A Conversation with Sabrina Imbler
BY HEA-REAM LEE
Sabrina Imbler is a staff writer at Defector Media, an employee-owned sports and culture site, where they cover creatures and the natural world. They are the author of the chapbook, Dyke (geology) and the essay collection, How Far the Light Reaches, which was published in December 2022, with Little, Brown.
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Avid readers of Sabrina Imbler’s science journalism in outlets such as the New York Times and the Atlantic will be familiar with their careful eye for details and their uncanny knack for transporting the reader beyond the known and expected, into something stranger and more wondrous. In their first book of essays, How Far the Light Reaches, Imbler turns their attention to a series of sea animals as a way of exploring stories about their life—or is it the other way around? Imbler’s lyrical prose weaves deftly between the scientific and the personal, inviting us to imagine where our experiences might collide with those of an orca, or a sturgeon. I had the pleasure of speaking with them over zoom about radical empathy, queer joy, and Asian grandmas.
Hea-Ream Lee: Sabrina, thank you so much for speaking with me. I loved your book, How Far the Light Reaches. I found it fascinating, very funny, and also emotionally devastating at times. I think a place I want to start with our conversation is empathy. I was really stunned by the radical empathy of your writing—how it invites us also into this empathy, in imagining different lives. I found myself relating to creatures that I will never fully understand, but could imagine myself as, through your book. Could you talk about this instinct for empathizing with an invasive goldfish, or a cuttlefish? Where does that instinct come from, and why is it important?
Sabrina Imbler: Thank you for that question and for the kind words. Something that I have thought a lot about in my career as a science journalist and also in this book is the idea of anthropomorphism and our human instinct to compare ourselves to animals. I definitely do that a lot in the book, because I think it’s natural. I think it is weird to sort of deny the instinctual connections that you have with something that reminds you of yourself.
I’ve also been trying to think about the other project of my book. I want the end goal of the book to be to build empathy and to build connection with creatures. And anthropomorphism is an easy way to be like, oh, yeah, of course I feel for my cat or this horse, or something that has a face. Or maybe it’s furry, and it lives near me. But then where does that leave all the creatures that are more dissimilar from me, or live in these far-flung places that we, the average person, would never go? And I really believe that you can build and find connection across that difference, and should lean into the ways in which an animal feels strange to you, or has this radically different way of living or reproducing, or even its body might be very dissimilar from yours. I think you should try to spend time with that difference and see what it sparks in you.
Those are the moments where I really learn something new about myself, or something new about the creature. For example, the orca mother in the book is an animal I have such an obvious and easy and strong bond to already that I don’t need to spend too much time thinking about it. But the salp is a different story. I thought, what is the salp’s experience of the world? I feel like that’s really been generative for me and a practice that I encourage everyone to do.
HL: There are several moments throughout the book where you kind of point towards the central metaphor that you’re exploring in that essay and find it lacking. There was a moment in an essay about the sand striker worm and sexual assault where you acknowledge that the metaphor of predation, linking sexual predators and the predatory behavior of this worm, is cheap. Or in your essay about mixed race identity and a hybrid butterflyfish, you say that to identify with a hybrid fish feels risky. And so I wanted to ask, what are some of the uses of metaphor to you? And what are its dangers or its limitations? How do you feel about metaphor?
SI: That’s a great question. I clearly love metaphor, I think it’s how my brain works. I guess when I’m experiencing the natural world, I’m always looking for points of connection or ways in, where I’m like, oh, this reminds me of something in myself, or oh, I want to aspire to that. In the sand striker essay where I acknowledged that the metaphor of predation is cheap, I felt like I hit these stumbling blocks in trying to expand. That’s when I realized, yeah, this metaphor works in certain instances—such as feeling like there is a predator around you, one that you can’t see, or one that you can’t name or predict. But then also, I don’t want to make the argument that being a predator is bad, right? Because I’m an omnivore. I don’t want to criticize predators. And I also didn’t want to make an argument that any creature is bad, right? Because we humans have ethics and morals, because we have complex societies, and I can’t fault a creature for killing something to eat it, because that’s what it needs to do.
It felt really important to lean into places where metaphor felt apt and right and generative, but then to also be very explicit about where the metaphor ends. And this is something that feels important to state very clearly. Because I do think that it can get really dangerous when you start to scapegoat an animal or blame an animal for something that is like a deeply human emotion. Especially in this form of using a creature as a metaphor for my life or vice versa, there will always be limitations, and there will always be places where they just don’t really make sense together. I didn’t want the book to feel forced. I just wanted to lean into the places where the overlap felt very honest, and very true.
HL: I want to talk about research. This book is so beautifully researched, and it has so much curiosity to it—there’s such a clear desire for knowing more. For example, the color of the gonads of the immortal jellyfish. That’s a really specific but amazing detail. I wanted to know about the process of researching this book. And maybe a moment that stands out to you in the researching of the book—a funny, or weird, or kind of unbelievable, or heartbreaking moment in your research.
SI: I feel very comfortable in research, because it’s kind of my job to read scientific papers. And I just spent so much time learning things and then being like, this doesn’t fit in the essay, but I’m obsessed with this. I got really deep into these old 14th, 15th, and 16th century Flemish whale documents that were uploaded to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. I couldn’t read anything because they’re scans, and written in Flemish, and it’s all sepia tone. But as I looked through them I saw all of these really fantastical ways that people envision sea creatures, mostly probably whales, but some fish as well. It was really generative for me to think about how people made these drawings after just seeing one or maybe half a carcass of a whale washed up on the shore. And they really tried their best to imagine the entirety of the thing or imagine what it would be like in life. And I felt bonded by that sort of similar pursuit. Because I didn’t really see a lot of the creatures in my book in real life. I did a lot of my research just in my terrible apartment, in New York, just on YouTube or reading things on the internet. It felt like I was united in this long lineage of people grasping, trying to understand something that is inaccessible but also so wondrous.
This is discouraged in traditional science journalism. They really want you to get it right. They don’t want you to speculate at all, which is often very appropriate for the stories that you’re telling. But when you are doing something more creative, I really believe in the power of the fabulous. I’m trying to write into the spaces that are unknown.
For the salp essay, I was reading all of these papers about salps, and so many of them were like, we don’t know that much about salps. Half the paper was like, these are our questions, this is why it’s hard to study them. It reminded me of how I would often read queer history and half of the paper is about erasure or gaps. The salp papers would talk about all the scientists who just didn’t think that they were important but now were like, they are important, and they have all these functions in the ocean that we just have never paid attention to. The language just felt so resonant with the ways that I think about queer history.
HL: Thank you for sharing this. I also wanted to talk about the personal research, because of course, you’re excavating so much of your own life and your family life in this book. One essay that I loved in particular was about your grandmother’s story of fleeing Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Could you talk a little bit about the process of excavating the personal and how writing these more memoiristic moments differed from doing your scientific writing?
SI: It’s funny, the essay about my grandmother was almost the easiest to write because it wasn’t about me. And I don’t know if you have this experience with your grandparents, but I feel like my grandma’s absolutely the kind of person where we’ll spend like an hour talking about, like, the menu at the Nordstrom cafe. And then she’ll mention something deeply traumatic about a war and then go back to eating soup. And I’m like, Grandma, what? And then she’d be like, I’m so boring. We shouldn’t talk about me. But I’d think, you just mentioned that you saw your grandmother’s ghost. Why can’t we talk about that anymore?
SI: It’s so, so wild. But I guess I started interviewing my grandma for the piece several years ago, and we just had phone calls where I would first sort of ask her to sketch out her life and specifically the period of her life when she fled China for Taiwan and fled one part of China to another. Whenever I would go home I would ask her again, and sort of come closer and closer to the [emotional] truth of her experience.
I hate writing about myself. Some of the more personal essays came very easily, specifically the ones that are more focused on joy. The salp essay specifically I wrote so quickly, just like, having a blast. But for the essays about disordered eating, or sexual assault, those were much harder to do. And I found myself sort of revisiting the same essay thinking that I remembered everything that I wanted to say, and then as I just spent time with it, a fragment would emerge from the well of my memory. Those are both essays that if I were to be writing the book again, I don’t know how much I would be willing to go back into my memory to excavate. I remember I was watching this lecture by Terese Marie Mailhot at a Tin House workshop, and she was talking about how she writes her own trauma. She explained that you need to have a way out, or something waiting for you on the other side, whether it’s a cookie or a bath. If you go to a certain place and it feels like you can’t be there, you can just stop and you can retreat. There is no moral good gained by going as deep as you can go.
HL: Yeah. What would your lifeline have been? Would it have been a cookie or a bath or something else?
SI: Hmm, that’s a really good question. I love baths so much, but I live in New York with a bathtub that we have to deep clean if we’re going to take a bath. So I think my lifeline was just like, I’m gonna take my weed gummy and I’m gonna watch trashy reality TV shows.
HL: That sounds amazing. I’m so glad that you mentioned joy. I feel like a lot of the animals in this book are misunderstood, or they’re imperiled, or they’re facing these extreme odds to survive. I’m thinking of the whales and the Yeti crabs in particular. But these essays are also often reaching towards community and queer joy and resilience. And I actually found them to be deeply hopeful. Especially that salp essay, the extended sequence of friends, and ex-lovers, and strangers on the beach was just so beautiful. Could you talk about joy and community as resistance and what that means to your writing?
SI: A lot of the essays that I conceptualized earlier on were very much centered around just me, like the octopus or the whale essays. I think I was scared after reading some interviews with David Sedaris where he’s like, my whole family hates me because I constantly write about them. And I was like, I respect that. My family and my friends are not fodder for me to use in my book. So I then turned toward writing only about myself, but that felt so sad. In those moments, I would try to think, what is my way out of this essay? And it was always with community. Whether it was the community of the creature and me, or the community that I have made in various places that I’ve lived. A salp was the perfect way to think about how I am like a colony. Where in my life do I belong to something greater? When do I move with a bunch of other people as if we are one?
The immortal jellyfish essay, which has a chorus of different voices, was the last one that I had to write. And I was so sick of myself at that point. I was like, I cannot pull anything else from my life that feels important. I haven’t lived that long, I have nothing left to say. And then I was like, oh, what if I invited other people to share their own reimaginings? And that was also a really joyful experience, to be in community with strangers who I’d never met, and also writers who I know and really admire, and all participate in this act of imagining and fantasy and joy. The moments that really buoyed me when I felt down about the project, or like, lost or whatever, were always moments where I was reaching towards joy.
HL: I think that last essay has got to be my favorite. And I love that you called it a chorus. I definitely thought about it as a kind of polyphonic queer voice. I loved the generosity of that space. Can you talk more about how it came about? What were some of the prompts that you asked the writers to write towards? And why was it important to you to incorporate other voices in this way?
SI: I’m so happy that you like that essay. I feel like it’s been interesting to hear what people gravitate toward. That was maybe one of my favorite essays because it was so fun! I really came up with it at first because I was like, I’m so sick of talking about myself and I have talked about my traumas in all these other essays, how underwhelming to do that again. I did a Twitter call out where I was like, hey, queer and trans people, do you ever think about your childhood? Do you ever think about redoing any part of it? Are you interested in collaborating on weird projects? Email me. And then I got a lot of emails. And I sent out this long, probably overwritten email being like, here’s the idea. I have a skeleton of this essay about the immortal jellyfish. This is what it can do. These are the ways that I’m writing about reimagining yourself, of redoing adolescence, being someone else. And the response was really, really special. The final mix of people in the essay were friends, writers that I met for the first time through this project, writers who I admired before and specifically DMed to be like, you would be great, are you at all interested? It was just such a special experience to see the ways that people sort of reimagine their own lives, that were far more imaginative and fantastical than things that I had come up with on my own. It was also so special, in the case of my friends, to read their writing, because I felt like it deepened my connection with them. I have such a tender, tender place in my heart for that essay. It feels like a very generative thing. Like maybe it can have another life beyond this book.
HL: Yeah, I think part of what I love about that essay is the variety of ways that people reimagine themselves. And the idea itself, too, is automatically weighted with longing, right? Speaking of other writers, I felt like while I was reading this book, I could see so many traces of writers I loved, and yet it also felt super new and different to me. Who were some writers or what were some books that you looked to as your North Stars while writing this book?
SI: The number one hero of this book is Ed Yong. He is like, a perfect person. The way that I learned about so many of these creatures is reading popular science stories. Ed makes a point of writing about the underappreciated and weird creatures, and he really tries to understand them on their own terms. He is the reason that I learned about half of the creatures in this book. The way that he approaches the world with a sense of wonder and a lack of judgment is something I really admired.
I found it very hard to read other books that had similar projects to mine in terms of science, animal, memoir. And so I think a lot of my lodestars were in different genres. A book that I read during the process, that I read whenever I needed to think of a beautiful sentence, was Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. I have a tendency to write sentences that are like, I’m gonna attach a clause, I’m gonna attach another clause…how many clauses can I fit in? And he is so crystalline in his prose. He creates these beautiful images with such sparse language. Whenever I felt like I was sort of teetering off into florid prose, I would consult that book.
I read Kat Chow’s Seeing Ghosts for the first time when I was writing this book. It’s such a beautiful and deeply reported investigation of the author’s relationship with her mother and her family. And I found it really, really helpful in sort of thinking about how I could write ethically about my mother and about my grandmother and still try to get to the truth of the matter.
And then there are also just some essays that I had open, where I was like, this is a perfect essay. One of which is my editor, Jean Garnett’s essay, “There I Almost Am,” which was published in the Yale Review. It’s about her relationship with her identical twin sister. I’m obsessed with Jean, the way that she writes is so precise and jagged and surprising and so deeply vulnerable. It never feels indulgent and always feels intimate. That was something that I really aspired to in terms of writing about myself where I’m not just like, sharing a story because this is important to me or this is kind of funny, but I wanted it to always be in service of drawing a connection, whether that be between me and the reader or me and the creature. I think Jean does that so well.
HL: What is your hope for this book as you launch it into the world?
SI: I guess what I see as the beating heart of the book are the creatures within it, and I see myself as, potentially, a conduit into those creatures. I really hope that this book inspires people to treat the living things that they encounter, as well as the living things that they will never encounter, or never even be able to perceive, with care and empathy. Whenever I read about how they found this new creature out there somewhere, I feel like the language is always like, ‘alien from the deep uncovered.’ That is such a shallow way of engaging with something that is so wondrous, and so unlike us. I think I would hope that when people encounter something that feels gross, or strange, or weird, or alien, they could really take a moment to just sit with that creature, in whatever capacity they can.
I’ve been trying to do that in my own life with bugs, because I love everything in the sea. Like even the weirdest things. I’m obsessed with parasites, I love worms, I love everything in the sea. But I think I had a lot of unlearning to do with bugs. I’ve just been going out to my backyard and looking for bugs and just trying to watch them and see how they walk and how they move. I think it’s really helped me appreciate things that really do not harm me and also live in my house. I have house centipedes, which are the really leggy, kind of feathery looking things that I was so scared of for such a long time. And I just looked at photos of them for a couple of days. I looked at their faces and their little legs, and I began to understand how they’re actually very cool. A lot of their appendages that look like antennae are actually just highly modified legs. So they have all these specialized legs like little Inspector Gadgets. Now when I see them, like there was one that was crawling up my wall earlier today, I am less freaked out. I think a lot about the responsibility that I have as something that is so big and can squish so many things. I’m trying to work against that instinct and try to appreciate and coexist with these different creatures.
HL: Yeah, I love that. Thank you for that answer. I think also, the ability to empathize with organisms that we may never see or understand, that superpower is transferable, and it could help us empathize with people who are more marginalized and oppressed, and change can come from that empathy. It’s such an important muscle for people to flex.
SI: Yeah, no, I totally agree. And that’s the end goal, I guess, to care for everyone across difference.
Would you like to write your own immortal jellyfish prompt? Here’s the email Sabrina sent out to interested parties:
When the immortal jellyfish is hurt or traumatized, it ages backwards and becomes a juvenile, and then regrows itself. In your childhood or adolescence, what moment would you want to go back to and redo? And how do you imagine regrowing from that moment? And are there any external or internal changes you would imagine for your second childhood—is your body transformed, are your insides transformed?
If it helps, here are some examples:
I would go back to a Nordstrom dressing room where I was trying on prom dresses, and none felt right but I didn’t know why. Maybe my body resisted, swelling twice as big or shrinking to the size of a rabbit—its way of telling me that no dress would be right.
I would go back to my surgical residency and give myself top surgery, saving me thousands of dollars and hours I would have lost to insurance bureaucracy. I learn to never put my body or desires in other people’s hands.