I have just had my first swim in a year and a half. It was a completely joyous experience, and I was reminded how important swimming is for me. Many memories of places and people are bound up with it.
Nina Mingya Powles’s essays, collected in Small Bodies of Water, were the perfect thing for me to read just after this memorable swim. She combines memoir with nature writing, weaving strands about family, identity and home through the work. Swimming features, as do sensory delights of food and travel. Her essay on cold water swimming, Ache, was one of my favourites. She is a generous writer, sharing experiences with us, even painful things like personal and shocking experiences of racism.
Born in Aotearoa New Zealand, spending time in China and now living in London, the author’s experiences and interests coalesce in her writing: “Mum collects mandarin peels and cut lemon skins and places them in the dish after cooking, so that as the oven cools, it gives off a bittersweet, hot-sugar scent. The rinds begin to dry out and curl in the warmth while the dog sleeps at our feet. Not far away, we can hear waves roaring in a southerly gale. Our skin smells of salt and oranges.” (p. 124)
A poet who won the Nan Shepherd prize for nature writing, Nina Mingya Powles writes as beautifully as you’d expect, and wears her thoughtfulness and reading lightly. References to some of Riverside’s favourite books kept popping up. Braiding Sweetgrass, Crying in H Mart, Mixed Race Superman, Wayward Lives and The Living Mountain all feature, and gave me the pleasurable feeling of having a very intelligent friend talking about things I had just read. Her discussion of old family objects and writings as a sort of enduring but complicated archive usefully echoes Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory.
I know I will read this again, and I have already lined up two people to lend it to. It feels like a gift someone has given you, and that you want to share with others.