Friday, April 10, 2020

Bonnie Tsui's "Why We Swim"

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.

Tsui applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Why We Swim, and reported the following:
From page 99:
...myself, newly attuned and alert to the pulse of the bay as an echo of my own.

Why did I do it? I realize that it’s because I want to knock on heaven’s door and have a chat with the devil, too.

I have been afraid of death since I was very small. I remember visiting my great-grandfather’s grave in Brooklyn during the spring Qingming festival, when Taoists honor their dead with ancestral grave sweeping. We burned incense and joss-paper ingots so my bok-gung could have ghost money to spend in heaven. What defined those visits for me, though, was not the story of what we were doing and why we were doing it. It was fear. Fear of the dark, inexplicable unknown; fear of not being. That deep anxiety over dying has stuck with me. Even though I am now grown, it’s what jolts me awake in the night.

Swimming in open water is one small way of confronting that—of getting closer to the fire of wanting to stay alive, of warding off death, without the terror of having to do it for real. Maybe it’s a kind of dress rehearsal. The sea is a deep, alien place. There’s an energy to it, an element of danger that requires a giving over of the self, that makes swimming in heavy water a kind of sacrament. It is a suitable environment to engage with the deep strangeness of the human mind and its fears. Our feet are taken out from underneath us; there are unknowable fathoms below. There are moments of terror. Safety is restored when we set foot on land again back in San Francisco. Though I shiver upon emerging, with the accomplishment comes a powerful sense of hale and hardy vigor, of...
Huzzah! I'm so pleased to find that page 99 approximates the experience of jumping right into the water: it is immediate immersion in some of the most central ideas of the book. The page comes at the end of a section describing the first time I swam in San Francisco Bay with no wetsuit on, in brisk 56-degree waters in the middle of a colossal downpour, with members of the historic Dolphin Club. What is the appeal of open water, and especially of cold-water swimming? Of course we swim for survival -- we first have to learn how to survive the water before we do anything else. But after that, swimming can be so much more: we can swim for health, and well-being. We can swim for community, a sense of togetherness and a shared love of water. We can swim for competition, which takes us back to those survival instincts. After all, what is a race, really, other than the sublimation of our flight-or-flight instincts into that thrilling act? And we swim for flow: the sense of being so immersed in an activity that all time stops, and you are suspended in that moment. That state of mind can take us to new and unfamiliar places. Page 99 manages to touch on the sensory immediacy of swimming and its pleasures at the same time it begins to get at these larger life questions, and explore the idea of the sublime: dancing in the porousness between states, of life and death, of swimming and drowning. Other than telling really great stories about fascinating characters, that's the great goal of the book.
Visit Bonnie Tsui's website.

--Marshal Zeringue