Book Review: Exploring the Ocean to Find Queer Survival and Joy

It may seem strange to open an essay collection subtitled “A Life in Ten Sea Creatures” with a story about goldfish. I tend to imagine goldfish dwelling in bowls on children’s dressers, or in Ziploc bags at the state fair, or in tanks at the local pet store. Nothing about goldfish seems remotely maritime. But science writer Sabrina Imbler’s new book pushes readers to reconsider the assumptions that we make about marine life’s shapes and possibilities, and, by extension, about the shapes and possibilities of our own lives.

“How Far the Light Reaches” is a lovely read, and not just for those of us who regularly nerd out about strange marine animals. At turns poignant and hilarious, these essays reveal the fascinating, often mysterious lives of sea creatures, from yeti crabs to whales, to interrogate fundamental ideas about what it means to be human.

BOOK REVIEW“How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures,” by Sabrina Imbler (Little, Brown and Company, 272 pages).

In “If You Flush a Goldfish,” Imbler divulges the environmental havoc that feral goldfish can wreak when their owners release them: aggressively taking over rivers and lakes, spreading parasites, and destroying native ecosystems. In southwestern Australia’s Vasse River, feral goldfish may be evolving to withstand brackish water. Scientists speculate whether this means that the goldfish may be able to swim downriver to estuaries, and from there, someday reach new rivers. Still, Imbler confesses to being “a little bit in love with feral goldfish.”

Goldfish, Imbler observes, survive on those dressers or on those pet store shelves in small, anoxic, unclean containers, often drenched in the ammonia of their own urine, not because they themselves are somehow boring or simple, but because they are incredibly hardy.

“A bowl makes the conditions of living impossible,” Imbler writes. “But when a goldfish manages to survive it, no one thinks of their feat as extraordinary.” To Imbler, a goldfish leaving its bowl to flourish in wild rivers, perhaps even reaching the unknowable expanses of the ocean, attests to a form of survival, and eventually, to a freedom that Imbler the child — growing up queer, nonbinary, and biracial in a claustrophobic California suburb — longed for.

Imbler — who uses the pronoun they — began the collection as a series for the digital magazine Catapult, after learning about a mother octopus who protected her eggs for more than four years until they hatched, at which point she starved to death. “I thought of this octopus for years, unsure why she lingered in my mind until I realized she reminded me of my own mother and our relationship to disordered eating,” they wrote in a letter to advance readers.

In another essay, the thwarted migrations of Chinese sturgeon, blocked from returning to their ancestral breeding grounds by dams, merge with the story of how Imbler’s ancestors escaped Japanese-occupied Shanghai by houseboat, almost starving on the way. Like the sturgeon Imbler contemplates through the glass walls of an aquarium, their grandmother eventually found both refuge and dislocation far from her childhood home.

Tragic octopus notwithstanding, if you’re looking for a dirge about the collapse of the natural world, or a paean to a long-ago naturalist who named microscopic shellfish, this collection is not it. If, however, you’d like to read science writing that’s fresh and resonant, then dig in.

“I thought of this octopus for years, unsure why she lingered in my mind until I realized she reminded me of my own mother and our relationship to disordered eating,” Imbler writes.

From the start, “How Far the Light Reaches” questions and unravels received notions of what’s natural, through detailed observations about the surprising lives of under-appreciated organisms: Salps, or sea grapes, which Imbler describe as “gelatinous,” living both as singletons and as long chains of conjoined creatures that move slowly up and down the water column through unsynchronized, but persistent, jet propulsion; cuttlefish communicating among themselves by shapeshifting into a dazzling array of forms, textures, and colors; immortal jellyfish returning to childhood over and over.

In doing so, the collection queers the idea of ecology. It challenges heteronormative assumptions that people may make about gender, identity, and community when they investigate other species. Even the essays’ forms can surprise, such as “How to Draw a Sperm Whale,” which hijacks a necropsy report format to determine why a romantic relationship died. Reading this collection feels both surprising and validating, as though Imbler has revealed the path to a vaster and more interesting natural world that you always suspected existed, but never could find.

For more insight into the idea of queer ecology, I spoke with Alex Carr Johnson, who has written about the subject for outlets including Orion Magazine. Queer ecology, Carr Johnson explained, is “trying to understand what it means to be alive on a planet where any hard boundaries and categories are inherently artificial.” In “How Far the Light Reaches,” queer ecology leads to unfettered honesty about sex, gender, age, community, history, fear, love — and about ourselves.

Imbler’s book arrives when questions about the safety, and even the legitimacy, of queer lives are once again making headlines, whether through anti-gay legislation, or rising hate crime rates. Meanwhile, though queer ecology has permeated some areas of research, it’s hard to find writing for a popular audience that leans into the concept. And yet science writing can be immeasurably enriched when old frameworks are challenged.

Throughout Imbler’s essays, the necessity of biotic communities emerges again and again. For organisms surviving at all depths of the ocean, the sea can be a dangerous place. Tankers hurtle into whales, pushing the dying animals toward land; marine worms erupt from sandy hiding places and clamp their jaws around nearby fish, dragging them into their burrows. Survival requires connection. When small fish called monocle breams become aware of a hiding sand striker, a carnivorous marine worm that can grow nearly 10 feet long, they spurt water toward its burrow, revealing the lurking threat for other fish to see. When a whale comes to rest on the ocean floor, entire ecosystems thrive on its carcass, feasting for as long as a century. Even feral goldfish form schools and migrate together.

Likewise, Imbler’s personal stories celebrate the collective as necessary for queer survival and joy. Moving from loneliness to belonging, the stories loosely travel in time from Imbler’s childhood in the San Francisco Bay area, to their adult life in Brooklyn, weaving together Imbler’s own coming-of-age story. In one luminous essay, they riff on the idea of deep-sea hydrothermal vents as metaphors for the safe queer spaces they’ve sought wherever they’ve lived. Just as hydrothermal vents warm and feed animals in the frigid deep sea, fostering staggeringly diverse and vibrant communities, queer bars, beaches, and dance clubs offer pockets of warmth and vitality to Imbler. Though the vents eventually disappear under lava or burn out, and clubs may close as neighborhoods gentrify, other hotspots always emerge, and communities reform.

“Life always finds a place to begin anew,” Imbler concludes, “and communities in need will always find one another and invent new ways to glitter, together, in the dark.”

Maya L. Kapoor is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University.