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FEATURE

Interview: Small Bodies of Water

THE GREAT OUTDOORS | To celebrate our great outdoors theme, we are talking to the first two winners of the Nan Shepherd Prize for nature writer. The Nan Shepherd Prize is the biennial prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, inspired by the late Nan Shepherd, whose The Living Mountain is considered a classic of the genre. You can read part two with Marchelle Farrell here, and learn more on the prize at nanshepherdprize.com.

In part one, we speak to Nina Mingya Powles, whose Small Bodies of Water, explores notions of belonging and the meaning of home through the world around us.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Small Bodies of Water?

Small Bodies of Water is at its heart a collection of essays about belonging and the meaning of home. The book swerves between many different places: Wellington, where I was born, and Shanghai, London, and Sabah. I wanted the structure of the book to mirror some of the dislocation and ‘unbelonging’ I felt growing up, not knowing where exactly to call home. Within each essay I wanted to go deeply into that in-between space: between languages, between physical places, between past and present. 

What, and who, inspires your writing?

I would say it’s other writers inspire me the most when I’m writing. In the making of this book in particular, I was inspired by essayists and nonfiction writers such as Rose Lu, Jessica J. Lee, Alexander Chee, Annie Dillard, and poets Franny Choi and Victoria Chang. When I’m stuck on a project, reading poetry usually helps get me unstuck – even if (or maybe especially if) I’m not writing poetry. It also excites me when writers bring all the various strange joys of their world into their work, beyond literary influences; I’m talking about films, art, crafts, music, food and the surrounding landscape. I go through phrases when I am often obsessing over a particular dish I’ve recently eaten, or a movie I’ve just watched. These things will often seep into my writing. 

“Poetry has showed me that there are many different kinds of environmental writing.”

Photo credit: David Marshall

Small Bodies of Water reflects on a girlhood growing up between two cultures, and a variety of subjects and topics within; how did considering everything through the lens of nature writing and the natural world allow you to explore them?

I have often wondered whether I really am a nature writer! In some ways I don’t see myself as one; I don’t always see a place for myself in the canon of highly researched, scientific writing on the natural world. Many of these books seem to me to speak as an authority on certain subjects (and many authors are indeed experts in their fields). I don’t see myself as an authority on anything, and nor do I want to be. 

Poetry has showed me that there are many different kinds of environmental writing, and there are many of us writing about all kinds of landscapes in all kinds of genres. I did not consciously set out to write about nature; it’s more that I am always constantly writing in response to the landscape around me, whether an urban city or a rural coastline, and the feeling of my body being present within it. I think that I’ve also been a person who is attentive to weather and the seasons, especially having grown up half in the southern hemisphere and half in the northern hemisphere. From a young age I think I was always noticing things relating to seasonal change, since in Wellington the seasons are not very distinct. I like cities best when they’re in-between seasons. 

What drew you to water as the through thread? What is the importance of water to you personally?

I’ve always loved swimming and always felt stronger in water than I do on land. In all the places I’ve lived, I always seek out places to swim. Small Bodies actually started with a single essay I wrote on swimming – a personal history of swimming, I suppose – and in the process of writing it I realised that almost everything I write comes back to water, or oceanic landscapes, or the movement of my body through water. I realised I wanted to write a book about water, guided by other poetic books on water such as Plainwater by Anne Carson and Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. And I think the individual pieces in the book are themselves connected geographically by bodies of water. I wanted the structure of the work to mirror the flowing dispersal of water, and I wanted the experience of moving through the book to feel a bit like floating. 

Are there any stand-out reflections in your book or stories that you particularly enjoyed revisiting, or have a particular significance to you?

I recently went back to Katherine Mansfield Birthplace and Museum in Wellington (which is around the corner from where I went to school) to do an interview for a documentary. Mansfield was an enormous influence on me in the earliest years of my writing career, and I write about her briefly in Small Bodies – how she left New Zealand and was never able to return. I noticed in one of her stories set in New Zealand that she describes a particular flower as yellow and ‘bell-shaped’ and names it as a mānuka flower, but mānuka are white and pink, not yellow. The flower I think she’s talking about is the kōwhai, which is on the cover of my book. The director of the museum said to me that she thinks I’m right; that Mansfield did misremember the name of the flower and was in fact describing a kōwhai, which is understandable since she hadn’t been back in New Zealand since she was a child. I felt quite smug about my (very niche) discovery. 

“I realised that almost everything I write comes back to water, or oceanic landscapes, or the movement of my body through water.”

As you are also a poet, how did you find the process of writing non-fiction compared to the poetic form?

I don’t really see my essays as distinct from my poems – these forms are all part of my ongoing creative process. Very often, when I start something new, I don’t know for sure whether something will be an essay or a poem or something in between. This ‘in between’ is what I’m most interested in. I keep writing into this gap between poetry and prose, so really I see Small Bodies as being quite a hybrid work. Poetry taught me to pay attention to the physical shape of the text on the page, and how the reader interacts with white space. As a result, I am always thinking about the physical shape of each essay, just as I would a poem. Poetry also taught me to trust the reader, to allow them to make leaps in time and place. 

What do you hope readers take from your book?

The biggest compliment is when someone tells me that they read something I’d written and it made them want to write. That’s the best thing – to inspire not just writing but any kind of creativity. I mean creativity in the broadest sense here: cooking, gardening, handcrafts, physical motion – dancing, swimming. But above all, my only real hope is that a reader might feel this book makes space for them. That it makes space for these feelings of in-betweenness. 

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles is published by Canongate Books.