writing is lyrically intimate, perfectly reflecting the ebbs and flows of daily life -especially the anxieties and pressure that come with growing up between two c From the wild waterfalls of Borneo, to the unruly coastline of New Zealand and then onto the infamous Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond, Powles weaves together the personal, political and environmental. Exploring themes of migration, food, family and those small bodies of water that can both geographically divide, and interconnect us. Powles writing is lyrically intimate, perfectly reflecting the ebbs and flows of daily life -especially the anxieties and pressure that come with growing up between two cultures and what it means to belong when the world, and people, seem to keep drifting away from you. With so much uncertainty in the air (especially this past year and a bit), I loved how Powles proposes that home be not just one stagnant place, but many people, places and even memories. “Sometimes home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind: dried agapanthus pods, the exoskeletons of cicadas (tiny ghosts still clinging to the trees), the discarded shells of quail’s eggs on Po Po’s plate, cherry pips in the grass, the drowned chrysanthemum bud in the bottom of the teapot.” The way nature and food can be a medium for remembering and (re)discovering really resonated with me and I enjoyed reading even more -having read Tiny Moons earlier in the year and LOVED it, of Powles own personal relationship with plant life and cooking immensely! Small Bodies of Water seriously ignited that deep rooted longing to escape the humdrum of home life (which I’m sure you can all relate to) and dip my toes into some wild waters and experience the weightlessness of letting myself, and my worries (momentarily) float away. 4 stars Thank you to Canongate again, for sending me this review copy! https://www.instagram.com/elliekakoulli/

  4. 4 out of 5

    Chris Haak

    Wonderful book about swimming, nature, language and identity/belonging. Powles is very observant and describes everything around her so meticulously and beautifully. I could feel the water on my skin, see the colours of flowers right in front of me, and smell the food she's eating. Wonderful book about swimming, nature, language and identity/belonging. Powles is very observant and describes everything around her so meticulously and beautifully. I could feel the water on my skin, see the colours of flowers right in front of me, and smell the food she's eating.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    this book was interesting as it adds the joys of swimming and the culture of the author and a series of short stories well worth reading and easy going read

  6. 5 out of 5

    Danielle

    No book has ever made me feel this calm, ever. It's as if even just reading about water was having the same effect as being sat next to the sea, immersed in the tranquility. Small Bodies of Water is a selection of intimate and personal essays reflecting on migration, family, language, and the different bodies of water that have shaped Nina Mingya Powles. She highlights the power of water to calm us and connect us or help to disconnect. Weaving together a memoir style with nature writing, the essa No book has ever made me feel this calm, ever. It's as if even just reading about water was having the same effect as being sat next to the sea, immersed in the tranquility. Small Bodies of Water is a selection of intimate and personal essays reflecting on migration, family, language, and the different bodies of water that have shaped Nina Mingya Powles. She highlights the power of water to calm us and connect us or help to disconnect. Weaving together a memoir style with nature writing, the essays are full of the colour and texture of nature, focusing on the flora and fauna from New Zealand to Shangai to London. It emphasises the idea that home is people, places, dreams, memories and reflections rather than one stagnant spot. I don't often think of re-reading books, but I can see myself dipping in and out of this book again. With so much going on in the world, this book came at the perfect time to add some calm and tranquil vibes to my life. Thanks to Canongate for sending me an advance proof copy! 🌊🌍🗺📌🌸🌻

  7. 4 out of 5

    thebreakfastbooks

    4.5 / 5.0 SMALL BODIES OF WATER is a gorgeous essay collection that I breezed through within a few days. Nina Mingya Powles uses nature writing to map out her emotions and reflections on topics like family, migration, culture and heritage. Growing up between Aotearoa New Zealand, Malaysia and China, and now living in London, it’s a book that asks what home is and where one belongs when ones family history is shaped by migration. It’s difficult to narrow down what I liked most about this book. Was 4.5 / 5.0 SMALL BODIES OF WATER is a gorgeous essay collection that I breezed through within a few days. Nina Mingya Powles uses nature writing to map out her emotions and reflections on topics like family, migration, culture and heritage. Growing up between Aotearoa New Zealand, Malaysia and China, and now living in London, it’s a book that asks what home is and where one belongs when ones family history is shaped by migration. It’s difficult to narrow down what I liked most about this book. Was it the exploration of water and its many forms — ranging from different types of waves to describe menstrual pain to the act of swimming as a constant within changing environments? Or the musings on earthquakes and using their description to delineate anxiety? Or was it the keen observations on everyday actions, the poetic and concise descriptions of food, plants, seasons and sentiments? So many interesting topics kept bobbing up across the essays, each time with a new reflection, made graspable with new imagery. The book pulled me into the author’s memories and meditations, which hung on to my thoughts when putting it aside to go about my day. I can’t wait to see what the author comes up with in the future (and will check how I can get a hold on her previous essays an

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jaclyn

    A wonderful memoir in essays that sits at the intersection of nature writing, identity exploration, food writing and the personal essay. Reminicent of Savage’s BLUEBERRIES, Hong’s MINOR FEELINGS and Zauner’s CRYING IN H MART and just as intellectually rigourous, personal, affecting and beautifully written. This book is also a wonderful addition to books about women swimming. It turns out that I love reading about swimming, especially while locked down with no chance of being able to actually swi A wonderful memoir in essays that sits at the intersection of nature writing, identity exploration, food writing and the personal essay. Reminicent of Savage’s BLUEBERRIES, Hong’s MINOR FEELINGS and Zauner’s CRYING IN H MART and just as intellectually rigourous, personal, affecting and beautifully written. This book is also a wonderful addition to books about women swimming. It turns out that I love reading about swimming, especially while locked down with no chance of being able to actually swim.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kirsty

    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. 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 ina 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. 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.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sophia Blanco

    Beautifully written essays, a real pleasure to read/listen. I listened to the audiobook and really enjoyed it. The essays are poignant and almost fairytale like in the way Nina confronts issues of identity, belonging, casual racism and, young womanhood, all woven together in a fascination with water, swimming and the natural world. As someone who is white, English and living in New Zealand I feel like it’s really important to hear the voices of today’s New Zealanders and will recommend this book Beautifully written essays, a real pleasure to read/listen. I listened to the audiobook and really enjoyed it. The essays are poignant and almost fairytale like in the way Nina confronts issues of identity, belonging, casual racism and, young womanhood, all woven together in a fascination with water, swimming and the natural world. As someone who is white, English and living in New Zealand I feel like it’s really important to hear the voices of today’s New Zealanders and will recommend this book to friends.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Noelia Alonso

    3.5 STARS (7/10)

  12. 4 out of 5

    Erin Mary

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. "𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘢 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘢 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘧𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘯 𝘰𝘳 𝘣𝘦𝘦𝘯 𝘭𝘦𝘧𝘵 𝘣𝘦𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘥...". This book is a collection of the most beautiful interconnected essays that explore so many complex themes like home, nature, identity, migration, food, and love. I read this in the early mornings and late evenings, sipping on peppermint tea, and I came away from each essay feeling nourished. For me, Nina's writing encourages you to slow down, be more attentive of the world around you, and care for yourself t "𝘏𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘢 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘢 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘧𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘯 𝘰𝘳 𝘣𝘦𝘦𝘯 𝘭𝘦𝘧𝘵 𝘣𝘦𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘥...". This book is a collection of the most beautiful interconnected essays that explore so many complex themes like home, nature, identity, migration, food, and love. I read this in the early mornings and late evenings, sipping on peppermint tea, and I came away from each essay feeling nourished. For me, Nina's writing encourages you to slow down, be more attentive of the world around you, and care for yourself through eating lovingly cooked food or interacting with nature in whatever ways you can. The geographer in me was ecstatic to be introduced to some of the landscapes Nina has grown up through tender descriptions of geology, climate, and wildlife as well as food. Nina has also introduced elements into nature writing that I have never come across before, drawing references to the living legacies of colonisation. She explores British and European colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand, China, Malaysia, and North Borneo through nature - discussing not only how colonisers laid claim to land that was never theirs, recorded flora and fauna, and brought samples home to plant in European cities, but also how they would bring flora to colonised land to make these areas replicate Europe. Climate change and ecological loss were interwoven throughout many of the essays in ways that added an extra dynamic into how I think about these issues: If home is a collection of things built on memories of things like food, weather, and nature, what happens when the climate crisis alters our experiences of them. What is home without the food produced from increasingly vulnerable agricultural systems? What is home without the nature we have grown up with? What is home when it is physically threatened by extreme weather events? What is home when it no longer resembles our memories / when it is no longer there? Water runs throughout the book, Nina explores the mythology surrounding water in both popular culture and historically and I loved learning about the joy and empowerment Nina has found through swimming. Water is what connects us, and for Nina, bodies of water often remind her of home. This was so heartwarming, and it it something I hope to carry with me for a long time. I love Nina's work 💙

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bernie O Brien

    Refreshingly honest , beautifully written . As a swimmer, who desperately missed the pool during Covid, this reinforced how much water and bodies of water mean to me. But of course this was much more than this .

  14. 5 out of 5

    Aftin Combs

    This is a very serene read. There was a level of confidence in the writing that was really comforting.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Matt Harrison

    Wonderful. The prose verges on the poetic and makes use of intricate details of life as poignant metaphors for alienation, belonging, and identity.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Erin Franklin

    3.5 stars

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mica Candido

    💖💖💖

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shanti

    extremely good! i spent all of lockdown waiting for my copy. it helped me understand how to think of myself as an Asian woman.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Noah

    This book was so absolutely beautiful, the writing and Nina's melodic way of describing places, colours and foods, made me feel at home and safe. I don't really know what else to say apart from YES. This book was so absolutely beautiful, the writing and Nina's melodic way of describing places, colours and foods, made me feel at home and safe. I don't really know what else to say apart from YES.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Catriona

    This book feels like such a gift.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Diyora

    Just so lovely!

  22. 4 out of 5

    clehdbeh

    so beautiful

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sophie Treloar

    Just beautiful

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Lee

  25. 4 out of 5

    Caelan

  26. 4 out of 5

    Isabelle

  27. 5 out of 5

    Pratyusha

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rhianna Bolam

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lindsey OC

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sorcha Ring

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