Six Bridges Book Festival: Bonnie Tsui
Why We Swim Takes a Luxurious Dive into the Joy, Terror, and Pleasures of the Water
What Bonnie Tsui missed most, when quarantine shut everything down, was swimming.
But that wouldn’t surprise anyone who has read her entrancing, elegant fusion of journalism and memoir, Why We Swim.
Why We Swim released in April 2020, one month after most of the United States entered an unprecedented shutdown that closed most public sites, including beaches and swimming pools. After several months, some swimming sites began to re-open around the nation. Some Americans are now able to swim safely, either in outdoor natural spaces or in outdoor pools made safe by distancing. Others find the call of the water so irresistible that they will swim even under unsafe conditions—crowded together at pool parties, thronging close on beaches and lakefronts.
Why do we feel the call to swim? What is so alluring about immersing the body in water for an act that humans are not naturally designed for?
A gripping blend of journalism and memoir
Bonnie Tsui’s exploration of that question is a world-travelling book that draws on her own life as a swimmer, but moves through crosscurrents of history, biology, folklore, psychology, comparative culture, and more. The result is an absorbing journey with rich rewards for anyone who enjoys looking beneath surfaces.
Tsui is a regular contributor to the New York Times who has also written for The Atlantic and National Geographic, and her strength as a writer shows in prose that ripples with the energy of an Olympic swimmer in one chapter before diving more lyrically into reflection in the next. Throughout, Tsui uses what she calls “participatory journalism,” a sensory immersion of both the journalist and the reader in vivid cultural settings and in the strenuous, pleasurable, or dangerous moments that happen when humans swim.
Tsui was drawn to her subject not only by her own life as a swimmer but by her awareness that there is hardly a human alive who doesn’t have an intense history with swimming in some way.
Everyone has a swimming story
“I started collecting stories, as people would tell me things about their relationship with swimming and the water,” Tsui said. “And what excites me so much about this subject is that whether you say, ‘I don’t swim much,’ or you swim every day, everyone has a passionate, gut feeling about it. Some people have near-drowning stories, and others were made to learn to swim even when they were afraid, and so swimming is visceral. People respond in very passionate ways, with either intense love or fear, and I really enjoyed tapping into the intensity of those emotions.”
Tsui knew from the beginning of the project that she did not want to write a memoir of her own experience with swimming, though her personal experience and stories enrich the narrative.
“Even though people who knew about my swimming said, ‘You have such a great personal story,’ it didn’t feel right because I’m a journalist. I didn’t want the book to be so much about my own life—I wanted to talk to other people and tell their stories,” Tsui said. ”The reader’s experience is at once an immersive exploration of a world, but also very specifically situated in people’s stories.”
An adventure through distant waters
“Readers will encounter the experiences of people in faraway places that are different from their own experiences, but at the same time, there’s also universality to the human experience with the water,” Tsui said. “So whether we are in Iceland, or Japan, or with Coach Jay in Baghdad, I wanted the sensory reality to come through and be vibrant.”
Tsui’s writing is marked by the immediacy of that sensory experience of the water, whether in warm tropical climes or in the breathtaking cold of Scandinavia. “For this book, it was very important to be able to talk about sensory pleasures and fears because that is so much a part of the swimming experience. So, as a writer, I was able to be a conduit for other people’s experiences.”
In one memorable episode, Tsui narrates her trip to Iceland to track down a fisherman with a now-legendary, near-death swimming experience.
“I spent a year corresponding with him and much longer just hoping to meet him, because I felt there would be no substitute for a meeting,” Tsui said. “And through that journey, I came to realize that the story wasn’t just about him, but about the common culture of this collection of islands, and the starkness and beauty of this place. The story is about the mythology that had grown up around one person, but it’s also about this place as a whole and its people.”
Swimming as both light and dark experience
Throughout the book, Tsui returns to the theme that the water for swimmers is a place of contradictions: life floats alongside the constant risk of death, and fear can turn to wonder.
“What’s so interesting about the water and our human relationship to it is that we have two sides of the same coin,” Tsui said. “We need it to survive, and we seek it out even though we’re not quite at home in it.”
But also inseparable from the swimming experience, Tsui pointed out, is the sense of play felt by adults as well as children when they enter the water.
“Sometimes, I would be swimming, and spot someone arriving who seemed quite serious and unsmiling,” she said. “But then that person would get in the water and start spiraling around and swimming like a dolphin, where no one could see it unless they were right there in the water too. They get out and go to the locker room and that’s that, and no one would ever know. Being in the water can coax that lightness out of anyone, which is life-affirming. But water can also be such a threat, and the dichotomy is a source of fascination for me.”
Tsui’s deep personal engagement with swimming and its cultural resonance makes her book full of pleasures for readers of all stripes, from competitive athletes to summer beach bums to those who fear and avoid the water. She will appear to discuss Why We Swim at the virtual Six Bridges Book Festival on October 8-18, 2020. For more detail and a schedule, follow updates at sixbridgesbookfestival.org
Bonnie Tsui lives, swims, and surfs in the Bay Area. A longtime contributor to the New York Times and California Sunday Magazine, she has been the recipient of the Jane Rainie Opel Young Alumna Award from Harvard University, the Lowell Thomas Gold Award, and a National Press Foundation Fellowship. Her last book, American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Best of 2009 Notable Bay Area Books selection. Her website is bonnietsui.com.
feature by Rosslyn Elliott