In 2004, the trans theorist Eva Hayward began studying a species of marine invertebrate, the orange cup coral, or Balanophyllia elegans. Hayward wasn’t a biologist, but a PhD student in the History of Consciousness program at University of California, Santa Cruz, where she worked with the feminist critic Donna Haraway (a well-known name in the archly academic field of critical animal studies). Hayward’s chosen animal subject, B. elegans, was basically an orifice with tentacles surrounding it, something like a sea anemone, but with shaggier locks. At Long Marine Lab outside Santa Cruz, Hayward embedded herself amidst the tanks full of cup corals and the scientists who studied them. She “groomed” the corals’ smooth and yet “pebbly” sphincters, flushing out their insides with a plastic dropper, and taking note whenever eggs or larvae were present. Day and night she thought of the corals, and what they might think, or rather sense, about her.
Hayward would later publish her work on B. elegans in the academic journal Cultural Anthropology. The piece, entitled “Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals,” cites Judith Butler and Bruno Latour in one breath, and in the other, waxes poetic on Hayward’s forays across the “air-saltwater threshold,” her desire to touch these touchy-feely animals—to apprehend them in terms they might themselves compute. “Their tentacles reached out as my digits and tools reached toward them. . . . For a moment, we, the corals and I, enfolded elements of each other within ourselves.”
Such cross-species encounters recur throughout Hayward’s body of work. She has written essays on starfish regenerating their limbs, on cephalopod eyesight, on captive comb jellies at Monterey Bay aquarium—all from a queer and trans studies–infused perspective. Though she is never explicit about this, animals, especially marine invertebrates, draw her attention because they, like queer people, often confound the expectations placed on them from without. As Hayward speculates in her essay on B. elegans, “Perhaps both species of ‘inverts,’ the kind without backbones and the sort who transpose gender roles, interrupt heteronormativity.” For Hayward and like-minded writers, the ocean’s creatures should be approached less as minable veins of scientific knowledge, and more as unruly guides to queerer modes of being—lives so beyond our terrestrial norms they make all of humanity appear straight in comparison.
How exactly do cup corals and other sea creatures teach humans about queerness? By engaging in sex practices, asexuality included, that defy not just heterosexual but anthropocentric common sense? By pushing at the boundaries of their squishy flesh-envelope bodies? By dining where they shit and looking outrageous as they do so? In short, by embodying the abnormal, to human eyes at least, and thus offering a slew of slick and fungible metaphors for what it means to transgress. Two recent works of nonfiction—Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures and Lars Horn’s Voice of the Fish—dive deep into these waters. While highly divergent in tone, form, and relative saline content, both books immerse readers in aquatic worlds that the authors think of as queer. And not just queer as in different, or even queer as in gay or trans, but queer as in sensual and quixotic, elemental and bewildered, sexy and at play. This may seem like a tall order—queering the seven seas—but the strength of these books is that they choose to go there, flirting with preciousness and even mysticism in the process, rhapsodizing on fish, injecting lyricism into the pelagic and dragging benthos onto the page.
Recent years have seen a broad turn toward imagining alternative seascapes in literature and the humanities. Imbler’s and Horn’s projects join a rapidly expanding pool of books that have sought to reframe our blue planet by elevating the personal experiences, cultural knowledges, and seafaring histories of racial minorities, the colonized, and other groups not often associated with the phrase “marine biologist.” Literary works like Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (2020) and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic (2018), as well as more academic titles like Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), Karin A. Ingersoll’s Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology (2016), and Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019) attest to longstanding attachments and ongoing intimacies with the sea that have often been ignored or obscured by oceanic discourses primarily rooted in Western science.
What sets Horn’s and Imbler’s books apart is their explicit focus on queerness—how this particular turn to the aquatic is primarily a reckoning with gender, sex, and other fluidities. In a time when much nature writing functions as an elegy for something we destroyed, these two books dream of queer potential. They wash over rocky tidelines strewn with the detritus of late-capitalist life. They move in strange and sinuous ways, and in reading them, I was captivated by metaphor’s own capacity for metamorphosis: how the most fruitful of comparisons between unlike terms rarely settles into one stable equation, instead flickering about the edges like a bashful cuttlefish. What does it mean to look into the sea and find oneself refracted there, an entity both of it, and not? What would it take to see our queer lives as not apart from, but awash, with the lives of phytoplankton and whales, slimy elvers and tropical fish? “These beasts have come to you,” writes Horn. “You will house them.”
Imbler (who uses nonbinary pronouns, as does Horn) houses their memoir’s creatures in a modular fashion, with each of their book’s ten chapters functioning like a vitrine, and inside each vitrine, an animal with its own backstory and Latin nomenclature. How Far the Light Reaches blends accounts of brooding octopi and voracious sandworms with ruminations on how these creatures’ natural histories have informed the very unnatural (not a putdown by this book’s logic) queer life that Imbler has led as a gender-nonconforming, biracial science journalist. One quickly learns that ocean animals have long been Imbler’s creative muses and silent therapists (in one chapter, Imbler reports habitually visiting exhibits at the Seattle Aquarium to help them come to terms with their own bodily transformations). These nuanced beings teach the young writer how to survive and perhaps even flourish as a queer body in straight environs; not via the logic of survival of the fittest, but with queerness presented as both life vest and lifeline, a deterrent to drowning.
Imbler has written elsewhere about their tendency to “hoard remnants of my past selves,” and these selves are put vividly on display in this book: Imbler as a teenage brownnoser and picketer of pet stores in suburban California, trapped like a goldfish in the land of tech magnate brats; Imbler as a college student at Brown, freshly out of the closet and mooning over an early queer relationship that, like a beached whale, just couldn’t make it; Imbler a few years post-grad, peacefully floating in a sea of gelatinous blobs just off Riis Beach, where all their exes-turned-friends have gathered during New York Pride. That these past selves are to be exhumed and examined is of course the promise of any memoir. That sea creatures are profiled alongside the author’s own past—indeed that the two are continually placed beside each other, in dialogue—generates a clever experiment in autobiographic form. How Far the Light Reaches plumbs Imbler’s relationships with other people, but also other beings. The book’s openhearted engagement with marine life elevates the by-now-familiar tropes of queer bildungsroman (geographic dislocation, gender variance, never having one stable place to go or one stable self to be) into something more feral and alive.
Queer coming-of-age tales often like to dabble in zoomorphism, the turning animal of the human (see Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, etc.). It’s as if those charged years that bridge demi-gay child and full-size queer adult prove impossible to convey in merely human terms. The animal, for Imbler, is more than just a byword for precarity, pain, or a certain intensity of queer affect, though. There’s something both whimsical and wonky about Imbler’s literary aquarium. Reflecting their work as a science writer, Imbler doesn’t just invoke sea creatures as signifiers of otherworldliness; they try and tell these animals’ stories. I learned while reading this book that there’s such a thing as a salp, and that these communal jellybeans move like “pulsating chains that can curve like a snake or coil like a snail’s shell.” I learned too that octopi don’t eat after laying their eggs, and that for some species, this incubatory fast can go on for four years or longer. I learned that whale corpses decompose in three separate phases, and that goldfish, contra their airhead reputations, are capable of navigating mazes and remembering things for three months at a time.
It’s when Imbler starts to establish parallels between their life or the lives of their family members and the creatures they’ve so carefully portrayed that things get both more profound, and more dicey. Not every analogy in the book illuminates. It comes off as a bit neat, for example, when Imbler compares their Chinese grandmother’s WWII-era migration up the Yangtze River to the plight of an endangered Chinese sturgeon trying to make their own journey up the same waterway. “They look like ancestors, conjured into a modernity in which they seem out of place,” Imbler writes of their piscine relative. The metaphor here is almost too tight, sturgeon and grandmother pacing each other upstream. An essay exploring Imbler’s biracial identity in the context of a hybrid butterflyfish suffers from the opposite problem: the connection is there from the start, but then gets lost in the telling. The essay culminates in a chorus of fence-sitting maybes that basically just reinforce the probably true, but still pat notion that having parents from different races or species must be ontologically confusing. These less-satisfying essays make it clear that the risk of extending any metaphor—and Imbler’s book very much depends on such attenuations—is that the comparison can start to foreshadow more than it surprises, fulfilling the reader’s expectations instead of directing them to previously unforeseeable ends. Put more simply, a metaphor flattens out if leaned on too much. To compare one’s own life to a litany of sea creatures can be interesting, up until the moment it’s not.
Still, it’s very much to Imbler’s credit that they don’t shy away from metaphor in this book, that they commit to the bit and ride their animal brethren down into the deeps. How else would we have gotten passages like this one, in which Imbler takes a decidedly trans approach to evolutionary theory?
Perhaps if I was not an individual organism but a species, able to prototype myself over millions of years, I might have faith that my body would one day become what it’s meant to be. Maybe I would have elongated limbs to skitter atop water or bony flippers to wedge into sand. I might have a layer of gelatin or retractable spines. Maybe the way I understand myself can accommodate the physical changes that only happen on an evolutionary timescale. Maybe my ideal form is one that would be unsuccessful, a mutant too showy or slow for its own good, snuffed out too soon by a mosasaur. But for now, in the brief splendor of my human life, I don’t have millions of years to let evolution figure it out for me. I have to start morphing on my own.
And so the author transforms, skin unveiling skin, a procession of haircuts and chest binders and thigh tattoos of Chinese lion dogs. Musing on sea creatures offers Imbler something at once endlessly tempting and hopelessly vague: the promise of a different way of life. For Imbler, their queerness is also such a chance, or perhaps a call, to go their own way, to lean into different embodiments and gender settings, to pick their favorite strap-on and store it next to their partner’s in a Ziploc bag meant “to keep off the dust.”
Given Imbler’s scientific and personal interest in deviance, it’s unsurprising that they identify most readily with those creatures that abide in the sea’s absolute depths, enduring constant pressure and darkness while subsisting on the organic fallout (“marine snow,” Imbler calls it) that trickles down from the surface. In one of the book’s strongest essays, Imbler finds inspiration in how deep sea organisms have effectively given up on the sun and its life-giving rays, yoking their metabolisms to the chemosynthesis of bacteria inside hydrothermal vents and participating in a food web wholly untouched by light. “As queer people, we get to choose our families. Vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs just take it one step further,” Imbler remarks. “They choose what nourishes them. They turn away from the sun and toward something more elemental, the inner heat and chemistry of Earth.” Being queer is not just an alternative lifestyle sold to us by Google ad services; it’s an “alternative way of life,” a means of sustaining the self in unforgiving climes. Yes, it may feel like a stretch to compare the gentrified cross section of Seattle Imbler resides in to the ocean’s abyssal plain, or to treat their favorite queer dance party—the ephemeral “Night Crush”—as a kind of hydrothermal vent, but metaphors don’t have to be accurate to be affecting. In any case, Imbler isn’t trying to tell us that these lifeways, theirs and the ocean’s, are one and the same. They’re trying to preserve the uniqueness at each end of the metaphorical chain, even as they insist that these very different entities are linked.
Many writers, especially those trained in the sciences, might balk at Imbler’s prolific traffic in metaphors. In an essay comparing sandworms to sexual predators, Imbler themself admits how “cheap” the “metaphor of [biological] predation” reads to them, and yet they turn to metaphor anyway, because metaphor allows them to grapple with and perhaps reconceive the unknowable (i.e., their ambivalent experiences with sexual assault). Stereotypical good prose tries to be clear, to say what it means. In contrast, writing rich in metaphor is often treated like a fake out, an extravagant dissimulation or fanciful conjecture. But what interesting piece of language ever says exactly what it means? (Even in posing this question, I’m leaning on metaphor—the idea of a language that “speaks” like a person; or earlier, the notion of a sentence being as clear as glass.) As the philosopher Paul Ricœur has argued, metaphor is not “ornamental” but “integral” to writing, because it allows for the frightful, yet exhilarating “polysemy” of language—how no noun is ever just one thing, but a fusillade of scattershot others.
To bring this back to Imbler’s memoir, we might say that on the micro level, How Far the Light Reaches shows what happens when language endeavors to be scientific and metaphorical at once. Scientific language, per Ricœur, tries to eliminate semantic confusion by assigning a clear meaning to every term, hence the hyper-specificity of scientific jargon. Metaphor tends to move language in the opposite direction, toward multiple, ambiguous meanings. The fact that Imbler deploys both so copiously explains why their book can sometimes feel of two or more minds. Here we have biological exactitude wrapped in paraffin layers of metaphor. The jellyfish is given a specific name, Turritopsis dohrnii, but then is transmuted, on the page, into a floating series of multiverse timelines generated by Imbler’s friends. The yeti crab is a yeti crab, factual, precise, but it’s also that queer kid dancing inside a Seattle warehouse circa 2016, warmed by the collective heat of other people’s limbs. This book wants it both ways, or every way, all the time. Not just a sturgeon, but a foremother; not just a goldfish, but a teenager fish bowled in suburbia.
When an essayist so thoroughly metaphorizes their own life in this way, they turn their experiences into something that they’re not (“A Life in Ten Sea Creatures”), performing a series of physically impossible but poetically viable transfigurations that make the label nonfiction seem inadequate, even lame. What coalesces on the page is more accurately a hybrid creation, a confluence of supposition and fact; the real and the phantasmal, emergent as one.
Why go to such troubles? Why not stick to narrating one’s own sufficiently complicated human condition and keep all the sea creatures out of it? One gets the sense that for Imbler, identifying with the ocean and its denizens is partly an occupational hazard (their reporting on marine biology spilling over into their reflections on being queer). For Lars Horn, author of the lyric essay Voice of the Fish, the answer is a shade more philosophical. “How does one write of a self that is fundamentally displaced?” Horn asks, “Of a self that, for decades, has seen and not recognised its own body from itself?” Writing about fish and writing about their experiences as a transmasculine person moving, in starts and stops, through the world, become related projects for Horn. In both cases, they must pursue this external thing that is also, paradoxically, the inner lining to their life. Aided and abetted by a mother who exclaims “Fucking finally” when they come out as queer, the young Horn learns to navigate space and time as a “strange slip of a body,” a body that “thrummed with fishes,” genderless and unfixed. This intermingling of self and other never really goes away, even during those years when Horn tried their hardest to straighten themselves out. “I experience my body as other, but also as another. Slightly animal, otherworldly almost, a pulse and breath not my own.”
To catch up to the body, its fundamental otherness, Horn shoals with the fish. They travel to aquariums and swimming pools in two different Georgias (the American state and the Caucasian nation), seeking a “blue so electric it stung.” They consult a healer about their wounded foot near the French-Belgian border and are told to always “move towards water.” They take what may seem like an inordinate number of baths. Although the book’s geographic span is vast (the British-born but Miami-based Horn relates stories from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond), Voice of the Fish’s moment of inception is an experience of traumatized stasis. A weightlifting accident leaves Horn bedridden for half a year. Their convalescence is a difficult one, marked by a mysterious aphasia: “As a side effect of the injury—one that I still cannot explain—I lost the ability to speak, read, or write.” Communication for Horn turns into a matter of “gesture, vivid image,” not words.
The will to recover use of one’s body and the will to reenter language are linked in Voice of the Fish. Horn is frequently describing, with palpable longing, a more ideal means of expression that is also a more ideal embodiment—not ideal as in beautiful or finished, plastinated into perfection, but ideal as in livable and enlivened:
After those months of illness, I wanted to write differently, wanted language and narrative to carry more physicality. Come as the thud of soil burying a face. Plummet—a bird petrifying as it enters a lake. To adhere to a visual or gestural logic. Less “worded,” more photographic. More movement.
Animals, fish included, obviously communicate with one another, and yet language has often been held up as one of the last unbreachable borders between humanity and the rest of Kingdom Animalia. It’s telling then that the kind of language Horn seeks in this book—one that’s tangible, multisensory, and tense with muscular motion—wants to be akin to the ways that animals express themselves. What Horn seems to be after is a language with material effects for both writer and reader:
Literature alters the texture of things—how we are, or do, or see. I write with the hope that, for someone somewhere, these words might prove a salve. Might rinse the eyes, warm the chest. Ultimately, though, I hope these words might bring someone, whoever they are, back to themself—differently.
In a subtle reversal of the usual trans narrative of becoming, Horn embarks on a journey back to the body they remember, the one alive with fishes: “back to themself—differently.” Horn’s skill with metaphor takes the body and upwells it into something else. The writer’s corporeal form gets defined, and redefined, as this “strange chasm that still snakes with life,” as “action, object, volume, weight, a thing that shifts, presses upon, accumulates,” as a “transient shell that I will walk out of in the same way I walked in,” as “land—tectonic, silting—a thing of peat and loam,” as “a vessel, as carrier, as God-given,” and as this thing that “hesitates: male, female, something else, something more, perhaps.” At the heart of the book is a “commitment to the slipperiness, the fleshiness of coming to the world, first and foremost, as a body,” putting me in mind of one of CA Conrad’s “(Soma)tic Poetry Exercises,” or a performance piece by Zhang Huan, Song Dong, or one of the other artists, including Horn’s own mother, who populate this book. Differences of medium and genre don’t trouble Horn. Their writing enjoys a close, symbiotic relationship with other, less textual arts, as well as other, less linguistic beings.
Voice of the Fish won the Graywolf Nonfiction prize in 2020. At first glance, the book’s collage-like form and density of citations recall an au courant style of lyrical autotheory in which personal writing is inlaid with snippets of critical theory in order to register some cerebral quandary endemic to modern life. But Horn’s obvious erudition fastens not on some conceptual problem or contemporary malaise, but on old-fashioned matters of morphology and, indeed, spirit. I think of this book as a pensive, searching biomythography in the tradition of Audre Lorde and Maxine Hong Kingston, a book indebted to its many ancestors and antecedents: to Herodotus and John Frith, a writer burned at the stake for heresy; to Natalie Diaz, the Mojave poet, whose poem “The First Water Is the Body” provides an apt epigraph to Horn’s book; and to the authors of many obscure reference tomes like General Features in the Biology of the Haddock (Gadus Aeglefinus L.) in Icelandic Waters or Oriental Ceramic Art: Illustrated by Examples from the Collection of W. T. Walters. Horn’s voice speaks of reliquaries, apocrypha, the classical canon’s lesser-known hits. It passes, wave-like, through bodies of water that predate, and indeed swallow, any notion of chronological time.
While Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches must balance the modernist language of science with postmodern utterances on identity, Voice of the Fish prefers the argot of historiography, art criticism, and myth. Biological information hardly figures in this text. It is the cultural and sometimes religious symbology of fish and water that Horn turns to in writing their book. A long tract on aquariums, fish, and transmasculinity wends its way through this project, so that reading Voice of the Fish feels like going on a hike on some seaside trail that intermittently offers views of the same ocean but always from a different vantage. Each time this ocean-as-essay comes back, it bears a new, incantatory name (e.g., “Last Night, a Pike Swam up the Stairs” or “Last Night, the Sea Spat My Body”) and has changed in some difficult-to-intuit way. This is one of those unsummarizable pieces, sprawling and lovely in its obliqueness, a meditation on being contained and then refusing one’s container. Fish streak and shimmer inside the essay’s numbered prose blocks, producing lines of flight that help the queer body unlearn itself, its scripts. Horn writes that “Fish have always swum me beyond my body, exploded me into some other mythic, imagined space.” Their manner of being is beautiful, sacred, and indeed aspirational for Horn. “To see fish dive, dart, glide, or thrash from sight . . . they remind me that human laws are fallible, transitory, subjugated to this Earth and the sway of its oceans.”
Late in their book, Horn, a lifelong swimmer, recounts their return to open water after those long months of bed rest: “I remembered what it felt like to connect, to feel, to physically take part in a call and answer with the world.” A kind of romantic naturalism appears to be present here—the wild, primeval ocean pitched as a much-needed departure from the brokenness of land. If only we could live by different, aqueous laws, grow back our gills and give humanness the slip. But this isn’t Horn’s reverse-Ariel moment, and neither they nor Imbler are drawn into the sea by a fantasy of transcendence. The ocean is Horn’s tonic. It shocks them back into their body, a body that remains unhealed, that is slow and fibrous when it isn’t quicksilver and flowing. They feel more embodied in the sea’s embrace, which doesn’t mean they feel whole. They love, respect, but also fear the ocean and its creatures because these forces collectively torque and pull, like saltwater taffy, the categorical impositions that rule our lives.
Given the current state of the ocean, it’s well worth it to ask what practical benefits these queer forays into the blue might yield. I don’t believe that nonfictional writing need always perform some social or environmental service, but it’s still a bit surprising how seldom topics such as ocean acidification, pollution, sea-level rise, coral bleaching, species extinction, et cetera feature in either of these books. Perhaps they’re beholden to other, less pragmatic (but also less defeatist) ways of imagining the oceanic. Perhaps these ways put less stock in human exceptionalism—not only the idea that we are set apart from other lifeforms, but that we are blessed with the technical know-how and cooperative facility to heal what we’ve strained. It is maybe enough, in other words, to focus on the personal and the sensual; to try and change how we in our own situated communities and improbable bodies find congress with the ocean and all its diminishing wonders.
When Horn was young, they made lists of fish species, including those that Horn would later learn “change sex as a matter of course.” Horn is careful to point out that these catalogs “were never about me equating being trans to being less human. They were more an attempt to denaturalise the ways humans have bound up the parameters of our own species: the ‘normal,’ the ‘natural,’ the ‘scientifically justifiable,’ the ‘real.’ ” Taxonomic specificity cages the soul, and maybe the queerest way of knowing the sea is to finally just enter it. We flow into these waters not to be reminded of our close affiliation with Nature—the fact that we, in the guise of some prehistoric Tiktaalik, once dragged our bodies out from its depths—but to confront the natural world’s own sublime indeterminacy, a nature as mysterious as any self. This doesn’t just have to be a metaphor. “The relay of meaning between human-animal sexuality . . . should not be an essentializing move, as in ‘animals are queer so then queerness is natural,’ ” avers Hayward in her essay on cup corals. There’s only so much we can glean, that is, from trying to put the ocean’s creatures in our terms and vice versa. At some point, the metaphor gets away from us, and we are left with the more inexplicable, difficult, and fleeting pleasures of contact: the writer reaching into the sea; the sea reaching back.
*An essay-review of
How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. By Sabrina Imbler. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2022. 263 pp. $27.00.
Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay. By Lars Horn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2022. 232 pp. $16.00.