Author Bonnie Tsui discusses her new exploration of what draws us into the water, Why We Swim.
For her interview with Reading Group Choices, Tsui talks about lost water arts, equal access to pools, and her dream swimming destination…
Reading Group Choices: There is so much interesting research in this book. What was your research process like?
Bonnie Tsui: Incredibly varied. I dug into historical archives, interviewed paleontologists at their labs, traveled to Japan, Iceland, and elsewhere. I loved every minute of it.
RGC: There are a few central characters and settings: Gudlaugur Fridporsson, Kim Chambers and Jay Taylor, for example. We feel that any of them could have been developed into their own book! How did you choose which would become central? Was there anyone you left out that you wish you could go back and include?
BT: I really enjoyed most every person I spoke with for this book, and so I tried very hard not to be too precious or sentimental when making editorial decisions. In the end, those main characters you mention were so clearly central — especially after I spent more time with them — that it wasn’t too hard to decide whose stories to spotlight and whose to trim for the purpose of narrative cohesion.
RGC: Some of the topics you present, such as the art of Nihon eiho, open vast new worlds for readers who are unfamiliar with them, and are rich enough to inspire their own books, novels, and further study. Were these subjects already known to you before writing the book, or discoveries?
BT: Nihon eiho was such a rich and delightful discovery for me, and I continue to be amazed that more people don’t know about the Japanese swimming martial art — not just internationally, but within Japan itself! The philosophical principles attached to various strokes and techniques continue to inspire me with how much they tilt toward whole personhood in swimming — it’s taught as not just a bodily exercise, but a spiritual and mental one.
RGC: You refer to the book Contested Waters and provide a brief history of public and private swimming pools and clubs. You also include your own experience swimming at a pool that was more racially diverse than your school and other activities. Today there is still a large racial disparity in the sport of swimming, and even its simple enjoyment. Can you talk about steps you’d like to see to increase equal access and greater diversity when it comes to swimming?
BT: I would love to see universal swimming lessons as part of public school education in the United States — I’ve seen that in several other countries, and it would go a long way toward closing that legacy racial gap in swimming ability and access.
RGC: What thoughts do you have about any long-term impacts of COVID and confinement on how we incorporate swimming into our lives? What has been the impact on your own practice and habits? Have you continued to swim in the bay?
BT: I’ve shifted my practice almost entirely from the pool to open water — swimming in San Francisco Bay, surfing in the Pacific. It takes a little more time and effort to stay dedicated, but for me it’s more than worth it for my well-being. I feel for those for whom open water swimming is not an option, and I wish them a speedy return to the pools near them.
RGC: In terms of structure, how did you decide to separate the book into parts?
BT: Once I decided on the question of Why We Swim being posed in the title, all the stories really did easily sort into five different ways we can answer that question: Survival, Well-Being, Community, Competition, and Flow. I think the structure works because there’s a natural progression from beginning to end, and yet the themes are all related and run together in some way.
RGC: You have had the fortunate opportunity to swim in a number of beautiful locations around the world. What is the number one place you still want to swim?
BT: I would love to swim in Hearst Castle’s Neptune Pool before I die. It is just such a crazy baroque creation, and I think it would be pretty extraordinary to know what it feels like to be in that pool.