Having got on so well with a novella for my first #ReadIndies book, I thought it would be nice to keep going with slimmer volumes, especially as I have so many in the pile of possibles and on Mount TBR! So my second book of the month is a recent arrival, one of two from the publishers The Emma Press which were a Christmas gift from lovely blogger HeavenAli. Both of these looked marvellous, but in the end I settled for “Tiny Moons” by Nina Mingya Powles.

First, though, a little background about The Emma Press. Currently based in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, this indie publisher was formed in 2012 by Emma Dai’an Wright, and their focus is on poetry, short fiction, essays and children’s books. Certainly, a quick browse on their website reveals some fascinating-looking titles, and I suspect I may have to explore further… But on to “Tiny Moons”…

The book is subtitled “A Year of Eating in Shanghai”, and the author draws on her mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage; having been born in Aotearoa, New Zealand, it soon becomes clear that she’s led a very peripatetic life. Structured around that year spent in Shanghai, whilst at university studying Mandarin, Powles explores her past and various homelands via the medium of food; and as well as revealing much that is fascinating in the way of food facts, the book also delves into belonging in a particular culture and how what you eat can inform that.

Maybe it’s impossible to recreate the exact weight of a memory, but we keep trying.

The author has revealed the book started out as a diary, and as a food memoir it’s beguiling. Powles writes beautifully and evocatively, capturing a rainy day on campus, the heat of the summer, the changing of the seasons and all through this, the food which is available at that time of the year. The cyclical nature of life is evoked, as well as Powles’ friendships, loneliness and memories of her past and family. It’s a joyful read, and is enhanced by line illustrations by Emma Dai’an Wright; and the inclusion of the Chinese characters for some of the foodstuffs and the make-up, and often poetic translation, of those elements, is a lovely addition.

What does it mean to taste something and be transported to so many places at once, all of them a piece of home? To be half-elsewhere all the time, half-here and not-here. There are two sides of myself: one longing for the city, one at peace near the sea.

At ninety pages, the book is easily devoured in one sitting, but be warned – if you read it whilst hungry, you will end up craving all kinds of food!! I’m a huge fan of rice, noodles, dumplings and all that kind of thing; so I was definitely struggling to resist the urge to send out for a takeaway by the end of it! Powles’ writing captures the appeal of so many different types of food that I did feel I rather wanted to move to Shanghai myself for a year.

As a woman, Powles is very aware of the pressures from society to conform to a particular type, and our complex relationships with food because of it. To be seen to have an interest in, and enjoyment of, food is often portrayed as a negative characteristic where females are concerned and one we need to get past.

It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness. The body must be punished for every misstep; for every “indulgence “the balance of control must be restored. To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, is a radical act, of love.

But there is, of course, more to the book than food; Powles is using this as a tool to find her way into her complex heritage, connect with the different elements that make her up, and the memories of her grandmother in particular are very moving. Recipes can of course be passed down in families, but you never make a meal in the same way as a loved one used to, and I guess every family has its own repertoire of favourite meals (mine certainly does). Food and eating can represent so much more than just fuel to keep us going, and Powles’ exploration of her heritage through the food attached to it makes for a lovely and thoughtful read.

So my first read from The Emma Press turned out to be an atmospheric and memorable little book. It was apparently very popular during the various lockdowns and I totally understand that. Watching the seasons passing and reflecting on life through food is wonderfully distracting, and if this book is any indicator, I’ve obviously found an excellent new author and publisher to explore!