The Safe Zone | Nina Mingya Powles | Granta

The Safe Zone

Nina Mingya Powles

An essay from Small Bodies of Water, the winner of the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize.

I am standing on the pebbly shore. The sea is an opalescent grey, the colour of the thickest part of a rain cloud. It is so flat and still that if I touched my palm to the surface it might feel like solid glass. The sky is darkening, clouds circling towards something in the distance. The tide begins pulling at my ankles, peeling back towards the island, all the way out. I can just make out a black wave on the horizon rising up out of the sea. It begins to take shape: a column of black water so tall it touches the sky, coming closer to me, and I can’t move.

I don’t know when I first had this recurring dream, only that it’s been with me for most of my adult life. My dreams intensified when I left Wellington. Now, this dream comes more often than ever. There are minor variations. Sometimes the clouds are black and red at the horizon, glowing with distant fire, the source of which I can’t quite make out. Sometimes I’m on an island, and sometimes the sea empties out to reveal a sandbank littered with thumb-sized crabs and small whales. I’m always stuck still, unable to move. I wake up sweaty, my jaw tingling from clenching it.



Aotearoa New Zealand straddles two shifting tectonic plates. Active volcanoes are dotted along the country’s ridged spine, and several long fault lines run the whole length of both islands. Wellington sits atop a delicate web of active faults. The Wellington Fault traces the western curve of the harbour, intersecting the main motorway in and out of the city, while the Ohariu Fault and Wairarapa Fault run parallel. These split off into a chain of smaller but equally active faults that carve lines down the eastern side of the South Island. The fault line map looks like part of the human nervous system, as if the islands were made of nerves splitting off into intricate connected branches.

The last big earthquake to hit Wellington was in 1855, almost twenty years after the beginning of European colonisation. The 8.1–8.2 magnitude earthquake was so powerful it generated a tsunami and raised part of the seabed, forming the shoreline as it is today.

My whole life, people have said Wellington was long overdue for ‘the big one’. Growing up, the threat felt vague, distant. I only became aware of the tremors that shook us often when I was about ten. I remember sitting at the kitchen table of our house in Thorndon, feeling the carpet move underneath me. The jolt made my stomach lurch, like when you tip your chair on its back legs but misjudge it and lose your balance, flailing to pull yourself upright again. I was wearing my school uniform. I remember because that afternoon, the warm yellow kitchen lights made my wool cardigan and thick pleated skirt look a brighter blue, deep sea blue. I remember rushing upstairs to find my mum.

When we had earthquake drills at school, we’d grip the metal legs of our desks until the bell stopped ringing. Now, every month or so, newspapers publish headlines like these: ‘Wellingtonians still aren’t ready for “the big one”’ (14 Nov. 2017), or ‘Major earthquake could split Wellington region into “seven islands”’ (24 Mar. 2017). When these articles pop up, I feel that familiar trill of anxiety in my chest. In my head I see an image of the shore breaking apart into a dozen smaller islands, drifting out to sea. At the same time I know these headlines are only trying to trick me into clicking on them, and that the movements of the land are far beyond the realm of my control.



It was Boxing Day and I was eleven. The pictures on the TV were moving while everything else in the room stood still. Somewhere behind me my parents were transfixed, their eyes trained on the news, where a chunk of earth appeared to move across the screen. I was sitting on the polished wood floor, hard and cold through my flannel pyjamas. But it wasn’t the earth that was moving; it was the ocean. A wave. The newsreader kept repeating ‘the wave’ even though what we were watching looked nothing like a wave; it looked like dark mud, or the colour of wet clay we shaped with our hands at school. It looked like the earth was collapsing and the collapsed parts were swallowing everything else up. What was visible on the screen seemed to be happening somewhere both very far away and up-close at the same time. The coconut trees in the background, those that somehow hadn’t been carried away by the wave of water, were the same as the ones at the edge of Po Po and Gong Gong’s back garden in Borneo. The palms swirled around in the wind, blurred on the screen. I gripped my knees to my chest. The coastlines of Indonesia where the tsunami had hit weren’t that far from where they lived. There was a shot of several kids clinging to an overhanging tree and families crowded onto rooftops. What would happen to them? If someone was taking pictures, did that mean they would be rescued?

Just when it seemed as if mud might spill out through the TV and swallow us up too, the clip cut to a grave-faced scientist, then to a red, green and blue moving diagram in which different layers of colour crashed into each other. The layers represented tectonic plates of the earth, the scientist said, and the rippling blue lines were the moving sea. Red arrows flew across the screen to show which way the sea would go next. The two tectonic plates that had collided were the Burma Plate and the Indian Plate, causing eight to ten minutes of shaking, one of the longest earthquakes ever recorded. I thought of how many fault lines lay between me and my family and friends overseas, and how they could rupture at any moment, without warning.

From there, from inside our living room, we could hear the sea crashing in a southerly storm. It was just over the dunes.



Recently a friend who works for an educational publishing house in London asked me for a dream. She and her co-workers were collecting dreams, she explained, to test them out on a new project. They would develop a set of illustrated cards for decoding dreams, to be sold in bookshops and gift shops. Any dream would do.

I emailed her this:

I have recurring dreams about whales beaching themselves in Wellington Harbour. The dreams got more vivid and came more frequently after I moved away from home. Usually orca, sometimes humpback whales. The dreams begin with them swimming close to where I’m standing on the shore and then they can’t get back out to sea.

Whenever I dream of the harbour, there are whales. I can’t always see them clearly but I can make out their dark silhouettes just beneath the surface of the water. In one dream, I’m on a train travelling towards the city along the harbour’s eastern side, where the Wellington Fault runs underneath. It’s an unusually windless day. A huge humpback whale swims alongside me, keeping pace with the train. In another dream, the sea has flooded our garden and a pod of orca have swum right up through the gate, alongside the giant red aloe that faces out to sea – but the water is too shallow for them to swim back out. I watch them begin to flail. In another, I am visiting some kind of run-down urban zoo, where an orca is being kept in a narrow blue tank only partially filled with water. Panic doesn’t hit during the dream itself, but after waking.



The 1855 Wairarapa earthquake generated a powerful tsunami in Wellington Harbour, even though the initial fault rupture occurred on land, not beneath the sea. Land on the entire north-western side of the Wairarapa Fault was forced suddenly upwards, tilting Wellington Harbour and uplifting the seabed of the Cook Strait. The Remutaka Ranges, the mountain chain just north of the city, shifted upwards by six metres. In a blurry animated simulation video of the tsunami created by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in 2008, sections of the harbour flash in pixelated colours like an early Microsoft screensaver. A British-accented scientist narrates the movement of the land and sea in a soothing monotone. The colours on-screen are just like those I saw on the news on Boxing Day in 2004. The digital blue sea changes to bright aquamarine as the tide gets sucked out into the Cook Strait, then floods rapidly back in. Lowland parts of Lyall Bay, Evans Bay and the Miramar Peninsula turn yellow, orange, then red, rendered underwater in fluorescent waves of colour.

These days there are pale blue lines painted all along the coastal streets of Wellington, marking the end of the evacuation zone and the beginning of the safe zone.



If ‘the big one’ came, I knew where we would need to run. The track that leads up the hill behind Kōwhai Street is rocky and steep. Libby and I walked up there every weekend. We were sixteen, it was nearly the summer holidays. The track wound up the hill, each turn marked by a wooden bench patterned with bird droppings and dried moss. This is where we sat to get our breath back while our pulses thumped in our ears then slowed down to match the rhythm of the tide rushing in and out far below. We looked out over the bay where our homes stood toy-sized and perfect at the edge of the shingle beach. Too small to see anyone in the windows, which were metallic black, glinting in the sun.

The salt-smell was receding, replaced by dried grass and eucalyptus and a fresh, wet greenness. We pushed our bodies further up the track, deeper into the bush where the whekī – tree ferns – got bigger, curving above us in a frilled canopy. Now we were in shadow. Gorse as tall as our shoulders lined the track, the ghost-white shapes of spider nests woven tightly between bunches of thorns. When we were little we used to dare one another to prod the silvery webs with the end of a stick, screwing our eyes shut, then screaming.

Once, Libby walked up the track by herself and saw a baby ruru at dusk, perched on a branch. Its mother must have been nearby, hidden in the dark trees. I have never seen one, though all over Wellington you can hear them softly hooting through the night; their name comes from the call they make. She described it to me the next day. The little owl had reddish-brown breast feathers and yellow eyes. It didn’t make a sound while it watched her, though she heard its two-tone call later, on her way home. The light was purple, she said.

At the top of the ridge, the ferns thinned out and hot sun stung our faces. We were standing in a sea of gold, the entire hillside coated in yellow gorse flowers in full bloom. The sun had already cast a rosy pink pattern on Libby’s pale shoulders so we sat down on a bench high above the sea to reapply sunscreen. The slight curve of the earth was just visible from up here, or I might have been imagining it. I rubbed cold cream into Libby’s skin and I could see blurred outlines of the South Island’s snowy mountains, rising in a shade of blue a little deeper than the waves, shimmering like a mirage. But then, unable to stop it, my brain conjured up images of the sea flooding in over the tops of all the miniature houses and gardens and cars parked in driveways.

Every weekend Libby and I wandered between each other’s homes to make chocolate chip waffles and watch old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Friends on DVD. We were in the kitchen at my house and it was unusually dark, the room lit only by the soft glow of the pantry light. I was loading plates into the dishwasher when the floor jolted sideways underneath me. The walls did the same, though it was in the floorboards touching my feet that I felt the tremor, and in the cold countertop, which I gripped with both hands as it moved. The house juddered in a single, symphonic creak, as if all the pieces of the kitchen were fastened together by a series of squeaking hinges with Libby and I at its centre, holding our breath.

Though my body reacted with fear as I clung to the doorway, it wasn’t during the earthquake itself that I began to panic, but in the silence afterwards. I called out to the dog, Toby, waiting for aftershocks I felt sure were coming. I heard Dad’s thudding footsteps on the stairs, his handheld radio already switched on for updates. ‘I’ll just listen out in case of any warnings,’ Dad said in a casual voice, though I could hear his concern. It probably wasn’t necessary, but we knew that large quakes could feel small from far away, and that waves could travel great distances.

Once my hands had stopped shaking and there had been no more tremors for at least ten minutes, I walked Libby to the gate and heard Toby settling back down on his blanket by the door, shuffling sleepily, unbothered by what had just occurred. A ruru resumed its gentle hooting in the stillness. I went to bed and tried to sleep.



In her memoir Birds Art Life, Kyo Maclear writes of her experience of something called ‘anticipatory grief’, a term I hadn’t come across before, and which aptly describes my own experience of anxiety:

Anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting, monitoring all directions continually [. . .] I was on the lookout, scouring the horizon from every angle, for doom.

Growing up with frequent tremors in a city where houses shift and creak in the wind, I developed a kind of immediate physical tolerance for earthquakes. In the moment itself I feel fear, but it’s intensely physical, centred in my shaking legs and hands and in my chest. Deep panic sets in only in the quiet moments afterwards, in the echo of the quake. I’m always less afraid of what’s happening now than of what might happen yet.

Living in close proximity to the sea, my body somehow accepted the fact that I couldn’t constantly fear earthquakes and tsunami – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function. Our house is well within the tsunami risk zone, the portion of the coast coloured bright red on the map, but when I’m home, I’m enclosed in a net of warmth and safety. From inside, I can see the sea. I can hear the wind creaking and moaning in the walls. I’m safe in the knowledge that I can grab the dog and run, if I need to. It was only when I left – when I moved to a flat in the hills above Wellington, or later, when I moved to Shanghai, then to London – that my feelings of anticipatory grief became real and almost constant. To fear catastrophic events when you live in a geologically volatile place could be seen as a partly rational fear. But to visualise these events obsessively, every day, when you don’t actually live there, and not for yourself but for your distant loved ones, is not.



My mum gave me an old photograph with the words ‘Summer 1998, Toronto’ scrawled on the back in her looped handwriting. I must be five or six in the photo. It might have been taken by a stranger, or my uncle Peter or aunt Tina, with whom we’d stayed on that trip. They didn’t do a very good job; the angle is strange, with both my parents standing on either side of me, looking away from the camera. We’re at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and the colours have that hazy, dreamlike depth of supersaturated film. The deep green trees pop out of the frame, as do my sparkly pink jelly sandals. I’m clutching my brand-new inflatable orca toy, and my new orca fairy wand pokes out of the top of my dad’s backpack. Moments after this picture was taken, I remember meeting Jellybean, the orca mascot of Marineland. You could get photos with him at the entrance to Friendship Cove. He would put his soft flipper around you and try to give the thumbs up to the camera, which didn’t work, since he had no thumbs. The glittering archway he stood underneath was decorated with smiling dolphins swimming in spirals.

In the arena, I was so excited to see the whales I slipped and cut my knee on the concrete. A park attendant presented me with an orca-patterned Band-Aid. Two whales leapt out of the pool in unison, a perfect arc in the air above their trainer. They seemed to be flying.

My obsession with orca took new form in a creative writing class during my final year of university in Wellington. My classmates politely critiqued the pieces I turned in, which had taken a dark turn. After watching the documentary Blackfish, released that year, 2013, I fell into a deep Internet rabbit hole researching recent deaths of orca in captivity in North America and Europe, of which there were many.

It’s widely known that orca in captivity live only a fraction of their natural lifespan. There are many recorded instances of captive orca attacking their trainers, whereas wild orca are not known to show any aggression towards humans. In the 1960s and ’70s, wild orca were mainly taken into captivity from the waters of Alaska, British Columbia and Iceland, using brutal methods to separate valuable young calves from their mothers. When the wild capture of whales became illegal, advanced breeding programmes were developed in the US. SeaWorld began phasing out its breeding programme in 2016, and live marine mammal shows are now illegal in many countries including Canada, but the reported numbers of whales still in captivity around the world vary dramatically. The wildlife charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation reported in 2019 that there were still at least sixty known orca in captivity around the world. According to their data, there are twenty-one captive orca in the US marine parks and sixteen in marine parks in China.

I wrote about the whales as if the world somehow still needed convincing of these well-researched facts when, really, what troubled me was my own complicity and ignorance – that, as a child, I had been happily obsessed with the mascots at Marineland. I had orca soft toys, orca bath toys and a special set of Lisa Frank orca stickers. Most influential was probably the Disney Channel spin-off series of The Little Mermaid that ran in the mid-’90s, in which Ariel befriends a cute baby orca named Spot. I felt guilty that my parents had, like many others, brought their child to see the spectacle of giant cetaceans performing in time to pop music, and that throughout most of the past decade this practice continued largely without issue until a slightly sensational documentary was made. I was trying to write my way out of this vague anxiety and guilt. But this was a particular type of guilt that was not useful to anyone. I was also trying to write my way out of my recurring dreams: glass tanks, shallow waters, blue walls.

The American poet Rena Priest has written about the famous orca Tokitae, who was captured off the coast of Washington state along with six other calves in 1970, at the height of the marine entertainment industry. The whales were taken from the Southern Resident orca population, now endangered. At Miami Seaquarium, Tokitae was renamed Lolita. She lived for ten years with another orca named Hugo, who died in 1980; since then, she has lived alone in the same tank at the park. The word for killer whale in the poet’s indigenous language, the Lummi language, means our relations under the sea. Priest describes buying a ticket to the Seaquarium to see Tokitae, and the scene resembles one of my dreams: ‘She swam close – right up against the wall – and stayed there, suspended at the surface [. . .] I was alone with her. I sang her a song, and she made vocalisations back to me.’

The same year I wrote about the orca, I’d received counselling for mild post-traumatic stress disorder after two men broke into my flat in Newtown and threatened me with what turned out to be a fake gun. I was unharmed; my flatmate’s laptop was stolen. The incident is more surreal than terrifying to think of now, partly because my brain can only recall it in patchy, disconnected images. The frosted pane of glass set into the door, through which I could see a shadowy figure; the dark pink swirling pattern of my IKEA duvet cover. In the wake of the break-in I had nightmares involving the same set of events, but rather than casting myself as the victim I was a helpless bystander, watching while someone close to me went through the ordeal instead. The dreams always took place in various deserted public spaces around Wellington – at the top of the botanic gardens, in the empty bus station, in the car park of the museum – tinged with a dark orange apocalyptic light. The counsellor at the student health clinic taught me a basic cognitive behavioural therapy technique to help keep my thoughts from spiralling. She told me to touch each of my fingertips to my thumb, gently, in a slow rhythm, while counting at the same time. I learned to time my breathing according to the rhythm I created with each touch. One, two, three, four, five.

A few weeks before the break-in I’d just got home from  class, my backpack still on and my keys still in my fist, when the charcoal carpet tilted up towards my face. I made an involuntary sound, an animal yelp. I didn’t know what was happening. I lost my balance but landed on my knees on the faux sheepskin rug while the room moved sideways around me. I crawled under the dining table, which was being jostled but hadn’t yet tipped over, and gripped the table legs. I remember being more shocked than afraid – did the floor really just rise up or did I fall down, or both? – until the shaking went on longer than I’d ever felt before and the thought came: this must be it. I reached around into my bag’s front pocket for my phone; sent texts to my flatmate, who I knew was especially scared of earthquakes; to my mum, who was at work; and to my dad, who was having lunch somewhere on Cuba Street. People always said that was where you really wouldn’t want to be in an earthquake. I knew I should try to reach them before the phone networks went down, if it got worse. Dad replied the quickest: ‘Under the table. All fine.’

When the shaking subsided I wiped my nose on my sleeve. I didn’t realise I’d been crying, but then, I always cry when I’m scared. I went to my room, where my bookcase had toppled over, leaving a sea of unharmed poetry books. Dad managed to get through the traffic to pick me up from Newtown and we drove slowly around the harbour. It was a Friday afternoon, and as it started to emerge that no one had been seriously injured in the magnitude-6.5 quake, Wellington enthusiastically kicked into low-key civil defence emergency mode, which really meant that office workers went home early for the weekend and people popped to the supermarket to stock up on bottled water and tinned spaghetti. There had been slips around the north-east of the South Island, where the quake was centred, but thankfully our route home was clear for now. The car’s shock-absorbers took most of the aftershocks, but I saw street lamps wavering out the window as the asphalt rippled softly beneath them.



Most of the time, I’m in the safe zone. But my thoughts often feel like a web of connected fault lines, each small rupture causing another, bigger rupture. I can’t control their spread. I feel an intense pressure in the centre of my chest and my breathing turns into gasping.

Like many, I have trouble describing my anxiety. In Mandarin, to worry or to be anxious is: dānxīn 担心. The first word in the two-character phrase, 担 dān, means to shoulder or to carry, and originally had the more specific meaning to carry on a shoulder pole. I picture myself trying and failing to carry buckets of water, one at each end of the pole, water sloshing over the brim. The second character is a heart: 心 xīn. It helps me to think of my anxiety in such visual terms. I picture a heart carrying too much inside, fit to burst, overflowing at the slightest touch.

My mother is the type of person who is good at channelling worry into practical action and preparedness. In her house, an unused bathtub is filled with supersized bottles of purified water, for emergencies. The bedrooms have packets of crackers and canned food under the bed. A set of pre-packed ‘go-bags’ filled with water bottles, batteries and first-aid kits wait untouched next to the coat stand by the front door.

This has always stirred a combination of amusement, comfort and panic in me. While she places extra batteries and tinned peaches around the house at regular intervals, my brain flips into overdrive. The scene from my dream replays itself over and over at varying speeds. I see the black wave. I see the trees buckle and break, the glass shatter, the roof tiles bend.



In 2016, a deep earthquake beneath the Kermadec Islands caused ‘ghost quakes’ to pop up on the GeoNet online map of Aotearoa. Ghost quakes appear when sensors pick up readings from seismic energy that has travelled many hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre of a deep, strong earthquake. ‘The strength of the quake registers as locally generated earthquakes’, according to the automatic sensors, as GeoNet seismologist John Ristau explains in an article with the excellent headline, ‘Ghost quakes: The ghost chips of earthquakes’. It’s like a translation error, but in the language of tectonics. A large quake occurs and generates vast seismic energy, tricking sensors hundreds of kilometres away, which in turn (mis)translate the shock waves into small, imagined earthquakes.

I was in my dorm room at my university in Shanghai on 13th of November, 2016, when the words ‘magnitude 7.8’ appeared at the top of my Twitter feed, followed by a tsunami evacuation warning for all coastal areas of central Aotearoa. I sent WeChat messages to my parents and refreshed the page over and over while I imagined the tide dropping away in the dark. Mum and Dad piled the dog into the back of the car and drove a short way up Kōwhai Street, their radio switched on in the unsettled night. I kept thinking I could hear the windows rattling, or that I could feel faint tremors in my six-storey building. What was happening felt like the ghost quake caused by distant, imaginary shock waves of the real earthquake that was unfolding on my laptop screen, thousands of miles away.

A long way south, four-metre waves came unseen in the night, pushing kelp and crabs up onto the land but harming no one. In some places along the coast of Kaikōura, the seabed lifted up by two metres. The words I heard broadcast on the Radio New Zealand live-stream chimed inside my head for days. ‘Do not go anywhere near water.’ The warning was lifted two hours later, but the islands kept shifting.

An aerial photograph circulated online of two cows and a calf stranded on a grassy islet after their hillside paddock almost completely collapsed. The stranded cows went viral; ‘please save the cows I don’t think the nz people could take it if they die,’ a stranger tweeted.

I left my bedside light on that whole night, my pink lamp casting everything in a peachy glow. I couldn’t sleep, haunted by the stranded cows, who mercifully were saved by their farmer the next day. He used a shovel to dig them a path to safer land.



Shortly after Christmas, a small box arrived in the post. Inside was a deck of colourfully illustrated cards, with a handwritten note from my friend that read: ‘Thank you for your dream.’ I flicked through them, not necessarily thinking that they would be of any use to me. While I do believe in the emotional significance of my dreams, I’ve never paid much attention to anyone else’s interpretations of them. Nonetheless, I was curious. I found the ‘water’ card: ‘Water is a symbol of your emotional state, with associations of change and flow [. . .] a water dream may suggest you’ll pass into a new phase.’

I liked that the cards were written in a direct, sympathetic tone, while retaining an irritating air of vagueness. The ‘disaster’ card, the only other card that interested me, was illustrated with a wave washing over a small city in the style of Hokusai’s Great Wave. In the background was a red sun, an erupting volcano, and a fiery aeroplane spiralling to the ground.

Dreaming of any kind of disaster, whether natural (earthquake, flood, fire) or man-made (explosion, bomb, accident) can be extremely unsettling. However, such dreams are not typically precognitive. They are more likely to suggest fears or anxieties, or something that you feel is out of your control.

For the first time in a long time, I double-click on a file on my laptop titled ‘Dream Diary’. I haven’t updated it since last year, when I did a poetry workshop where one requirement was to keep a dream diary for the duration of the course. It’s unsettling, scrolling through a catalogue of my own barely remembered dreams. Most were recorded while half-asleep in the moments after waking, just before the dream faded beyond my reach. They’re both familiar and strange, as if they belong to someone else (‘a giant tabby cat that looked like a person wearing a cat costume’, I wrote on the 5th of February). Forcing myself to keep a dream diary often caused entirely different dreams from long ago to rise to the surface without warning:


A small cottage by the sea. Orca dying on their sides, their huge black bodies sliding past. I bought oranges from the side of the road. Recalling this has made me remember another, different dream – just flashes of it. A huge, dark room made of glass, orca kept in blue tanks.



It’s a damp, overcast morning in November. I’m visiting home after having been away for a year in Shanghai. As I gaze out the window at the sea, a tiny dark shape disturbs the glare. I squint into the light but it’s gone. Then, a tall black fin cuts close to the northern tip of Maˉkaro  Island.  It  disappears  –  my  breath  stops  –  then reappears a few metres away, along with another, smaller fin. I grab my shoes and wrench the sliding door open. I fix my eyes on the water, running hard. A third dorsal fin rises, this time attached to the shape of a curved body. Cold salt-wind bites into my chest as I run to the shore and there’s a fourth, fifth, sixth, maybe eight of them now, and I’m running to keep up with them as they glide out towards the harbour mouth like birds in formation. I see a small tail flicking up sea foam to reveal a snow-white belly. A calf swimming alongside its mother. A passing ferry cuts its engine, and then I can hear them. I can hear the soft whooshing sound of them breathing air through their blowholes, trailing miniature clouds of water vapour above the surface as they go. There are shouts of ‘whoa!’ and ‘oh!’ from further along the beach, where dog walkers have stopped to watch. I keep running and I’m laughing but my laughter is being eaten up by the wind. I run until they’re just a cluster of shadowy shapes in the distance. I keep looking long after they’ve gone, long after they’ve slipped out of the harbour into the Cook Strait, maybe heading south into the Sounds, or maybe even further out towards the Subantarctic Islands, far beyond where I can see them.


Photograph © Jay Cox



This essay is included in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles, which is the winner of the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize and available from Canongate in August 2021.

Nina Mingya Powles

Nina Mingya Powles is a writer, editor and publisher from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is the author of three poetry collections, including Magnolia 木蘭, which was shortlisted for both the Ondaatje Prize and the Forward Prize; and Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai.

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