Berkeley writer and lifelong swimmer Bonnie Tsui is the author of the recently published book Why We Swim, an eloquent look at our complex relationship with the water. A frequent contributor to The New York Times and The California Sunday Magazine, Tsui will publish her first children’s book, Sarah and the Big Wave, about big-wave women surfers, in spring 2021.
Q: How have you been getting your water fix during the pandemic, with the pools in our region shut down?
A: In pre-pandemic times, I’d go surfing three days a week and swim in the pool four days a week. These days I’m still surfing, usually going to Pacifica to surf at dawn, but now I’m mixing it up with open-water swimming at Keller Beach in Point Richmond. It is my new favorite place!
Q: Why do you think you are drawn to water?
A: I have always been clumsy on land. I am always crashing into things and don’t notice stuff like doorknobs. But in the water I feel comfortable, at home, and unhurried. I also have a busy brain, and being in the water forces you to be present.
Q: How has swimming been especially important for you during this health crisis?
A: Swimming has helped me get through a lot of difficult times, and this is certainly no exception. The meditative process of counting laps or counting your breaths takes you out of your regular headspace, and that’s great, especially now. Another reason I swim is for the community of other swimmers, many of whom, like me, have transitioned to open-water swimming during the pandemic. We share a love for the state of being in the water, and there is a comfort to that rhythm when you see the same people every day.
Q: What’s one of the most challenging swims you’ve ever done?
A: The Alcatraz swim is a favorite. It can be very challenging because of the currents and the water temperature, and you’re right in the shipping lane. I have an appreciation for the massive swing in the volume of water pushing in and out of the Bay—you realize that’s how this place was a really effective prison for so long.
Q: Besides swimming, you have written about everything from food to travel to climate change. Do you see a common denominator in all of your subjects?
A: I am interested in humanity and why we think the way we do. I like to profile people and tell specific stories that have a larger meaning. I just follow my curiosity, because I want to be genuinely interested and thoughtful about the stories I choose to tell.