I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
October 1, 2021: Bonnie Tsui
Bonnie Tsui calls her 2020 narrative nonfiction book Why We Swim, “a love letter to water and to her lifelong relationship with the water and swimming.” Bonnie is a journalist who’s passionate about swimming, and I discovered her writing thanks to the series Readings by Writers hosted by Writing by Writers. During her reading and conversation, she said she was “way more interested in other people’s stories than my own.”
In Why We Swim, Bonnie tells the story of the Bajau nomads, the water-dwelling Moken, and the Icelandic swimmer Guðlaugur Friðþórsson. She tells the story of the samurai swimmer Midori Ishbiki and the story of Kim Chambers, who after a fall had to learn to walk again. There are stories of teams and practices and Olympic swimming. From the story of Dara Torres, here’s an excerpt that highlights Bonnie’s wonderful storytelling style.
Competition kept coaxing her back to the edge of the precipice, as Edgar Allen Poe called it. This time, the precipice was lane four.
Why We Swim is divided into five sections: survival, well-being, community, competition, and flow. About the last section, Bonnie writes, “Swimming is about the mind, too. To find rhythm in the water is to discover a new way of being in the world.”
But we do get a little of Bonnie in Why We Swim, enough to understand her deep connection to the water and to hold together a book on the stories of others who also love the water. Bonnie was born in Queens and raised on Long Island. Her parents met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong. Everyone in their family of four swam—until they were no longer a family. Bonnie is the only one who kept swimming.
I swam through the divorce. I swam through college. I swam from Alcatraz, on a dare. I swam as rehab from knee surgery. I swam across a lake at my wedding…Three decades of swimming, of chasing equilibrium, have kept my head firmly above water.
In the first chapter, Bonnie dives for abalone and surfaces with a six-pounder. “In my backyard later that day, I clean, trim, and pound the meat tender—yep, with a rock—cook it up over a flame, and feed my family of four a meal I’ve prepared entirely with my own hands and breath and body.”
Why We Swim is one of TIME magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020 and is currently being translated into eight languages, but it’s not even Bonnie’s most recent book. Her first children’s book, Sarah and the Big Wave, about big-wave women surfers, was published a few months ago, in May 2021.
Before Why We Swim, Bonnie’s book American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods won the 2009-2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Best of 2009 Notable Bay Area Books selection. She has won awards for travel journalism and food journalism. She helped to launch F&B: Voices from the Kitchen, a storytelling project from La Cocina that shares stories from cooks and kitchens that are less often heard. Most recently, she received a 2021 Mesa Refuge writing residency and was selected for the 2021 Pamela Krasney Moral Courage Fellowship. Bonnie’s writing can be found in The New York Times, and Bonnie herself can be found at Pop-Up Magazine and other live storytelling events. These days, Bonnie lives, swims, and surfs in the Bay Area and is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
Come back on OCTOBER 1st to read how BONNIE TSUI spends her days.