Sabrina Imbler: “Natural Spaces and Queer Spaces Can Coexist”
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On being part of a super organism:
SI: Salps spend part of their life as these drifting little barrels, and they grow these chains of clones inside their belly, and then the clones break free and become the colonial stage of the salp. So a salp is both an individual and a colony, and that was so fascinating to me. It made me think about times that I have been in very close communion with other people, when I’m marching in a protest or something—I was a part of a super organism—and how crowd movements work, how crowd care looks.
And so that became the basis of an essay about my queer community and the Dyke March on Pride and the gay beach of New York (Jacob Riis), and how held and also deeply connected to everyone else I feel in that space. I really like that metaphor, but it really started because I saw these gelatinous organisms on the beach and then thought “what are they?”
MK: And it took you a while to find out.
SI: Yeah, I saw these clear blobs of goo one September at Riis, and it was wild because it really is this beach that feels like a queer space more than it does a natural space. And writing this book helped me realize that natural spaces and queer spaces can coexist. But I loved watching all these people on the beach hold these blobs up to the light and be like, are these fish eggs? Are they baby jellyfish? Do they sting? We were doing citizen science, even though I didn’t really realize it at the time. And when I started to write the book I was like, oh, maybe I should just figure out what those things were.
I didn’t even pitch this essay as a part of my proposal. I didn’t think about it until I was just in my bedroom in the pandemic and I emailed a bunch of park rangers and professors and various people who are in charge of these data sets of creatures that live around Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. But no one was able to tell me, and when I suggested that they were salps, because that’s what they seemed like in my online research, “it’s probably not salps.”
And I was thinking about queer memory and history and how sometimes you have to be able to think with creativity and imagination to understand histories that did very much happen but weren’t recorded. And so I chose to remember them as salps and chose to write about them in this piece.
But then after I had turned in the book, I was at this queer surfing club in the Rockaways, and I saw the blobs for the first time since that September so many years ago. And I was surrounded by queer and trans people surfing. I had surfed for the first time. I was already so high, and then I saw these blobs and I ran to these surfers and was like, I have a very special connection with these creatures.
And one of the surfers who runs this club, they looked at me and they were like, those are salps. I see them all the time in the water when I’m surfing, they’re in these big chains. And I reached down and I touched them, and I had a moment on the beach where it felt so special and so meaningful that this knowledge existed in community, and I feel so stupid for only going to [so-called experts].
On the (in)accessibility of scientific knowledge:
MK: In your essay about necropsy and the drawing of whale corpses, you talk about how you read this guide that says, don’t worry about the technical language just yet, just describe what you see. And I feel like that’s partly what you did throughout your collection.
SI: I encountered the Marine Mammal Necropsy Guide early in the research of the book, and I approached this book thinking so much of scientific knowledge is inaccessible to the public. I feel very lucky that I know how to read certain papers, but still many papers are so confusing that I really need to talk to the researcher to understand them. And I think I had this mindset of defiance, of like, I’m going to be the translator of this scientific knowledge and bring it alive in my book.
But I was continually surprised by resources that do exist about doing citizen science—like if you happen to see a whale that washes up, you have all the knowledge you need to share that with officials who come later. You can notice, you can watch, you can look. And that guide was a really helpful frame to think about the ways in which I could try to understand these creatures outside of the traditional mode of writing about them, which is very impersonal and very objective and often looks to scientists and is like, you explain this to me.
Sabrina Imbler is a writer and science journalist living in Brooklyn. Their first chapbook, Dyke (geology), was published by Black Lawrence Press. Their essays and reporting have appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, Catapult, and Sierra, among others. Their debut essay collection is called How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures.