As a perennially poor science student who still has regular stress dreams about receiving a D in 10th-grade chemistry (a true story that my psyche is for some reason intent on reliving), I never thought I’d be drawn to a book of essays about biology—but in truth, Defector writer Sabrina Imbler’s debut collection, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, is so much more than that. In it, Imbler delves deep into the knowledge base behind mother octopuses’ feeding habits and Chinese sturgeons’ migration routes, but they also use science as a tool to tell their own story about navigating life as a queer, mixed-race millennial writer in a way that’s as satisfying as it is curiosity provoking.
Vogue recently spoke to Imbler about identifying with sea creatures, the surprising (or, perhaps, not-so-surprising) link between queer spaces and natural-world biomes, and the importance of creating a scientific canon that doesn’t force writers to check their identities at the door. Read the full interview, below.
Vogue: When did the idea for this book start coming together for you?
Sabrina Imbler: Well, I was a creative nonfiction major in college, and I wrote my thesis about whales, because I was like, I want to write about the ocean, but I don’t know if there’s enough cultural discourse around sea slugs to make my entire thesis about it. What I realized, though, was that I didn’t have that sort of strong personal connection to whales that so many people seem to, which is why there’s so much work—fiction and nonfiction—about whales. I was writing in the style of science books I had read, which was basically putting down everything you could possibly want to know about whales, and I eventually felt so weird about pretending I was an objective chronicler of whales. I had all these personal feelings I wasn’t able to squeeze in, and this was right around the time of the racial reckoning on Mizzou’s campus that spread to other campuses; people were talking about race, talking about the treatment of Black students and students of color on campus, and I was working on this failed thesis, like, This is so stupid, nobody asked for this. It felt so detached from everything I was thinking about, so I turned my half-finished thesis into an attempt to write myself into the narrative and think critically about my position coming into the story as someone of the various identities that I hold. The thesis was horrible [laughs], but after that, I was reading a lot of internet essays and columns and was like, What if I wrote a column where I take a cultural object and use it to help write about my life? Why can’t that object be an octopus? I started thinking about how the personal can be present in nature writing, beyond “I’m a white man on a boat.” I wanted to explore not only the mystery of the ocean but my lived experience in the world.
I was so obsessed with the essay that draws a parallel between dancing ocean crabs and queer nightlife spaces. Did writing that help crystalize any feelings for you about queerness?
Well, I came out in college, and I wasn’t really going to queer clubs; I was just going to the same old house parties. After I graduated, I moved to Seattle, and that was when I was like, Why is going to this one queer party the most important thing about my year? It felt vital to my ability to exist happily in that city, and I think that was when I realized the party had more meaning for me than previous nightlife spaces I’d been in. It was really helpful to draw connections between queer spaces and ocean biomes, because often, when you’re in a queer space, it’s not necessarily as nice as a straight space, right? You have to take a weird number of buses to get there—
Or you’re for some reason in a dilapidated club in Bushwick at four in the morning…
Right. It’s like, queer spaces are not always as well-resourced, but that also helps me treasure the precarious nature of those spaces. It’s like, thank God we have this, especially because there are so many cities where there isn’t a gay beach or a queer club. It helps me appreciate the nature of these spaces, which some people might look down on, but I’m like, actually, this is what makes this space precious. I think people’s idea of the deep sea is often that nobody and nothing wants to be down there, nobody wants to eat decaying flesh; what a dark and spooky place to be! But this is just another way of surviving, and there’s nothing inherently better about living near the sun. I really clung onto the idea that queer people often cling onto the edges or discarded parts of society and are able to make so much magic from that.
How would you describe your relationship with creatures—both in the ocean and out—at present?
I think the ocean will always be my favorite biome in the world, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about bugs, just because I was writing this book during the pandemic and had lots of trips planned to various aquariums and research facilities in order to try to see creatures in person. Functionally, though, I wrote a lot of the book while watching videos on YouTube or looking at photos from scientific papers, and I was also in my New York apartment, so I was like, How can I commune with creatures most easily? I felt very disconnected from nature during the pandemic, but bugs had a real moment, especially with the East Coast lantern fly situation; lately, I’m feeling like I don’t have to do that much work to find connection with, say, a parasitic worm. Like, I’m right there with you [laughs]. It’s been a challenge just to do the hard work of becoming familiar with creatures that live in my apartment and asking myself how can I unlearn the disgusted reaction that I have toward certain bugs.
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I was also struck by the chapter that delves into the nature of predation in different species, especially because you so deftly applied it to your own experiences with sexual misconduct and instances of (at best) blurred consent. What was the process of engaging with those topics like?
I mean, it was really hard to write those pieces. I think if I were to pitch the book again, I don’t know if I would have written that essay, because I think when I first sold the book, I was very much like I’m going to give as much of myself to this book as I can, and no part of my life is off-limits. Then I had to access a lot of painful memories, and I was like, was it worth it? I think I came to that realization after I had drafted it, so I was like, okay, well, this can just stay and I’m not going to read it again. I think it was a learning process for me throughout writing the book: How can I protect myself while dealing with these memories that I’ve blocked out for three years? I think it was easier to do that through creatures as opposed to feeling like I had to be the only backbone of the piece, or like I had to get super specific about any of my experiences. I’ve read a lot of pieces and books and stories about sexual assault, but I didn’t want to speak at all as an authority or necessarily assess the culture. I wanted to share my own experiences as a way to talk about fear and predation without having to bring a really critical mindset into it.
Is there anything you’d like to see more of within the science-writing world?
I appreciate it anytime a writer from any marginalized background—one who wouldn’t normally get an enormous advance to write a definitive science book—is able to write about their own personal encounter with whatever they’re writing about. It is also wonderful to see that being supported more in scientific publications like Scientific American; that publication, which is helmed by Laura Helmuth, has done such wonderful and definitive reporting on trans youth and how science supports transition. It’s just been really heartwarming to see publications take steps toward valuing science that supports people living their best and most fulfilled lives, while at the same time it’s been really disheartening to see publications like The New York Times…not do that. I hope to just see more books from writers that engage with the personal to whatever extent they wish to, and I hope people don’t feel like they can’t bring themselves to the story.