Swimming to Save the World
Read an excerpt from Anelise Chen’s debut novel 'So Many Olympic Exertions,' a joyous mix of sports trivia, philosophy, and semiautobiographical fiction.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz/photo by Tavish Timothy
Here's an excerpt from Anelise Chen's debut novel So Many Olympic Exertions, out in June from Kaya Press. I first had the pleasure of publishing Chen's fiction in Gigantic, which I co-edit, in 2011. Although the story we published (also titled "So Many Olympic Exertions") isn't included in the book, it's wonderful to see how marvelously this project has evolved.
Chen's style is easygoing yet analytical, hilarious yet existential, poignant, and always surprising. A semiautobiographical work, the novel channels such influences as David Markson and Lydia Davis, fusing obscure sports trivia, self-help manuals, the journals of Kafka and Virginia Woolf, philosophy, mythology, and athlete profiles (along with conversations with one's immigrant parents) to explore the hazier interstices where the self exists within our culture's dichotomies of mind and body, nerd and jock, ecstasy and defeat.
—James Yeh, culture editor
An Excerpt from So Many Olympic Exertions
"Hey, Mom! Why did you want me to swim so badly? Where did you even get the idea?"
I am asking her this at breakfast as she eats her habitual bowl of plain, instant oatmeal. My parents have just finished a job, and now they stay home with me all day, Dad browsing funny things nonstop online, Mom barging into my room whenever she is about to do something. I am going to sauté some cabbage! I am going to hang the clothes out!
Throughout our childhood, their work would always seesaw like this: periods of dizzying, 16-hour days, then nothing. The doldrums. Waiting for the next client to call. As a kid, I could never be completely present with them: I resented them for all the times they were busy and couldn't treasure the quiet times, never knowing when another job was going to make them disappear again.
This time, I find myself silently irritated by their intrusion into my writing routine. At least this is what I tell myself. Actually I know I'm just using them as an excuse, armor against my own inability to finish my dissertation. I'll start again when they start another job, I tell myself.
"I mean, why did you throw me into the pool and force me to join swim team?"
Mom scoffs in protest. "How come I sign you up to do swimming? I did not! You want to swim all by yourself! You force me to!"
"Obviously you wanted me to do it. Why else would you let me do it for so long?"
"I don't know what you are talking about. You do it because you keep saying you want to do it. I just think OK, stubborn girl, I cannot stop you. I was confused mom. Because you know when you were five years old before we leave Taiwan? On weekend I take you to play with your cousins in Yilan, with San San and Di Di, and they always jump around like crazy monkeys, so active, so confident. But you? No, no, no. You always treat your body like diplomat, OK? Very polite and careful. They climb up and down playground screaming shouting jumping, but you just let your body hang upside down on monkey bars like wet mop. Like you can let go and fall down, no strength. I notice that right away. I think, Wow, this cannot be. We are about to go to America and you are like tiptoeing little mouse! You know my favorite show when I was a girl? Leave to Beaver. My favorite movie actor? Clint Eastwood. Cowboy Indians, so much excitement! We are going there to a big place so you have to be strong like that. But when we get here I take you to rolling skater rink and right away you break your arm! Then you fall down on bicycle and break your foot! My god. Next year when we looking to buy this new house, the pool was in backyard and I think yes, good idea! So after we go swimming. You were so scared of water. When you take shower you have to dip your head back like this so water only touch your forehead. Can you imagine when I throw you in the pool first time? You were so scared and screaming crying like crazy and fighting but I think it's OK, water cannot break bones. I walk around the pool with leaf net to fish you up, ha ha ha! You remember? Ha ha. Sorry. I was bad. Child abuse. Ha ha ha! But slowly you like to do it. Remember? All the time, telling me to take you to swimming class. I had no time because I had to work. Finally I say OK, take you to join swim team. Maybe you were fourth, fifth grade? Fifth probably. Take up all your time. Tammy's mama took you to practice every day right? You still get good grades, so I think it's OK. But in high school your grades are not so good, but I think maybe you can just keep going because it is American way. Didn't I explain to you? I never explain to you why I think swimming is so magnificent? About swimmer I saw on the TV? The boy from my town, Yilan? No? Are you sure? OK. Now I tell you amazing story, OK? Remember forever. Long time ago, when you were in my stomach, when me and Daddy thinking about coming here, I hear something in the news that is so unbelievable. One American woman is swimming from Cuba to Florida! With her body by itself! Her purpose accordingly is she want to fix relationship of US and Cuba..."
Mom says she never learned how to swim herself, and even the thought of being in a boat terrified her. Though she knew it was irrational, she never believed that water had enough density to buoy her up sufficiently. But late one night on her TV, she saw this American woman trying to swim across the ocean. The woman was fearless, almost inhuman, like a paddling, kicking, breathing machine, arms churning stroke after stroke without stopping. A tiny mote on the sea. The only sound that kept her company was the repetitive splash of her own arms hitting the water, the sloshy gurgle of the waves hitting the support boat that drifted behind her at a sanctioned distance. Sometimes this woman would unknowingly swim into patches of disc-sized jellyfish and Portuguese man o'wars. The pain of their stings were like nothing anyone knew the words to. It was not a terrestrial pain. As the hours passed, the woman's tongue became so swollen from the salt water that she lost the ability to speak. Morning came. Her crew fed her through a tube. Weather carried her farther from her designated course. Each time she poked her head up to hear her progress, how many more miles, her crew would have to lie. Her crew didn't have the heart to tell her that she wouldn't be able to make it.
Meanwhile, this boy, my mom's former neighbor, was down in Jinmen, Taiwan, where he had volunteered to join the military in a fit of patriotic feeling. A brilliant scholar who went to all the elite schools, he had bought into the nationalist rhetoric of his youth, but his stint in the military was causing him to have serious reservations. Ever since the Nationalists had fled the mainland to this speck of an island, the borders had been sealed tight. But he had begun to see the cracks in the edifice. Their bastion of democracy was nothing more than a kingdom of the shipwrecked.
That summer, this boy also watched the same television broadcast of the American swimmer. He thought about her often. At the lookout where he stood guard every morning, he could see China, an edge of land just beyond a cold stretch of sea. The propaganda that blared from its emergency system loudspeakers sounded like warbly, cavernous echoes. Return to the homeland! You will be a hero! Taiwan's emergency systems responded, clear and shrill: Join us! Join us! The future of the Han is in Taiwan!
For an entire summer, the boy considered his options. "This distance is nothing compared to what that woman swam," he thought to himself. "I can see the land. I can touch it." "You don't know how to swim," another voice in his head chimed in. "You won't make it across alive."
But he had made up his mind. Whenever he got time in the private bathroom stall, he would study maps and charts of the tides and currents. He did extra pushups and practiced the flutter kick while lying on his back.
That summer was particularly hot, and an unprecedented number of jelly fish washed up on the shore. At night, he would sneak out half naked to the rocky shore and pick up the goopy masses, spreading them all over his body. Their sting felt first like a mild itch, then like a hot iron. He would lie there, bearing it. If anyone asked, this was a new type of beauty regimen. If anyone asked, he was sleepwalking.
The day he'd set for his departure finally came. The weather that day was balmy and sedate, the ocean placid and inviting. No, actually, there was a storm brewing, a Category 2 hurricane. But he was a desperate man. With a basketball tucked under each arm, he launched himself quietly, an airplane on water, kicking quietly underwater so as not to be heard...
After he swam to the mainland, he became a Chinese hero. He worked as a translator, an ambassador, and eventually as leader of the World Bank. He was so rich he became one of the first people to own a private car in Beijing. All because he dared to swim.
"OK. Seriously? That's not even a real story."
Mom smiles. "If you say so. But I think to myself all the time."
I just went and googled the World Bank guy. He really does exist. And he really did swim to China.
So, after all these years, it turns out that Mom always thought of swimming in this imperial, conquering way, as though it would eventually take me somewhere. But I never swam my way anywhere, never arrived any place worth getting to.
Did I even learn anything from all those years in training? I learned that I could not be the best. I learned that I had no fighting instinct. I learned I was desperate for approval and spurred on always by fear and shame rather than by desire. I had no desire to win. I learned mantras that only filled me with more shame. Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work. Winners never quit and quitters never win.
We learned so many of these mantras, with more and more coming at us all the time in different variations. How did this motivation mechanism work? was something I never learned. In the deepest depths of the most punishing swim workouts, when my fingers and toes would get tingly and I would start seeing stars from lack of oxygen, I was never able to derive power from those phrases, not when it really mattered. It was like holding onto a charm that contained no magic.
Another troubling observation: Mom is always sitting down. "Why do you sit to blow dry your hair? Why do you sit when you wait for the kettle to boil?" She makes a motion along her legs.
"What? Sore back?" She nods.
"How long has it been?" I demand. "Please go see a doctor! Go see one right now!"
She shakes her head and snorts in a semi-patronizing way. That brusque "Hnh! " that means "Silly girl! Do you know how much it costs to go to the doctor?"
"What insurance do you have anyway?" I interrogate further. "Don't you pay like $800 a month?"
She shrugs. "Business is bad so we can't afford now."
For the next hour, I make promises to myself: One day I will... and One day this won't... and One day when I... The promises sound empty. I'm afraid to finish the sentences. One day when I get a well-paying, secure job with my American Studies PhD...
All I can do is look up chiropractors on Yelp and read the reviews out loud to her.
She says: "Don't you have a dissertation to finish? You take care of yourself, and I take care of me, OK?"
From now on I am going to the library to work.
And here I am writing about bodies, bodies, bodies.
Excerpted from So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen by arrangement with the author and the publisher. So Many Olympic Exertions will be published in June by Kaya Press.