Nina Mingya Powles won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing, a new literary prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, winning a publishing contract with Canongate. With her book, Small Bodies of Water, published on 5th August - you can (pre) order it here - we asked Nina about her work.
How do you describe your writing, and where does Small Bodies of Water fit into the journey so far?
Fragmentary, sensory, always drifting towards poetry. I have always seen myself as a poet, first and foremost – I still do. But I also sometimes can’t stop writing prose. I’m a fan of excess – I’m quite materialistic and I collect lots of stuff I can’t throw away – so maybe that’s why I keep turning to prose. I think that in prose I can be my messiest self. Some days, only essays are big enough to contain all my feelings. Small Bodies of Water started out as a collection of personal essays and bits of journals and diaries I’d written over the years. I soon realised water was the connective force running through all the pieces.
How has the writing process been compared with your expectations?
Much of the book was completed during 2020 – a challenging year for creativity. I didn’t expect I’d write about the pandemic itself, but I soon realised I had to accurately capture my current reality. I couldn’t pretend.
What drew you to bodies of water as the central metaphor?
I feel most myself when cooking, swimming or in the flow of writing. The book is possibly held together by these three things. I also feel most anchored or at home when I’m near the sea, able to hear it and smell it. I think, in everything I write, I’m always searching for bodies of water, for fluid movement and clarity.
'I also feel most anchored or at home when I’m near the sea, able to hear it and smell it. I think, in everything I write, I’m always searching for bodies of water, for fluid movement and clarity.'
Diaspora and migration clearly play a guiding role in your work. I wonder if you could say a little about this significance?
This is another current that runs through my work. As a New Zealander living far from New Zealand, and with family scattered between Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, I am always homesick for somewhere. I’m always writing my way towards another place.
For people who grew up in one place there is likely a very strong association between particular landscapes and home. For you, I wonder how having many places - all with different landscapes, climates etc. - as part of your heritage affects your sense of place as home? Is it an additive matter of simply having more places that feel like home, or is it more complex?
I feel so lucky to have multiple places to call home. But it means it’s hard for me to put down roots; to feel really settled. Lots of ‘nature writers’ write intentionally about a single place – their homeland, the place their ancestors come from. It took me such a long time to find ‘nature writing’ books that encapsulated something of my own scattered, migratory background. With Small Bodies of Water, I wanted to show that we’re here too. We may not feel tied to one single place or one nationality or one language; the natural world means something different to us.
What other writers/pieces/books would you recommend for people who enjoy your own work?
These memoirs and essay collections were all important to me during the writing of Small Bodies of Water – Turning by Jessica J. Lee, Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton, and All Who Live On Islands by Rose Lu.
Pre-order or order Small Bodies of Water, published on 5th August 2021, at Bookshop.org here!