Sabrina Imbler is a science writer and essayist. They have received fellowships or scholarships from Tin House, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Jack Jones Literary Arts. Sabrina loves the ocean and uncharismatic microfauna. Their essay collection, How Far The Light Reaches, will be out with Little, Brown in 2022.
Alexandra Valahu: In the acknowledgements of your book you write that at Tin House your cohort encouraged you to think of the essay in its primary form as a chapbook. I’m wondering how that writing took shape and how you thought about the form?
Sabrina Imbler: I went to Tin House and did a short fiction workshop under Randa Jarrar. The genres that you can have are so strict: there’s fiction, non-fiction, and short fiction; and because this included things that were not technically true, I was like, this must be fiction. I took it to my class and everyone was like, this is non-fiction, kind of. I find it very difficult to address the chapbook in a certain genre. I looked it up and understood it in the context of poetry. The first iteration of Dyke (geology) I wrote for a class in college as a final project, and it was just this thing in pieces. Initially, all the sections, every paragraph was numbered because I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and was like, this is the way I will write everything!
Once Mahak Jain, another member of the workshop, introduced me to this notion of something as a chapbook, and as this thing that can exist as something that is complete but also very small, I decided that that was the mode through which I would operate, and reframed the different sections into sections as opposed to one long bulleted list.
I also made it longer to make it into the length of a chapbook. Although, when the final book came, I was like this is so short and every single person who has reviewed this was like, in this very short chapbook — [Laughs]
AV: [Laughs] Very compact. I only have the PDF copy—does it have the feel of a thick pamphlet?
SI: The whole thing is twenty-two pages, which is cute. I got my author copies which are all sitting on my nightstand because of course I’m not giving them in the capacity that I thought I would—they just sort of stare at me. I like thinking about it as a pamphlet.
AV: It definitely feels more spacious than an essay. Seeing it in this form feels completely natural.
SI: In the editing process, I cut out every section into its own little piece of paper, and I put them all on my floor. I ordered them and I was like, I can’t read this entire thing through without taking a break because some of them are very dense, either in visuals or in scientific jargon. I like that chapbooks give you poetic license to have very short sections and huge amounts of white space.
AV: And we need that spaciousness when we read it because the scientific writing is accessible but it is intense. It feels like poetry in that every line is beautiful and there’s not a word that you would take out.
You wrote it for school originally as a paper so I’m curious about your writing process weaving the science writing and the narrative autofiction. Was the narrative in the original essay?
SI: The entire idea behind this chapbook started when I read the Wikipedia page for Dyke (Geology), which is why it’s formatted like “Dyke (Geology).” Wikipedia will have these landing pages where if something has multiple definitions, it’ll be like “Did you mean Dyke (Geology), did you mean Dyke (whatever)?” I found it so extraordinary because I was in a gay wormhole—I suppose as one can be on the internet—and they had Dyke (Geology), Dyke (Mythology), Dyke (which is a kind of side-cutting pliers), an automobile company named Dyke, and then finally dyke the slang, and I was like that’s so strange and why is this the last in this list.
I feel like even to those outside of the community this is their first reference for it. So then I just read every single possible iteration of what dyke could mean, and what it has meant, and I was most struck by how it exists in geology. The literal definition of a dyke is an intrusion of a different kind of rock, in a larger kind of rock—that’s a metaphor!
I read all these old scientific papers by these old white men who all lived centuries ago and it was just so funny to see this word emerge in the way that they would use it. There’s so much linguistic humor to be had here so I tried to write on how this word exists in geology but I found it kind of hard to link it together (aside from, this is a free write) without having a character, and that’s how Kohala, the Hawaiian volcano, came in.
I think that as this piece originated there was none of the first person point of view. It was all about rock, and I introduced this volcano as a way to talk about this relationship that I had which is sort of half-true, half-invented in the book. The human relationship narrative I added much later as a way to give these reflections on science more meaning and more connections, and also to tie it together as a piece.
AV: I was really interested in the parenthetical—geology being in parentheses—so of course Wikipedia would have that one first.
SI: Absolutely. I also happened upon this phrase that I’ve encountered a couple of times since, now that my eye is just trained to it, which is this aphorism called “sticking your finger in the dyke”—[Laughs]
AV: [Laughs] What!
SI: It comes from this Dutch fable, I think, where this young Dutch boy stuck his finger in a dyke, which in this iteration means a type of ditch. He saved his town by sticking his finger in this leak that was coming out of the dyke. It’s so wild how many uses this word has and how freely it proliferates. It’s also wild that people are still using that phrase in this day and age.
AV: It really is. I’m so curious if the translation is different in Dutch.
So much of science has been rooted in white men discovering things or thinking that they’re discovering things and calling them discoveries, and I’m wondering if you had any research tools outside of that world?
SI: That’s a really good question. For the papers that mentioned dyke, I used a very specific search term which is that I used the spelling with a Y. Basically, dyke has two spellings, either with a Y or an I, and the I is much more common for geology. A lot of the scientific papers about geology that talk about dykes with the Y spelling are much older and therefore are almost entirely written by white men.
Those are the ones that I looked at because it seemed insurmountable to read papers about dykes—especially modern papers I find more inaccessible because they’re much more specific and they’re very self-referential and referential to other studies. In the 1800s, if you were a man writing a scientific paper, you would often include an anecdote about how you came upon this rock, and it’s much more literary in a sense. I guess the one specific instance of citation where I quote this guy Wadsworth—those were the primary sources that I turned to for that. For the science and everything else, I was very cautious and just tried to use university websites and different “Physics for Kids” things that sound into very simple terms. I didn’t think to go to a more decolonized science resource blog, though now I wish that I had.
AV: They’re so much harder to access. When we’re looking in the English language, which has been a language of the colonizer, I wonder how limited people in science are. A lot of myths, and a lot of knowledge is passed through oral storytelling.
SI: Oh, absolutely. The culture of science, hard science, and scientific papers is also just so inaccessible because so many of these things are behind paywalls and you can only access them if you belong to a university or can pay for a subscription. There are organizations like Free Rads, which is an organization of science workers of color, many of whom are queer, who try to make science more accessible, and talk about the limitations of the ivory tower where a lot of science is propagated.
AV: I’ll look into that group. Before diving more into the language of your book, I’m curious about your language of science. I found your writing to be really alive. You use such beautiful adjectives to describe things that happen on Earth, and volcanoes. You also write in contrast with traditional, heteronormative academic language in scientific texts, so I’m wondering how you came to this language?
SI: Thank you. An overall aim that I have in all of my creative work, whether it’s this chapbook or writing about sea creatures, is that I hope that everything I write is informative. I hope that people learn new things about the things that I find fascinating, whether that is a volcano or volcanic processes or this one specific kind of marine worm, but I never want it to feel pedantic or didactic.
I’m much more interested in interrogating a phenomenon or a creature, and figuring out, well this one specific part of how this animal exists or how this process works is relevant to me and this is my way in. This is how I care about volcanoes, and hoping that that will then bring in more people to find their “ins”: the cracks in this inaccessible wall of science. How can you find your own entry point? Which, for me, is a lot of emotional residences, and the metaphors that I pull out of these things.
I think that in doing that, I’m always trying to explain from this very specific angle of “this is how I am understanding dykes, and this is my entry point, and I’m not trying to tell you this is how people study them, and this is how they’re relevant, and these are the small things that I hold dear and precious about them” and sharing that. I hope that they’re informative but I never want them to claim to be comprehensive, if that makes sense, because they’re not. It’s hard to imagine what comprehensive science looks like because I feel like even an explainer on dykes that one could possibly find on a university blog would not actually tell the whole story of what these have meant to people of different cultures and how they have been appropriated perhaps from their language. Trying to make sure that I’m not speaking for the entirety of the phenomenon.
AV: Absolutely. Even your title indicates that motivation. The parentheses feel so powerful because it isn’t written as “dyke comma geology period,” which would feel more declarative. What drew you to Kohala specifically? And volcanoes more generally?
SI: A large part of the relationship that inspires this book was about my experience dating a white person and feeling tokenized or eroticized in certain ways that had obviously happened to me before when I had dated white men because of course. And then I think that I was just like, oh now that I’m in a queer relationship, I’m in this kind of utopia, and we’re all understanding of these larger structures. Because my partner at the time cared a lot about social justice, there’s no way that she could harm me, which is obviously a myth, and one that I very quickly realized, but that was something that I wanted to speak to in this book: about dating under white supremacy, and me understanding my own desires as coming out of white supremacy.
Maybe this is too technical but when I talk about when the poles switched on the earth, I’m using that as this metaphor of coming out, or this moment of reorienting my desire. I was like, I must find a volcano that has been around for longer than that. Where are volcanoes of color? [Laughs]
SI: I had spent a lot of time in Hawaii as a kid because I grew up in California, and as someone who is half Asian and half white, I experienced this very peculiar kind of belonging in Hawaii. I resembled a lot of people who lived in Hawaii, and had never felt more at home. I also have experienced my own kind of understanding of why the term “hapa” does not apply to me because I am not from Hawaii and I am not native Hawaiian but for a long time a lot of belonging that I experienced was in Hawaii. And Kohala was a Hawaiian volcano who sort of had this own mythology that I found really interesting.
AV: In this text, volcanoes were angry, they erupted, and there was a lot of really beautiful language around it. You wrote that “auroras burned,” and “fiery plumes…burst forth,” “[Kilauea’s] angry black fingers…creep across.” I’m wondering if you’re able to talk a bit about anger in this text, to talk about writing that anger with reference to the volcanoes?
SI: I feel like the visual of a volcano erupting, while it is basically how they form themselves and how they grow, is also something that feels so rife with this fury that I related to a lot. When I was writing this, one of the volcanoes, I think Kilauea, had erupted for the first time in a really long time, and I kept on reading all of these news stories that were just showing this lava pouring through these horrible resorts, and horrible golf courses, which just rended the landscape. It felt like this kind of poetic justice of “I’m so happy that these very selfish institutions of capitalism and of colonialism are being destroyed by this volcano.”
Something that Randa Jarrar pointed out was that the volcano almost feels like an angry woman of color when her fingers are crawling down the hills and the valleys. I think a lot of this book is about the highs and the joy that I experienced in this relationship but also this fury and this not knowing where to place it. There’s no one place to target your anger so it just has to radiate outward—to also validate that as this thing that can be fertile.
Very literally, volcanic eruptions are moments of regrowth and they can shatter and blacken a landscape but the lava is so fertile. New growth appears almost within months, like moss and ferns. Plants that are very specific that know how to grow in lava can be reborn. I think that only through this anger that I felt—this placeless, out-of-body anger—-could I cope with the end of this relationship. I wanted to write about the validity of my anger but also how anger became a process of healing.
AV: It’s often the case that once you have released anger things can grow, new emotions can take place, and it becomes fertile ground. I was thinking about how certain people observing these volcanoes want to have control over this thing that they can’t control. The naming that they want to do and the control over these bodies in the land felt so connected to colonialist practices.
SI: Absolutely. So much of science as it existed in the age of naturalism where you were classifying constantly and naming things—-all of that was about control. It’s wild to think about how this random group of white men are just responsible for the names of things, it makes me so angry.
AV: In your piece, I adore the idea that “the history of magnetism on earth is locked in molten rock.” As I understand from your writing, when the earth’s poles were reversed, it was recorded in Kohala. You also write that “she felt this in her lava” so I’m wondering if you can talk about the memory recorded in rocks, and the idea that there’s a record of history that exists outside of human modes of remembering?
SI: I really like the framing of talking about a record of history that exists outside of human modes of remembering. I think that the model that we’ve been taught to understand history is written documents, which makes it of course impossible for there to be an unbiased kind of history. I like the idea of thinking about the objects of the earth as also being a kind of history that doesn’t have this human perspective. It’s kind of like the trip of looking at the rings of a tree to understand how old it is and letting the tree itself tell you.
I was thinking about the idea of a primary source, and if a primary source is a firsthand account of an event, what would that account look like if the someone there wasn’t human? What primary sources could exist for an explosion? Could it be the magma? Could it be the burnt trees? Could it be the life that arises after the eruption? I also think that a lot of the memory in this book could never exist on a human timescale, and therefore could never be recorded in human modes of remembering. A common acronym that geologists use is Mya, which stands for millions of years ago, and when I first heard it in an interview, I thought it was the singer—M.I.A. But it’s just this whole different kind of lexicon.
I don’t know if anything is recording the earth outside of the people who live on it but I like the idea of the earth recording itself, which can look like its rocks remembering this moment of reverse polarity. I think about fossils as a way of the earth to preserve things that have happened almost like scrapbooking. I really like the idea of how the earth is born to preserve itself and the ways in which it does. And I also recognize that the timescale of geology, while incredibly broad and much more vast than one human life, is also so small compared to the actual lifespan of the earth, which is so much more enormous and mind-boggling than I could ever understand or hope to write about. That also has its own modes of remembering—how would the earth record itself when it was just a ball of gas? I don’t know but I would love to find out.
AV: Because there’s memory lodged in ice, in telling us how old a certain glacier is—as it melts my first reaction was to think “that’s devastating, the earth is losing this memory” but it’s being transformed into something else.
SI: Anything that leaves behind a trace whether intentional or not—that is a kind of memory. The thing that accesses that memory is not always the thing that left that memory.
AV: You sort of touched on this just now but I was wondering in what ways you were thinking about time while you were writing this because you’re in the science world so I don’t know if you process it differently. You wrote that Kohala “came out” 780,000 years ago, and you write about your relationships in a more understandable timeframe.
SI: There are so many different timeframes and scales in this book which is very funny because it’s so short— [Laughs]
SI: I wrote this about one of my first queer relationships which happened in college, and I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, either in high school or another kind of youthful time, but I feel like those first relationships just feel so monumental. You’re experiencing all of these emotions for the first time and you have no context for how much you can feel. I remember throughout this and other relationships in college just feeling like my emotions were going to burst out of me. I had so many feelings and nowhere to put them. It felt like—you know, in the vain mindset of adolescents, all of this is happening to only me for the very first time.
I was just being pulled out of my body. Now as an adult I look back and try to understand why I obsessed over this very short, unremarkable relationship for years. It feels almost embarrassing to be like, why has this occupied so much space and so much time, but validating that when you feel something for the first time it’s the only time you feel that particular kind of intensity.
The feelings that I felt, I think I use this in the book—they felt tectonic. I felt like the world was shifting and my entire perspective of the kind of love that I could expect, and the kind of love that I could aspire to had sort of ballooned into something that I didn’t know how to describe. The only way that I could describe it without using too many adjectives or florid descriptions was to compare it to something that is also so hard to grasp and is dizzying in its vastness.
AV: I had the same thought because you wrote about the formation of dykes indicating some sort of tectonic event. You describe the earth’s crust creating mountains, which is like “fingers across a table,” or the crust being pulled apart forming a valley, which is like “two bodies in the bed.” It’s just so apt to describe those first relationships because every new experience and every new emotion you have within those feels tectonic. It feels like the entire world has shifted and you’re at the center of it.
SI: Absolutely. I mean, this is very cheesy, it reminds me of this line in the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Heloise is turning back and she’s like “Do all lovers feel like they’re creating something?”
SI: I like that you brought up that image of the mirroring of the formation of these monumental structures that we orient our lives and our civilizations around, like mountains determine the landscape. An interaction or a relationship can have that same kind of ripple. I also felt like abstracting it into geology could make this particular emotional experience that I was trying to communicate feel universal, because it kind of is.
AV: In the relationships you describe in the early parts of the text, you write in really sensory ways. You write this scene about someone watching you—I should say watching the narrator, watching the “I”—
SI: [Laughs] It’s a messy kind of genre so…
AV: You describe these scenes and you write “suck the seeds straight from the skin,” “your spidery fingers indexing the curves of my back,” and “entering a canyon at Zion.” In the last two pages, you describe falling asleep next to someone, and write “because the blackness under my eyelids holds a plasmapause that we both can see.”
To the reader, it feels like this was about two people more in sync, and maybe closer to the sort of attraction you described between galaxies in the prologue—feeling like the stars are moving in toward you and you don’t know which are whose.
SI: I’m really happy that you pointed out that line because the entire seventh section—this should go in the acknowledgements, but it’s very very inspired by Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” Have you read it by any chance?
AV: No, I’m noting it now!
SI: It’s an essay that is very commonly assigned to college classes because it’s gorgeous and that’s how I first encountered it. It’s about the writer’s experience in a campus shooting where one of her friends was killed and she was, I think, some kind of technical writer in a physics department. She tells the experience of this tragedy and her own personal tragedies. She’s sitting with her dying dog and she’s watching the stars, and she says, we’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun.
I imagine it as a place of stillness where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space which is so beautiful. This final section—which I feel like is this last look at this relationship before the narrator/I try to exhale and move on and reshape myself outside of it. This scene of falling asleep was just one moment where I was like, even if the relationship didn’t work out and had all of these fraught fractures, and cracks, and moments of pain—even in less than ideal relationships, there are moments where it’s just good, they were simple and in that moment, we felt like equals. I mean, every relationship, especially in moments of privacy can feel like it’s just you in the void where the world freezes and you’re just there together in deep space, whatever that looks like for you. What felt very accurate was Jo Ann Beard’s idea of the plasmapause as this space of stillness, this bubble. That’s directly what the line is inspired by.
AV: Thanks for sharing that. That’s such a beautiful reference.
SI: It’s beautiful. She’s a beautiful writer.
AV: This is sort of unrelated but you write about fruit, and flesh, and the earth, about “melon’s densely corrugated skin,” and the “baby smooth skin” and “sunrise of flesh of cantaloupe.” I’m wondering if and how fruits figure in your ideas on desire?
SI: I absolutely love fruits. I think that fruit as a metaphor for desire is very old and played but I hold it very tenderly because to eat is to consume and to love is to consume and thinking about moments where you have been in a position where you want to devour something. I think about that as I look at a watermelon, as I look at a romantic partner.
I was thinking about fruits that look like rocks because I think cantaloupes remind me a lot of geodes. They look so dead, like something that was created under the earth, which I guess it kind of was but then you crack it open and this giant, parched, hard outer shell of this jewelled, beautiful inside and that majesty of being rewarded—I don’t really know if it’s a reward. It’s just this kind of surprising life in something that looks lifeless which I also think is something that I try to do in the entire chapbook which is that rocks are not necessarily full of life but they are! An eruption isn’t life but it feels like it.