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Small Bodies of Water

Following Tiny Moons: A Year Eating of in Shanghai (2018) and the poetry collection Magnolia 木蘭 (2020), New Zealand author Nina Mingya Powles published Small Bodies of Water in 2021. 

In her collection of essays, we move with Powles between London, where she currently lives, Shanghai, China and Aotearoa-New Zealand. She talks about growing up in Wellington with the constant fear of a major earthquake, how she prepares her own tofu during the coronavirus lockdown, and her connection to the kōwhai tree.  

All of the essays are linked by the theme of water, to which Powles repeatedly draws references. As a reader, you find yourself on the coast of Aotearoa-New Zealand, where she is lucky enough to see orcas swimming. We learn about the role of water and rain in Studio Ghibli films and swim with Powles in the Ladies Pond in Hampstead Heath in London, a bathing spot for women only.

Throughout, she weaves socially relevant themes into her texts. In her essay on the production of tofu, for example, Powles reports on the experiences of racism that she also encounters within her family as a mixed-race person. When she encounters the indigenous Aotearoa-New Zealand kōwhai tree in London, she traces the brutal significance of colonialism for New Zealand. In 1769, the seeds of the tree were taken to England on James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. On his arrival, nine Māori people were shot dead.

Powles’ essays are characterised by her fine gift for observation. Using delicate and poetic language, she creates a profundity that feels light at all times and has left me deeply moved.  It is a pity that her books have not yet been translated into German. I very much hope that changes soon. Otherwise German-language readers are missing out on so much.

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