Sabrina Imbler's 'How Far the Light Reaches'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday January 3, 2023
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author Sabrina Imbler
author Sabrina Imbler

Sabrina Imbler's new book, "How Far the Light Reaches," has a conventional publisher, Little, Brown. But word has it that a major source of the book's distribution is friends giving it to friends, as something singular and precious, in the manner of Sean Hewitt's "All Down Darkness Wide."

The title of this collection of 11 individual essays recognizes Imbler's fascination with, and knowledge of, creatures of the deep seas. Though not exclusive of creatures from across the spectrum, including humans, their focus is on the inhabitants of the ocean floor, where they live if not always thrive in conditions no human could bear: the crushing weight of water a depth of hundreds of feet, temperatures colder than freezing in Fahrenheit, and darkness the result of being beyond, as the title suggests, regions where the light of the sun does not, cannot, reach, where photosynthesis is not Lord..

Readers who are acquainted with the David Attenborough features on "Life on Earth" or any of an array of other explorations by camera of the sea floor do not need to be told how fascinating these creatures whose essence eludes and often defies human understanding are. And Imbler adds to the cumulative knowledge with keen, observation-derived accounts of these critters, most of which do not comport with our standard idea of fishes. Their writing in this vein is thoroughly professional but readily accessible to lay readers.

author Sabrina Imbler  

The human element
But what makes these essays narrative is Imbler's agility in moving from consideration of scientific matters to reflections on their own personal past, and that of their forebears. Their own, accurate word for the result is "braided" narratives. Most of these stories address the author's coming out, twice— as a lesbian and then as trans. Their other preoccupation is with the deeper meaning of being bi-racial. Imbler's mother is Chinese and their father a US-native white man.

Other matters that appear more as preoccupations than central themes are body image and, in particular, weight and the loss of it— in all, beauty, what it really is rather than what constitutes it in the paranoid minds of people who have it and, more often, people who do not recognize it in themselves.

These reflections are not chronological but are nevertheless easy to follow, what with Imbler's careful detailing of the dates, places, and motions of their life— one wants to say lives. Moving is almost a theme in itself. A Bay Area native, Imbler seems in regular if not constant peregrinations between the east and west coasts, with some stops in middle America on the way.

"There is no turning point, no clear moment when I started feeling good in my body," they write. "I know when I started dating people who are not cis men, I learned to revel in queer bodies and the endless and inventive ways we create into ourselves."

There is often startling candor in her accounts of dealing with boyfriends as well as girlfriends and eventually fellow queers with whom they can contemplate, if never quite realize, life partnership. The cis men they recall are in general treated with sympathy, the critical line being between those who are abusive, in any way, and the rest. There's no escaping the strange, self-styled comedy of "the first blowjob I gave."

Throughout there is evidence that the author has learned the hard way all about transcending, not just surviving, life's tougher trials and passages.

"When I first came out to my mother, they write poignantly, "she asked me if I thought I was a lesbian because so many men had been cruel to me. I knew when she said 'cruel' she meant boyfriends who had broken up with me, but instead I thought of these other men, and for a moment I wondered if she had a point."

In the essay entitled "Hybrids," they take discussion of hybrid animals to extend to their own experiences. "And yet —this essay is a spoiler in itself— I have never stopped thinking about my mixed race. My race, or rather my preoccupation with what it means and how I feel about it, is something that may rankle me for the rest of my life." Her accounts of a relationship with a partner of the same mixed race rejoice in the relief of not having to apologize or even explain.

"Maybe it's a side effect of coming out twice in adulthood, but I do not want to feel resolved about myself. My experience as a mixed-race person is not fixed but always oscillating, between Chinese and white, longing and irritation, pride and guilt. I want to imagine my mixed-race existence in the present and into the future... I want to imagine how I am continuing to live."

Sea hunt
That said, her returning focus on the creatures of the deep— and to be fair some of the shallows— is always welcome. The reader will not soon excise from memory the account of the mother octopus who, to protect her thousands of eggs, does not herself eat for more than four years, dying of exhaustion after the young are released into the world.

An extended reflection on the dinosaur-like Chinese sturgeon addresses the subject of dams and the existential threat they pose to river and sea life. "To swim in the Yangtze now is to bathe in synthetic compounds. Industrial and agricultural pollutants unspool into the river, runoff from city drains and industrial sites."

Whales, and their endless persecution by humans, elicit some particularly vivid writing. At the other end of the size spectrum, in "Pure Life" they write about microorganisms on the sea floor. In it is a characteristic reframing of the relevance of these creatures to the human populations and forces of nature that threaten them. "These animals eked out an alternative way of life. I prefer to think of it not as a last resort but as a radical act of choosing what nurtures you.

"As queer people," they continue, "we get to choose our families. Vent bacteria, tube worms and yeti crabs just take it one step further. They choose what nourishes them. They turn away from the sun and toward something more elemental, the inner heat and chemistry of Earth."

In "How to Draw a Sperm Whale," the link between animal and human behavior is introduced by the "necropsy reports" scientists prepare regarding whales that have recently died. The discussion is interrupted numerous times by sections of personal recollection called "Necropsy Report: A Relationship," which offers a central insight: "You can learn to be queer and single, but not alone."

The catch
An entire chapter about morphing yields an unsuspected realization.

"What starts as a longing to please my partner while holding their face in my hands soon morphs into a longing for cock, not just something I wear but that could feel, occasionally, like it was a part of me." What follows is a taxonomy of strap-ons.

In the concluding essay, tellingly entitled "Us Everlasting," they discuss successive childhoods. "Maybe you cut off your hair or maybe you wear chokers. Maybe you fall in queer love for the first time, which feels symphonic when it starts, world-ending when it's over."

That chapter concludes with an observation rendered in unforgettable prose. "I grow up inhabiting my body instead of feeling like a ghost driving a stolen meat suit— my little tentacles stretching, stretching out into the neglected spaces of myself, grabbing hold, finally making myself whole."

'How Far the Light Reaches' by Sabrina Imbler; Little, Brown, 263 pp., $27; ebook $15.

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