Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles (Canongate Books, 2022), 272pp, $25; Sign Language for the Death of Reason by Linda Collins (Moth Paper Press, 2021), 141pp, $37.99; Island Notes: Finding my place on Aotea Great Barrier Island by Tim Higham (Cuba Press, 2021), 156pp, $38
The notion of home is both fragile and tenacious. It is an indication of our need for stability throughout the constant change that is life. We think of homes as solid: a house sturdy on the ground, our parents immortal, our country never changing. But all is eroded slowly by ravages of time or in an instant. A house is never as big as it was in our childhood eyes; our parents fade with age until they disappear. Our countries become smaller, too, as we travel away from them and look back; shores are washed-away; earthquake fault lines bring down towns; a war declares that a country is no longer ours. We often think of home as outside ourselves, not within us, despite it being something we hold precious in our mind—which may be why the notion of home seems so elusive. Each of the Aotearoa authors in this review either directly references or subtly hints at different notions of what home might be: they search for it, commemorate it, comment on it, or try to remember it, sometimes all at once.
Intrinsic to the notion of home is the central question: where do I belong? It’s a question Nina Mingya Powles asks early on in her memoir Small Bodies of Water, one that she spends the rest of the book discovering, musing over, and answering. Powles examines each of the countries that comprise her homes: Malaysia, due to her strong connection with her mother’s Malaysian heritage and with her grandparents; Wellington, the hometown she grew up in, nurtured by her parents; Shanghai, where she lived in order to learn her mother’s native tongue at university; and London, the home she is now making her own with her life’s love.
Each home represents a different time of her life, a different aspect of herself, which at times make her identity feel fractured: ‘Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all?’ she asks. She then answers: ‘The answer lies somewhere between.’
For Powles, this ‘somewhere between’ is found in bodies of water, the element that links each country she has a connection to. It is the rivers and lakes and seas she swims in at each of these home countries that best offer a sense of belonging and comfort: ‘At this moment in our lives neither of us is sure where home is exactly, but underwater, the question doesn’t seem to matter,’ she says, and, more poignantly: ‘I float on my back and let the ocean hold me in its arms.’ Rather than any fixed land mass, these bodies of water become a fitting metaphor for home; their fluidity evokes the constant flux inherent in how she feels about her homes at any one time, and her relationship to them.
Powles’ predilection for water as a home space is one that I gravitate towards, too. Like her, I’m first-generation, born of migrant parents in Aotearoa. My ancestors were indentured labourers who worked the sugarcane fields of Fiji, sent there from India via their British rulers. And, like her, I have created a new home away from the land where I was born. For us, it makes sense for the sea to be the home we look to because this water marks our ancestors’ and our own departure. The moment we leave the curves of shore and take our first step across water is the moment that marks us as migrants.
For my ancestors, this departure was profound because the sea, what they called ‘Kala pani’ or black water, once crossed, dissolved their caste ties—essentially who they were. Even if they returned to India or Bharat Mata, the land they called ‘Mother’, they could never again inhabit who they once were. And in their new home, there would always be fragments of the person and place they left behind, ghosts carried on their back as they hacked and harvested sugarcane. It makes sense then that the bodies of water are the ‘fluid place’, the constantly moving neither-here-nor-there place, which migrants and nomads identify with. And perhaps my ancestors didn’t want to be identified with the land of Fiji, the place where they toiled, with blood, sweat and tears, for the coloniser’s monetary gain. I find my home within a particular type of water: the sea’s crashing waves, the same ones my ancestors traversed via ship to get to Fiji. The waves are a force of energetic surge; and then a calm withdrawal of tide: a continual, cyclic movement of departure and arriving.
This cycle of simultaneous arrival and departure is mimicked in the way we constantly change our homes, discarding the old for new ones. We move out of our houses, we move countries, and as human beings, eventually, we move out of our bodies like snakes shedding skins. But what happens when our notion of home exists within our family members, and these family members pass away; how do we reconstruct home in their absence? As Michelle Langstone notes in her collection of essays, Times Like These, which chronicles her grief as her father ails and dies, death reconfigures the whole family left in its wake: ‘We had time to imagine our lives without him, and into that future we filed our sadness and our loss, and let it hang there, a portrait of a lesser-numbered family with an empty space where he had been.’
In grief, there is a desperate need and longing to somehow fill the void that our loved ones have left, to try and reconstruct and plump out the fullness of home. For Langstone, part of this involved beginning her own family, eventually trying IVF to create an amniotic sac—a first home. Her desire to have a baby became clear to her after her father died, born out of her desire to keep the love of her family, her home, alive:
Here was the family my mum and he had grown, this sturdy unit of love, united these forty-odd years, three children and two parents, and I could see what this belonging truly meant. I felt the handing over of life down generations, and I felt our love pool together in a lush softness that covered us all. It was all we had in those days, and it was more than you could build or buy. His death brought the clarity I needed.
But we try to fill the void of our loved one’s death in smaller ways, too, desperately looking for signs in the natural world to indicate that they’re still here with us, sending us messages from beyond. When my father passed away, I was adamant that the tūī hopping on a branch in our garden was my Dad, watching me put the rubbish bins away, making sure I was doing it just as he liked. For Langstone, her father came to her in the form of gannet: ‘Later, and especially after Dad died, we looked for the significance of dates and times or rainbows or fog when we didn’t expect it. I come to think of gannets as my dad sending a message, because they always appear when I least expect it and when he is on my mind.’
In her devastating collection of poetry, Sign Language for the Death of Reason, Linda Collins traverses the aftermath of her teenage daughter’s death by suicide and explores this notion of searching for the signs we use to try to make sense of death—and help restore our sense of home. In her poem, ‘Grief Love’, she asks: ‘Have you ever loved the dead? Then you’ll know it involves a sign language for the death of reason.’ She, too, sees a bird as her departed daughter: ‘A certain often-seen bird is a girl, your daughter, watching over you, from a tree branch, home to a mysterious other world.’ But for Collins, rather than continuing to comfort her, this sign language morphs into a stark reminder of her horrific loss and premature empty-nest syndrome: ‘On a walk in the park, you congratulate your newly hard of heart, when an empty bird’s nest falls at your feet.’
For Tim Higham, the death of a home comes in a different form: the ecological decay of the land surrounding his house. In Island Notes: Finding my place on Aotea Great Barrier Island, Higham, an advocate for the wilderness and a science writer, chronicles the extinctions that occur on the beloved Aotea Island in the Hauraki Gulf, where he lives and writes about the wildlife that currently inhabits it but one day may not. The book measures time through his life within the landscape; each of Tim’s memories is associated with the surrounding fauna and flora and with his five senses. When he chronicles his observations of the decay of his favourite reef where he dives to collect seafood, it feels just as devastating as when he separates from his wife: ‘This is familiar territory, folds of rock, ledges, back entrances. But something’s wrong. These hiding places are too easy to find. I realise the kelp fronds are all missing, a forest of bare stalks is swaying in the wash … I break off a couple of stipes below their mushy stumps, push them into my dive apron. Is my reef collapsing?’
This idea of our decaying ecological home is pushed to dystopian levels in Octavia Cade’s novella, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, set in the near future, where the extinction Tim Higham chronicles in present time has now become complete, and both artists and scientists scramble around, desperately trying to resurrect animals, in order to recreate the environment, the home, they have greedily destroyed. The protagonist, Ruby, meets Granny, a scientist in Tasmania who uses DNA to splice together Thylacine pups, once known as Tasmanian tigers; and Darren, an artist, recreates box wrens out of his mixture of sculpture and robotics. But these re-creations are no match for the real thing, and both creations take on haunting surreal and sinister qualities: Frankenstein-like ghosts amplifying our dismay at what has been lost, the home that has been ravaged.
While Higham’s and Cade’s books take snapshots of Aotearoa’s wildlife past, present, and future, John Summer’s Commercial Hotel takes snapshots of the people that make up Aotearoa’s history, both our collective history of folk heroes and iconic objects and his personal history of the people intrinsic to his childhood. His version of ‘home’ depicts a country that’s patchworked together from essays on varying topics, such as prime minister Norman Kirk’s everyday hero and can-do Kiwi attitude, the democratic allure of the Arcoroc mug held between the hands of every Kiwi at one point of their life, and his pacifist grandmother’s protest of WWII, which saw her as the first woman conscientious objector to be jailed. Summer’s essays rebuild the nostalgic New Zealand of our past en route to becoming the Aotearoa we know now.
And that’s the thing about homes, as with any good relationship, you must work at it, consistently reacquainting yourself with them. Last year, when I came back to visit Aotearoa for three months after two years away in the French countryside to reconnect with the landscape I call home, each day, I would scramble along the black volcanic rocks of Tāmaki Makaurau’s shoreline to stop off at a little seat dedicated to someone who loved this portion of the sea as much as me, and facing Rangitoto with waves lapping below I would read my book. On one of these readings, Shayne P. Carter’s memoir Dead People I Have Known offered me a paraphrase from a James K. Baxter poem. In the poem, Baxter philosophises that, due to the vast and unrelenting nature of Aotearoa’s landscape, which continually confronts each person who inhabits it, we are constantly reminded of our mortality.
It was a quote that I was reminded of when reading the introduction to Jack Ross’s most recent collection of short stories, Ghost Stories (2019). The collection begins with an essay entitled ‘The Classic New Zealand Ghost Story’, which investigates the history of ghost stories in Aotearoa. It features Ross’s collected bibliography of books on the subject and the characteristics and narrative arc that define our Kiwi version of these universal stories. One of the most notable characteristics is that our ‘local product’ strongly emphasises haunted space rather than haunted people.
As colonised land, it makes sense that our islands would be threatening, with death coating its soil and its sacredness to Māori consistently desecrated. It makes sense that the land, the whenua, would transpire to avenge this desecration, encoded as it is with the tikanga of Māori tapu. But so, too, does Baxter’s quote come into play here: the enormity of Aotearoa’s landscape, eerie in its isolation, is the perfect setting for our ghost stories. This ‘dark, threatening land’—a trope Ross quotes from Sam Neil’s seminal documentary Cinema of Unease—haunts its inhabitants instead of vice versa.
But really, all the stories I’ve mentioned are ghost stories of home haunting each writer; Langstone and Collins use words to recall their dearly departed and revivify and commemorate them; Powles recalls the homes she’s loved and lost; Higham and Cade chronicle the flora and fauna that are decaying or have completely decayed; Summers retails a New Zealand we once knew. We use language to create our ghost stories, to reclaim our homes, and if our notion of home is separate from us, maybe we use language to find our way back to it, where there is no boundary. As Tim Higham notes: ‘Some cultures progressed without written language, retaining a living connection, a whakapapa with the cosmos… Written language enabled us to conceive ourselves as separate, whereas before things must have been seamless.’ That’s where we make the mistake: home is us and everything around us. Higham reminds us of what Wallace Stenger once wrote: ‘No place is a place until it has found a poet’; and perhaps the opposite is true too: No poet is a poet until they have found a place. Or at least, no poet is a poet until they have created place by telling us ghost stories of home.
SHANA CHANDRA is a freelance writer from Aotearoa of Indo-Fijian and girmit descent, currently based in France, who works within the magazine and digital publishing industries worldwide. Having completed her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Technology in Sydney, she is working on her debut novel, Banjara, a fictional re-telling of her ancestors’ journey from India to Fiji as indentured labourers.