Queer Revisioning and Incomprehensibility: Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches
In Sabrina Imbler’s 2018 Catapult column “My Life in Sea Creatures,” Imbler writes that “science is not now, nor has ever been, objective, fair, or inclusive.” An essayist and science journalist, Imbler expands on this idea in their collection of essays How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, sifting through ocean life for queer possibilities of care, adaptation, and survival, alongside stories about their family and coming-of-age as a queer and mixed-race Asian person.
The book opens in a humble Petco near Imbler’s Bay Area hometown, which is slowly (and perhaps inevitably) sinking back into the landfill and wetlands it was built over. A thirteen-year-old Imbler is staging a solo protest in the goldfish aisle, earnestly tossing facts about proper care, quality of life, and too-small tanks at potential customers until they are asked to leave by an employee. In future retellings of the day, Imbler will say they were banned from Petco in the hopes that people will assume they were exiled from the entire chain, a larger threat to business than they actually were.
This open-faced revisioning is threaded throughout the book, as Imbler navigates popular clichés and the confines of their own metaphors. In the essay “Hybrids,” on their oscillating relationship with their mixed-race being, Imbler lists the tropes they will not be using: a quota of biracial microaggressions, a scene of them eating dim sum with their Chinese grandparents and white dad, or a finale where they fold dumplings. At a point where they might tell you how their parents met, they withhold the information simply because “I don’t want to, because I have to keep some parts of my family to myself.” They test and scrap different endings, writing around tired narratives and finally concluding with a list of possible “maybes.” “Maybe I could blend all these scenes into a montage of T and me coexisting with our mixed community, marveling at how good it feels to carve mixed-race pumpkins, sauté mixed-race vegetables…shoot the mixed-race shit.” The only definitive is that rather than having their identity poked and prodded by others around them, they are now the one dissecting themselves.
It is refreshing to be invited into the crafting of a narrative, to see how one can build upon a literature while acknowledging the need to move past it. Imbler successfully captures ambiguity without pinning it down, at a moment when science, media, and self-branding capitalism are so eager to name us. They point out the shortcomings of science’s own mythologizing. An “’ontegeny reversal jellyfish’ does not make headlines or earn grant funding,” they write, so it is more enticingly but inaccurately named an “immortal jellyfish.” Nature documentaries often label prey as “unsuspecting,” even though their bodies are hardwired to resist predators. The sand striker, a type of marine worm, was previously named after a rapist and domestic abuser, until oceanographer Kim Martini called on scientists to reconsider the moniker.
Science, as it turns out, can also just be a person’s best guess. In “Pure Life,” Imbler homes in on the resilience of queer communities through the lens of yeti crabs, pale creatures with feathery legs that live 7,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Before scientists found them thriving in hydrothermal vents, which create pockets of warm air scattered randomly across the seafloor, it was believed that no living organisms could survive without sunlight. Scientists could only hypothesize about how they lived and migrated until recent findings in 2006, yet Imbler is “attached to the mystery of those spaces and how it keeps them sacred, an impossible, shimmering way of life that we were never meant to understand.” The ocean floor is less known than Mars, yet there are benefits to avoiding visibility and public consumption. In “How to Draw a Sperm Whale,” Imbler introduces us to Nigel, a healthy whale who died four months after scientists tagged him and inadvertently allowed fungi to enter his bloodstream through the puncture wound. “There is a way, the scientists realized, to study something to death.”
The ocean is filled with different bodies, sexes, and ways of having sex, and Imbler views the fluidity as a source of inspiration. They tell the Gender Reveal podcast about clownfish and humphead wrasses, fish that live in groups and can change sex if a dominant male or female dies. “I think it’s really beautiful,” they say, “to think about that fluidity of ‘my body is what my community needs it to be, and if there is a gap I will fill it.’” In “Morphing Like a Cuttlefish,” Imbler considers their constantly shifting feelings about their body and gender. They could wait to write this essay a few years from now, when their view of themself might have neatly coalesced, but then how would they trace their own evolution? They dub the essay a “pseudomorph, a gibbous moon, a silhouette in ink of the person I am now and whom I may no longer resemble in the future.” Imbler writes against the “cold, hard facts,” making science and documentation susceptible to the whims of revision and creating space for more imagination, more change, and more grace.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, I picked up Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. Reading about the care and equilibrium that whales, seals, and dolphins practiced felt like a miniature salve for the state of the world. Now, in a year of heightened anti-trans legislation, censorship, and queer visibility, it is compelling to revisit the ocean as a site of resilience amidst duress and climate disaster. Like the queer community’s love of astrology or Dungeons & Dragons, sea creatures provide a framework for people to build new narratives, and queer and trans rights have historically been built around movements to change the popular narrative—insisting that “trans people have always existed,” fighting for gender inclusive bathrooms and trans athletes in sports, and providing public education on the dangers of illness as metaphor regarding HIV/AIDS and the recent monkeypox outbreak, to name a few. When “science” and “facts” are weaponized against queer and trans people, storytelling has often emerged as a tool for survival.
Imbler deploys this through anthropomorphism, which they define as “looking to organisms for reflections of ourselves.” In a more direct op-ed for the New York Times, they argue that anthropomorphism can be a form of protection that prompts connections across and because of differences, despite the practice being frowned upon as unscientific. Carving out empathy for the aliens and body freaks of the ocean is parallel to the survival of what we know on land. They encourage readers to offer reverence to “other creatures’ incomprehensibility” and to look inward when faced with the unfamiliar.
No stranger to their own advice, Imbler literally jumps into mysterious “shimmering heaps of gelatinous blobs” on a trip to the historically queer Riis Beach, in the essay “We Swarm.” The clear orbs have stranded themselves along the shoreline and no one knows what they are, although they definitely don’t sting. After some on-and-off internet sleuthing and a call to a park ranger, Imbler isn’t able to confirm what they saw that day, so they give themself “permission to remember them as salps,” individual clones with no limbs or muscles that attach to each other and drift through the ocean like “giant quartzite bracelets.” They later refer to the blobs as “maybe-salps,” confidently forging ahead with the book’s conceit and drawing parallels between salp chains and the human connections made at Riis Beach—the facts of the day are not as crucial as the portals they open, or the narratives they allow. Imbler notes that scientists view salps as a “nuisance species,” but for them, salps are a reminder of the ghosts who once populated the same queer spaces, who lived despite others wanting them dead. How did they go on, soft and resilient, in the face of all that incomprehensibility?
The final essay in the collection, “Us Everlasting,” does not offer a neat solution but an opportunity. Imbler invites fourteen contributors to take on life as if they were immortal jellyfish, creatures that can “age backwards” by cloning themselves into baby polyps when their body is damaged and at risk of dying. Their words are cataloged in a list of alternative lives, pondering how they would live if they could do it again—one writer would flatten their chest, another would have never shaved their legs, and a third dreams of a world with more love and less violence. In between reimaginings, Imbler switches to the second person and prompts readers to respond to the same questions: “So what if you could do it over?” “Who would you be and who would you love?” “How shall you regrow, and in how many ways?”
The effect may have been hokey in the hands of another writer, but Imbler never fails to demonstrate that a different way of life is possible. It’s easy to get picked up by the current of their words, and the many maybes they open up—maybe you cut your hair, maybe you wear chokers, maybe you fall in queer love, maybe, maybe, maybe. Here are the tools they have been using, and here it is in practice. It feels like the offering of a gift, to let us know that they want us there, with them, in the future that is ours to make.