Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim is a love letter to swimming, “an investigation of what seduces us to water, despite its dangers, and why we come back to it again and again.” In the tradition of memoir writers like Rebecca Solnit, Tsui examines the history of swimming as a sport, a survival skill, and even a martial art. A competitive and recreational swimmer herself, Tsui is the kind of person who says things like “one fall, I decided to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco.” Her hybrid memoir and history book traces swimming’s roots around the globe while also looking at how a swim can be a meditative, transformative, and deeply personal activity. She assures us that “the ocean will take care of you.”
Tsui, who finds her joy in pools and open water alike, illuminates how swimmers “[dare] to come as close as we can to [the] very fight for survival. That’s the sublime: the awe and the terror, together. Those moments of panic, the electric flashes of fear, are elucidating, exhilarating. The act of getting in,” she writes, “is a small defiance of death itself.”
Tsui caught up with Alta recently to answer questions about Why We Swim.
“Human fetuses inhale and exhale amniotic fluid in utero, helping to form the lungs. We have so-called gill slits that become parts of our jaws and respiratory tracts, the form of which are evolutionary relics of aquatic, gill-breathing vertebrates. Seawater is so similar in mineral content to human blood plasma that our white blood cells can survive and function in it for some time. I delight in my mental picture of this, the not-so-fanciful notion that we have seawater circulating in our veins.”
What central question inspired your work?
I knew that I wanted to write about swimming, but it took me a long time to figure out an organizing principle through which to investigate our relationship to water. A very smart editor friend of mine finally suggested the question of why we swim as the fundamental starting point, and then it all just fell into place. All of the ideas and stories I had been batting around magically settled into five different ways of answering that question. Those five main themes—survival, well-being, community, competition, and flow—all animate the book.
What did you discover in your research that surprised you?
That being in and around water in its many permutations—cold, hot, ocean, lake, river, inside, outside—has so many fascinating benefits for us. Looking at it, sitting in it, swimming in it. We are better for our immersion in and exposure to it.
How did it change your swim training to be working on a book about swimming?
The biggest change to my training was that I finally joined the Masters team at my pool—the coach there had been on my case for years and I finally said yes. It has been fantastic to swim with a community of people and to have a coach looking at my stroke with an eye to improving it according to my own goals. In general, I have just been more thoughtful about swimming when I’m doing it—I think about everything from whether I’m fully extended on my reach to what I’m going to eat for breakfast when I’m done.
What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I listen to music when I write…. I love creating the right mood for what I have to do in my head. Lately, I’ve been loving M. Ward’s instrumental stuff for serious heavy lifting.
Your book is full of trailblazers. Which of them inspired you most?
Everyone in the book inspired me in a very different way. Guðlaugur Friðþórsson is this mythological character who opens the book, and he resided in my imagination for years before I met him. His survival story is larger than life, but he as a human being is really so much more than what happened to him. Kim Chambers is a swimming phenom and the very definition of perseverance. And Jay Taylor, who taught all those people to swim in Baghdad, is one of the kindest, most generous souls I have had the pleasure of knowing.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
I have a huge pile on my desk waiting for me—I just finished There There by Tommy Orange and loved it. I adored Ted Chiang’s Exhalation: Stories. I am especially excited for Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane, The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom, and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.
Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
It is a cultural and scientific exploration of our curious human relationship with swimming. I invite you all to come along for the adventure.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Tess Taylor for Alta Asks.
- By Bonnie Tsui
- Algonquin Books, 288 pages, $26.95