By Claire Ion
Construing the self as fluid.
Small Bodies of Water
Nina Mingya Powles, Canongate 5, 2021
The first body of water that Nina Mingya Powles shows us in her essay collection Small Bodies of Water is neither an ocean, a river, nor even a pond, but a chlorinated swimming pool in Kota Kinabalu. We are immediately submerged in the deep end. Through the goggles of her ten-year-old self, we see the Malaysian rainforest clouds and the undersides of frangipani petals with their ‘golden-edged shadows’; we watch her earnestly ‘straighten [her] legs and point [her] toes and launch [herself] towards the sun’. This is the first of many bodies of water that will leave their imprint on Powles: in this expansive and deeply personal volume, she pays homage to the waters that have shaped her identity throughout her life.
Powles has white New Zealander and Malaysian Chinese heritage. She was born in Wellington, then moved to Shanghai, only to move back again to Wellington a few years later, and all the while frequently visiting relatives in Kota Kinabalu in between. Aged 13 and swimming with friends in a pool at their international school in Shanghai, she notes: ‘All of us had moved around the world every few years, and all of us could feel that our time together was running out.’ The feeling of living on borrowed time composes an existence marked by constant migration: what does it mean for the creation of your identity when your formative years are filled with comings and goings, with goodbyes perpetually on the horizon? Powles defers answering this question directly and instead shows the girls plunge back into water, splashing each other and pretending to be mermaids. ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes’ — it is a utopian space where the spirit of childhood reigns supreme. Later in life, as she comes to swim in the open waters of Wellington Harbour and enjoy the calm serenity of the Ladies’ Pond in London, she invites us to consider the state of being submerged in water as becoming a part of it, construing the water as a kind of sanctuary or a refuge where she can be carefree, enjoying a fluidity and boundlessness that she cannot on land.
By the age of 15, ‘home’ was already quite imaginably ‘a slippery word’ for Powles, but her book is much less concerned with states of slipperiness than it is with states of flow. Home, for her, is marked by movement, but not necessarily by instability and uprootedness. It is against the background of these intricately cross-cultural splits between China, Malaysia, Aotearoa, and the United Kingdom that Powles frames water, which is so fluid, mysterious, and uncontainable, as something which acts as a stabilising force in her life. She harnesses it as a representation of interconnectedness between past and present, self and other, humans and nature. For her, water, and bodies of water, figure as the location of a series of life-changing and transforming processes as she gains and sheds parts of her identity.
Can we ever lay claim to a certain place? If so, how do we qualify?
According to ethnicity, nationality, the length of time we have spent there, the immigration documents we can present at borders? Powles finds security not in the tangibly ‘official’; rather, home for her is rooted in another kind of materiality, one which is quiet and unassuming. She says ‘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.’ It is in such passages that we are reminded that Powles’ literary home is poetry. Many of her essays contain and expand on the contents of her Forward Prize-nominated debut collection Magnolia 木蘭, published in 2020. When she writes confidently of family, food, whiteness, Asianness, language, we get the sense that we are being guided carefully through territory that Powles has trodden on many times before. Revisiting these themes in a new collection, in the form of prose instead of poetry, affords the writing some amount of novelty for Powles too, allowing these memories to be realised anew. Her tone is measured, steady, and self-assured, and her presentation of each detail suggests not just days or months but years of introspection, of her ideas slowly and gently fermenting until emerging fully formed.
One of the most prominent of these transformations within water is her relationship with language. While her relatives speak a mixture of English, Mandarin, Hakka, and Cantonese, the privileged position of English as the common tongue — not to mention her Western education — meant that Powles’ Mandarin often fell to the wayside. In the first essay, ‘A Girl Swimming is a Body of Water’, Powles attempts to find her way back to her Chinese heritage linguistically, scrutinising each individual character as a visual object. She turns first to water, looking at its character 水, which appears as the radical 氵. Radicals are the graphical components of Chinese characters that tell us about their meanings. Powles explains that 氵 can be found in the characters for snow, river, tears, to swim, as well as in particular senses of words less obviously associated with water, such as to live, to exist, to concentrate, to mix, to strain — which perhaps prompt us to re-imagine them as connected to fluidity or flow in some way. She imagines an entire language consisting only of water radicals as something which liberates her: ‘an inherited language, one I’ve carried inside me all along, one where I’m no longer perpetually caught in-between’. Without distinctions between past and present tense, nor between singular and plural, it would ‘contain all the places I call home, as well as all my memories and all my names. I float, I strain, I swim’.
Telling us of her anxiety in the essay ‘The Safe Zone’, where she describes her experiences of the keen threat of natural disasters on the New Zealand coastline, she turns to the Mandarin word 担心 (dānxīn), meaning to worry or to be anxious, splitting this up into its individual characters. 担 suggests shouldering or carrying, and 心 is a heart. The presence of the water droplets in the latter character aids Powles’ imagining of the fault lines of her ever-connected thoughts in highly visual terms, and the result is a vivid scene allowing us to understand her in a more visceral sense. She pictures herself precariously balancing heavy buckets of water at each end of a pole with water sloshing over the brim: her feelings of anxiousness are distilled into the tender image of ‘a heart carrying too much inside, fit to burst, overflowing at the slightest touch’.
In Powles’ writing, we come to an understanding of her position at the intersection of racial and cultural lines as deeply political. Powles is white-passing and has never been a victim of racial harassment or violence. An intense self-awareness of this position and the stakes it has suffuses the tone of her essays, accompanied by a quietly intense wish to not be misunderstood. But how should she be understood? She clutches dearly at fragments of Mandarin, whilst also being painfully aware of how uncomfortably her own deep affinity with Chinese culture, her ancestral culture, sits together with her whiteness. In her poem ‘Dreaming in a Language I Can’t Speak’, from Magnolia 木蘭, she writes out her mother’s name, 雯 (wén), saying ‘I almost got it tattooed on my skin / while explaining over and over / this is not a souvenir / this is not what it looks like’. Powles confesses that, because of her appearance, she is a frequent witness of the casual racism that goes on behind closed doors: an offensive comment uttered in her presence without full knowledge of her heritage, a racist meme sent by a family member to a WhatsApp group. Unsure of how else to direct these complex feelings, she chronicles them in a Google Doc named ‘INVISIBLE DOCUMENT’, ‘as if a spell of invisibility might help to lessen the weight of it’. She writes about feeling ultimately powerless when her meek protests — when she summoned the courage to voice them — fell on deaf ears: ‘My anger has nowhere to go. It silently opens and closes inside me.’ Powles embodies the displacement of having to negotiate one’s position in a world that demands that boundary lines between people and places be firmly drawn. What do you do with the people who slide awkwardly between them? What do you do if you are one of those people?
Each mixed-race person will come to navigate their racial identity in vastly different ways, but the one common experience we face is that of being thrust into a world which expects us, with a certain cruelty, to know — almost from the moment we are born — exactly what our identity is, what its parameters are, and which circles we belong in. Mixed-race people are not given a grace period to figure out where we stand in a world intensely demarcated by racial boundaries, to know who will accept us and who will be wary of us, to know in which spaces our efforts and talents will be genuinely respected for what they are, in which spaces we will be fetishised or shoved into diversity quotas, or in which spaces we will be disregarded or excluded altogether.
Powles’ writing resonated deeply with me. She asks ‘what does it mean to attempt to put roots down in a country that forever finds you alien, an outsider, exotically mixed?’ As someone who is also mixed-race, and who has spent most of my life outside of both of my home countries, I have been trying to find my own answer to her question. I remember agonising for weeks leading up to my arrival at university, rehearsing the answers I would give to people when confronted with the ever-stressful question, ‘so, whereabouts are you from?’ I had no clue what I would be able to say without feeling as if I had lied immediately afterwards. I imagined myself shouting across a packed club dance floor in freshers’ week, lights flashing and techno blaring: ‘Well, I’ve always lived in Singapore, but I’m actually Korean and British. I was born in Hong Kong, but I don’t remember living there. But how about you?’ The thought of it alone was enough to make me laugh, but I always felt an uneasiness in the idea of explanation. Was I actually connected to these places, or was I just trying to identify myself with a bunch of disparate peoples and cultures that really had little to do with me? Did I actually know these places and their traditions, or was I just pretending to know them? These were the basic facts of my heritage, so why did simply stating them always feel oddly personal, like I was sharing too much? It was as if I were divulging something that had to be kept subdued, that would take up too much of others’ space, too much of their time. I eventually settled on giving a one-word answer I would alternate depending on the company I was with. I’d tell them the whole story, I thought, only when we had established a certain level of intimacy beyond pleasantries, or if I happened to be questioned by folks perplexed by my accent.
In ‘Crushed Little Stars’, Powles’ ode to the Japanese-American singer Mitski, she quotes Will Harris’ essay ‘Mixed-Race Superman’, where he writes ‘with too many heritages or too few … the mixed-race person grows up to see the self as something strange and shifting … shaped around a lack’. Like the Chinese characters she frequently takes apart, she views herself as also split, divided. In response to poet Tayi Tibble’s comment that the term half-caste evokes ‘being split and split again to the point where you just shimmer and glitter’, she says, ‘I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How can I carry them all?’ Instead of the comfort of securely belonging to one place, Powles has always lived a life that is fragmented, and her question ‘what do I know but pieces, all at once?’ shows us a reality that one could see as heart-breaking, but ultimately is one of reclamation, of gathering up everything that matters to you to create something whole, even if you are being pulled in every possible direction. As she refers to the lyrics of Mitski’s ‘A Burning Hill’, Powles says she is ‘half forest, half fire … The shadowy space in me shimmers; I feel its burn and glow. It is a kōwhai forest in a southern hemisphere summer. It is bloodlines, it is threads, it is pieces of cotton hanging up to dry under a coconut palm, sheets of white and pink and blue.’
Going beyond introspection, Powles’ essays illustrate also that our modern experiences have their roots in the past, and implicate the histories of entire communities, nations, continents. Her heritage on all sides is marked by movement, framed by historical patterns of migration rooted in colonial upheaval and violence: from the killings and persecution of Māori people in New Zealand by British settlers, to the waves of forced overseas movement experienced by the Hakka, to the colonial traces left behind on Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia. Acknowledging that her ethnicities imply such a geopolitically complex past, and an earnest desire not to re-enact the violence which is historically embedded in the countries she belongs to, she is both fluid and grounded at once, ‘tracing the threads back to the roots of [her] history, [her] colonial history, and holding all the pieces in [her] hands. It means always looking for the sea’.
Learning and re-learning Mandarin is how Powles feels her way closer to a deeper understanding of herself. For her, language practice is as much a journey towards intimacy as it is towards knowledge, and she undertakes this journey thoughtfully, looking at the minutiae that most would brush past. Not just wanting to understand her mother tongue, but also to make it her own, she dives straight into the deep end, analysing the meanings of individual characters and their semantic components. She does this by cutting them open as you would fruit, carefully peeling characters apart and examining what lies inside to get a better sense of the whole. She looks at her own Chinese name, 明雅 (míngyă), and splits it into halves, then into quarters. 明, meaning bright, is made up of the characters 日, a sun, next to 月, a moon, while 雅, meaning elegant, is made up of 牙, a tooth, next to 隹, a bird. ‘Sun, moon, tooth, bird. What is a name?’ Through this process of splitting open, she allows the complexities of identity and character to come to the fore, and in that way, she can have a little possession of her language, her name, and this validation of her own complex identity. In another section of ‘Dreaming in a Language I Can’t Speak’, she tells us of her reclaiming ‘the crushed-up words I’m pulling back / from disappearing rooms inside disappearing homes’ and allows her own name to undergo a kind of metamorphosis in ‘I open my mouth in the mirror / & birds fly out from between my teeth.’
Perhaps trying to master a language is like trying to catch an ocean’s worth of water in your hands, grabbing it in fistfuls only to see it fall through your fingers. The frustration grows when this language is supposedly your own, and your fluency in it comes to signify your proximity to your own culture, its values, its social codes and practices. When we think of our relationships to language, we often tend towards an underlying aggression. We use words denoting acts of seizing, of capture, of domination: to gain knowledge of a language is to ‘grasp’ it. To be competent in a language is to have ‘command’ of it. To completely know a language is to ‘master’ it. But this seems contradictory to what language itself tells us. Powles’ gentle answer to this is the character for fluency, 流利 (liú lì). The 流 denotes flowing in its verbal form, and fluidity in its adjectival form. Even fluency itself ‘is not stable; it moves’. Rather than thinking of it as a magical destination — perhaps in the form of an island surrounded by sea, which one reaches after years of fighting through choppy waves — we can see fluency as the sea itself. We can learn to love language as a fluid, ever-changing thing, unable to be possessed. Instead of something that is fixed and definite, Powles sees it as an amorphous unknown, perpetually forming, and revels in the possibility, the room to exist, that this presents.
Powles asks, ‘is it that I’ve anchored myself to too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer lies somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ It is this spirit of creation, renewal, and revival that carries her work into her readers’ minds, encouraging us to probe further, look deeper, into the things, people, and processes that make and remake ourselves.
CLAIRE ION is in her third year reading for a BA in English at St Anne’s College. She could really do
with a large plate of hawker centre char kway teow right about now.
Art by Isabella Lill