Begin with a mountain

A poem by Nina Mingya Powles.

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Begin with a mountain (山).
I remember shimmering peaks beyond the harbour back home,
Tararua, sugar-dusted on winter-blue mornings.
I remember a mountain hiding behind clouds above the town
where Mum grew up, Kinabalu, sacred mountain.

Begin with a body of water (水).
Dad took me walking every Sunday down by the Waikanae estuary,
where sand cliffs crumbled into the current.
Dad came here when he was little, too, where the river meets the sea,
where Te Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai are guardians of the land and water.

Where are you from?
I’m always avoiding the question.
I can give you the long answer or the short.
I was born in the city where rare yellow pōhutukawa drop
their lemon threads along the shore, where her aloes
spread themselves over the gravel, where congee simmers
on the stove and rain falls sideways on the hills.

Where are you really from?
Tauiwi means visitor, foreigner, one who comes from far away.
Hakka 客家人 means guest people.
Pākehā, tauiwi, Hakka, Chinese.
I hold all of them in me.

Where are your ancestors from?
Aunt Maureen drew a family tree. It begins in London in 1839
with Charles Plummer Powles and in Tasmania, 1845,
with Eliza Cay Adams. He proposed to her
inside a cream-coloured house at no. 22 The Terrace
while she was doing the dusting.

Remember how you came to be here.
I tried to draw a family tree but I couldn’t untangle the roots.
When my grandmother, a young girl, stepped onto the boat
that would carry her across the South China Sea
some records and memories were lost to the deep.

Acknowledge the people who were here long before you.
Taranaki Whānui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika, who travelled south
in waves of migration from their ancestral home of Taranaki
to Te Whanganui-a-Tara — who were then forced out
of Te Aro and Pipitea by the English.

Acknowledge this land that has welcomed you home.
Put 山水 together and you can see the harbour:
its cold waves, small islands.
They don’t belong to me but I belong to them.
Some of us carry oceans wherever we go.

Nina Mingya Powles is a prize-winning writer and zinemaker from Wellington. She holds an MA in Creative Writing and lives in London.

Begin with a mountain (山) Nina Mingya Powles © Extracted with permission from Skinny Dip edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Annual Ink/Massey University Press), $29.99 RRP. Visit for more information.

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