Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks (Victoria University Press, 2021), 224pp., $35
A textual act of immersion—or rather, repeated languid textual acts of immersion—Ingrid Horrocks’ Where We Swim submerges us in glorious and inglorious waters across the globe, albeit in a thin (which is to say, privileged) cross-section of human swimming sites. From Days Bay and Waiheke, whale-bonding in Wellington Harbour and contracting UTIs in the Mōkau estuary, to the gilded pools of gated communities in Medellín, Columbia, the artificially azure waters of Hilton hotel pools, the brisk North Sea and even a closed-off, piranha-less section of the Amazon River, these swimming holes are largely for the global elite. This watery stratification does not, however, lessen the impact of the writing, the project (‘to remember why we swam in the first place’) or Horrocks’ voice, which is ever-alert to her family’s privilege: a pleasurable burr in her side that Horrocks is constantly questioning, grappling with—sometimes even squirming in discomfort.
A self-described mediocre swimmer—‘that kid at the back of the race who was more drowning than swimming’, an adult unsure of whether she could complete 200 metres freestyle—Horrocks’ mission might seem confusing. But this quest necessarily cascades into a complex series of questions: Where do we swim? Where don’t we, daren’t we, can’t we? And why/not? Part of the project, too, is disentangling and re-entangling various cultural understandings of water—Māori, ‘English’ and watery ways from further afield—and realising how being pinned to one can make you ‘feel joltingly bereft, adrift in place’. Instead, Horrocks yearns for unification, fusion, cross-pollination:
… ways of understanding to be in conversation with one another, so that I can learn from without claiming ownership of stories different from my own. Ways to inhabit this place as Pākehā, to acknowledge Māori as Indigenous, without placing myself at an unswimmable remove.
Essential to all forms of immersion, many kinds of discomfort loom large in Where We Swim: the ecological, wealth-based, familial and purely physical. In Phoenix Horrocks admits to thinking ‘only fleetingly about where the water came from’ in their upmarket hotel pool in a desert city. She frets about this unsustainable city, its dwindling water reserves and non-existent water restrictions, but simultaneously finds it ‘impossible to care about much’ from her patch of ‘balmy, clear, frictionless fluid’. Staring through money-glazed eyes at ‘their own piece of rented sky’, her family is not concerned about anything, ‘not climate change or Uber or refugees’. We veer from staccato phrases on the vicious cycles of anthropogenic global warming to blissed-out appreciation of the water, which is just ‘so pleasant’. There’s line-to-line oscillation between caring and apathy, despair and detachment: an (a)moral to-and-fro that illustrates the politicising but also sublime distracting properties of water. Is this societal parody, self-flagellation or a candid mixture of the two?
Without self-denial, Where We Swim is honest about travel as leisure for the one percent; the ‘long, exploitative history’ of ‘dark tourism’; and the real costs of ecotourism, which are externalised to local communities and ecologies, never fully borne by tourists. Throughout a globe-trotting pre-Covid timeline, we witness Horrocks acclimatising to the (dis)comforts of privilege: insulation, space and the option to sample and withdraw from certain parts of the world. Of the gated communities in Medellín with their private playgrounds, pools and highly manicured personal space, Horrocks initially felt embarrassed by the easy escapism, but came to understand ‘the desire for comfort’ associated with such spaces, which signal ‘something apart, sectioned off from the pressing specifics of place’. Yet in an era of compounding global climate and health crises, this statement rings odd—if honest—in its satisfaction. In the interval between the experiences underlying the book and its publication, Aotearoa has revealed itself in the grip of the same isolationism and escapism, the same partial de-linking from the risk and demands of the rest of the world. This cannot last—nor is it an ethically tenable position. For a travel-worn Horrocks, the pristine water of a borrowed pool enhances the bliss of retreat. And while sometimes we need this (and this review is not an anti-bliss manifesto), in our current world, escape—at any scale, from the familial to the global—cannot be what we cling to.
Where We Swim is compelling, however, in its attention to the pods, bonds, social and ecological connections that make swimming, journeying and life itself more meaningful. Harder, yes (especially with young twins like Horrocks’), but weightier, more satisfying, even transformative. This focus on interdependence crosses over into Horrocks’ thinking and writing about women travellers, too. She recalls having become ‘increasingly uninterested … in solitary journeys’, which are merely one of many ways to move in the world. As with Horrocks’ scholarship, this collection of essays debunks ‘narratives about travel (and life) as a great self-directed voyage out, an experiment in the discovery of self’. Things are much messier, more hopelessly entangled with other lives—both human and non-human—and all the better for it.
The family’s whale-watching leads to reflections on ‘the fluid families we all inhabit, broad and strange’, and Horrocks devotes a great deal of attention to these offbeat and loving units of kin that ‘continue to reform in different ways over the decades’, and which re-form us, in turn. She analyses the family as diasporic, ailing, competitive, nurturing, self-caricaturing and unsettled by changing dynamics of relations and attention. In particular, Horrocks carefully dissects her feelings about the epochal shifts within parent–child relationships: of frailty, fragility and gradually inverted dynamics of care and concern, the imminent ‘geological shift’ of becoming ‘more anxious about my parents than about my children’. Still, maternal passages abound: beautiful moments, memories of the ‘almost pleasurably primal’ responses to one’s children, their vulnerable, ‘pink-faced’ selves and needs. Sometimes these are maternal parentheses, brief reflections on her progeny: ‘How I loved her sturdy legs.’ Other times, we are privy to longer narratives of maternal fear, panic and rage, situations where ‘a drenching of maternal fierceness’ is forced by social conventions to dissipate into ‘a feeling only of helplessness’. Chastened after one such situation, Horrocks contrasts her ‘small, neo-colonial drama of panic’ for her children with the residual, urgent feeling ‘that, of all people, they must be protected’. These scenes capture enthralling themes within Horrocks’ work and worldviews: first, how our ‘fluid families’, and particularly children, force us to pay attention to different things, to adapt; and, also, how to reconcile the tensions of caring for one’s own family and protecting a wider sphere of life, including the entire global ecosystem.
Although it opens with the national obsession with ‘water-quality figures’ or which of Aotearoa’s rivers and lakes are ‘swimmable’, Where We Swim is concerned at a much deeper level with ecological disintegration and collapse, and their societal correlates. Aligned with an almost critical mass of others, this book traces Horrocks’ shift in consciousness, her becoming ‘properly conscious of how the feel of the planet was shifting, and along with it, my always provisional sense of what it means to be alive in the world’. The ‘prevailing mood,’ she notes, had shifted, and she was ‘working out, interaction by interaction, how [she] wanted to move within it’. How she wanted her family to act and believe. Like many of us, Horrocks is jostling for the ‘right’ position; trying to find a place and moral stance within the shifting politics and ethics of climate crisis. Looking at Perth’s skyline, dominated by fossil-fuel companies, Horrocks writes how she found herself hoping ‘this version of civilisation wouldn’t be forever. But that felt like a cruel thing to say to my children.’ This is one of the central dilemmas of the book: how, when and what to tell your children about climate change.
In tacit language, Horrocks gently tugs at the threads of imperialism, colonisation and extractive capitalism. For all the musing about privilege, there’s surprisingly little about the structural and systemic inequities underpinning individual circumstances. Where We Swim is not a deep dive into political economy, hard borders, fossil capitalism, global supply chains, local and global injustices, or how to resolve them. It’s a poetic, family-oriented feeling-through of discomfort within one’s own relentless comfort zone—a way of living, thinking and feeling through the mounting sense of ‘climate paralysis’, and how to guide your children through it. (For more explicit, politicised consideration of these ideas, and the radical pedagogy we might use to confront them, turn to Julietta Singh’s recent book, The Breaks.)
Where We Swim joins a flotilla of beautiful texts on swimming, foremost among them Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A swimming memoir (2017), and Nina Mingya Powles’ breath-taking Small Bodies of Water (2021). Like Lee, Powles and Rebecca Solnit (and Horrocks’ own academic non-fiction), Horrocks travels, swims, thinks and writes with her women forebears: the Sussex poet Charlotte Smith, philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Fanny Burney are all ‘some of the company [Horrocks] swam with’, all part of her ‘imagined family’. Pleasantly haunted by these other women, Sussex is the primary domain for this fellow-travelling; an intricate, self-aware and historiographically informed account of nature writing, the Sussex essay is a very fine example of the genre, contemplating nature and its meaning, and our relationality with it.
Horrocks’ style inclines to the spare, the metaphorical, the captivating. She captures geological feats in few words, describing the Kaikōura ranges, for example, thus: ‘a spine against the sky that feels dynamic, pushing upwards. Earth in motion.’ Skilfully using filmic techniques and grimly apt metaphors, she plays with alternative framings of memories, experiences and self-constructions. (Horrocks teaches creative writing, so it’s a relief that she’s bloody good at it.) Whether in someone else’s land, space or bodies of water, Horrocks offers crisp re-enactments of discomfort and unease, presenting both tension and the internal compromises we eternally make. Her writing is also deeply physical, bracing readers with the embodied pleasures of immersion, and its power to re-animate, to shock us into being fully alive.
Horrocks only acquires goggles at the very end of the book. And she wonders, in closing, ‘How could I have got so far and swum so much and only just begun to really put my head under?’ Deceptively simple in its phrasing, this meta-question ought to jolt us at many points throughout our lives. This book is, truly, an ‘attempt to put [one’s] whole body into it’. Full, ‘necessary immersion’, full (dis)comfort, transportation. Occasionally, Horrocks retreats from the water. In a 2018 diary entry: ‘Shouldn’t I swim? It looks so cold. Besides, actually swimming feels like taking this whole water business a bit too literally.’ Ultimately, Horrocks finds, the immersion is necessary.
EMMA GATTEY is a writer and critic from Ōtautahi. She is working on a PhD in New Zealand history at the University of Cambridge, and is a research fellow for Te Takarangi at the University of Otago Faculty of Law. Twitter: @adjectivallyEMG