Nina Mingya Powles on Small Bodies of Water

Nan Shepherd Prize winner Nina Mingya Powles discusses her new book Small Bodies of Water, periods, nature writing and colonialism

Feature by Katie Goh | 05 Aug 2021
  • Nina Mingya Powles

"When it comes to nature writing, we tend to imagine people traipsing through fields, not so much teenage girls going to the beach at the weekend," says Nina Mingya Powles with a laugh. "But that’s changing – and for the better!" 

Powles is discussing Small Bodies of Water, her new collection of essays and winner of the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize. The book covers a range of subjects, including orcas, the climate crisis, earthquakes, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, Studio Ghibli movies, cycling through the streets of Shanghai, wandering the rainforests of Borneo and, yes, crucially, the lives of teenage girls.

"I love writing about adolescence and I was thinking about teenage experiences of swimming," says Powles. "For me – and others might relate – periods are so tied to that and such a source of anxiety." One of Powles’ essays explores the limited canon of periods in nature writing. "When I was initially writing that piece I could hardly find any references to periods. But now that’s changing and there are some amazing works of nature writing by women and non-binary people who are starting to explore these things. I love that that essay could be in a book that’s broadly being labelled as nature writing."

As Powles notes, the Nan Shepherd Prize was launched to broaden definitions of what nature writing can be. Best known as a poet, Powles’ essays swim between travel writing, memoir, cultural criticism, food writing and historical research. "I don’t know if I can claim being called a nature writer because it’s only one part of what I do, but that’s okay! I love that the book is able to hold all these different things but also sit on a nature writing table in a bookshop. I also think it’s becoming increasingly impossible to avoid writing about the way the natural world is changing due to the climate crisis, so maybe a lot of us who didn't previously think of ourselves as nature writers are becoming them."

Although Small Bodies of Water covers a range of subjects, what connects the essays is the titular water. "As I was writing the proposal for the Nan Shepherd Prize, I realised that I wanted to write more about swimming and climate change which to me is intimately connected to coastal environments," explains Powles. "Water is a rich, connective force and such a broad theme. I loved that it took me to different, sometimes unexpected places, like rainforests and islands. The language we use to speak about water pulls me in. The idea of a body of water: what are the edges of a body of water, where does it stop and where does it begin?"

Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, Powles partly grew up in China, first learned to swim in Borneo and now lives in London. The time Powles spent living between these places is explored throughout Small Bodies of Water, as are the languages and sounds of different places. Chinese characters, or Hanzi, frequently appear in Powles’ essays. "I was really encouraged to include Mandarin and Hakka after reading Mary Jean Chan's poems," says Powles. "She said she deliberately didn’t want to translate herself for the reader – including adding an italics or glossary – because you’re making an assumption about your readers. It made me think that I could write in a combination of languages and they could co-exist together."

Language is an important factor in how we understand nature, particularly how we understand the history of nature and colonialism which Powles explores in her book. "While researching, I would come up against the Latin name for a species as the 'real' name for it," she says. "I was interested in finding the Mandarin name or the Māori name and that brought up big questions about empire, colonialism and white supremacy which are deeply connected to our relationship with nature."

Nature and travel writing has a history of ignoring or glossing over these questions. "I got really fed up with the genre of writing which is: white person goes abroad and reports back on their experience of finding themselves. Of course travel writing can be personal, but it’s also political. For me, writing about nature and colonialism is inseparable because I’m literally a product of the colonialism of different places."

Nature writing, as a genre, is also being forced to reckon with the climate crisis which, again, is also intrinsically connected to colonial histories. In one essay, Powles references a classmate who once asked in a creative writing class: "How do you write about nature without it being an elegy?"

"I didn’t feel like I had much to add to writing about the crisis," says Powles. "I just couldn’t avoid writing about it. I had to find a way to record the grief and the slow changes that I was beginning to perceive around me. It’s a small action to record what's happening in the world but something that I could do in a world where we often feel powerless. But the book is also about joy and reclamation. I hope it’s not all an elegy, but explores all different aspects of our relationship to nature."

Small Bodies of Water is out now via Canongate
Julian Aguon & Nina Mingya Powles: Making Environmental Politics Personal, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh College of Art, 15 Aug, 2.15pm