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[Book Review] Why We Swim

by A.M. Larks

“There’s something primal about a day like that at the beach—it’s all the animals heading to the watering hole. Water is a magnet for our teeming throng of humanity,” Bonnie Tsui observes in her recent nonfiction book, Why We Swim. Tsui’s observations about what draws us to the water feel particularly relevant with summer months looming and the fate of public spaces like the beaches and pools affected by the COVID-19 pandemic regulations. Examining the necessity of swimming can mean the determination between essential and nonessential activities, and it is clear from Tsui’s eloquent and methodical prose (akin to the act of swimming itself in its rhythmic and cyclical movements and constant forward advancement) that water is as vital as land. We need both things to maintain balance because “[a]s humans, we walk the earth. We are land creatures with an aquatic past,” which is why “[w]e choose to put ourselves in all kinds of waters: oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, pools.” [CYW1] We “heed the siren call of the water,” even if you don’t ever get in. “We are pulled to the paradox of water as a source of life and death…” But—as Tsui notes—we are drawn to swim beyond a basic physiological or psychological need for survival. As our physical competency increases, we find—or, rather, we become aware of—the health benefits that water has, the community that water can provide, the opportunity for competition and “swimming supremacy,” and how water can enhance our creativity through a state of flow which are “separate streams of reasoning [b]ut in truth, they all run together. A swim can take different forms, different moods, and different functions, depending on the time of day, the time of year, the time of life,” and depending upon the person.

Not everyone gets to swim, and America’s history with swimming reflects our turbulent race and class relations. “The historic lack of access to public pools [has] left America with a racial gap that exists today.” In addition to race, “[m]oney also has a heavy hand in the way swimmers are made.” Who gets to recreate and liaise in the water? “In America, the pool is a privilege.” This privilege is currently shuttered for many, as access to public beaches and community pools is barred due to public health concerns. The beaches that are open are located—at least in California—in affluent coastal communities, many of whom are urging the general public to stay away by adopting a “locals only” approach. With temperatures soaring, those who can afford it still have access to the water via their private backyard pool or proximity to a waterway, making the social (or rather, swimming) divide even more entrenched, giving a bleak outlook to America’s aquatic future. Tsui writes that “not everybody is a swimmer, but everyone has a swimming story to tell.” I hope that statement is as true in the coming months as when Tsui penned it, pre-coronavirus.

AM Larks writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel TimeAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughsharesblogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current Fiction Editor at Please See Meliterary magazine, the Photo Editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and she is the former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She lives in Northern California.


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