why we swim (COMING APRIL 14, 2020!)


Humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now in the 21st century we swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha‑infested rivers to test our limits. Swimming is an introspective and silent sport in a chaotic and noisy age, it’s therapeutic for both the mind and body, and it’s an adventurous way to get from point A to point B. It’s also one route to that elusive, ecstatic state of flow. These reasons, among many others, make swimming one of the most popular activities in the world.

Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern‑day Japanese samurai swimmers, even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six‑hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what seduces us to water, despite its dangers, and why we come back to it again and again. She offers an immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and of human behavior itself.

Algonquin Books, April 2020

“I was enchanted. A beautifully written love letter to water and a fascinating story that takes us from the first record of swimming—which lies in the middle of a desert—to tales of vanishing aquatic societies, sea nomads, and much more. Bonnie Tsui was born to write this book.”
Rebecca Skloot, bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“The only thing better than reading Bonnie Tsui’s writing about swimming is swimming itself—and both are sublime. Why We Swim is an aquatic tour de force, a captivating story filled with adventure, meditation, and celebration.”
Susan Casey, bestselling author of The Wave and Voices in the Ocean

“Magnificent. Only a truly great story can hold my attention and Why We Swim had me nailed to the chair . . . I love this book."
Christopher McDougall, bestselling author of Born to Run and Natural Born Heroes

“This is a jewel, a paean to the wonders of water and our place within it.”
James Nestor, author of Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves

Why We Swim is a gorgeous hybrid of a book. Bonnie Tsui combines fascinating reporting about some of the world's most remarkable swimmers with delightful meditations about what it means for us naked apes to leap in the water for no apparent reason. You won't regret diving in.”
Carl Zimmer, New York Times science columnist and author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

american chinatown

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This book examines the most famous American Chinatowns, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Honolulu — fingers of land on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, key entry points for multiple generations of Chinese immigrants to the United States — and, looking forward, explores the next generation of U.S. Chinatowns, in Las Vegas. Using these neighborhoods as a map, American Chinatown deals with the persistently enigmatic idea of Chinatown by serving up narrative epics of its own: stories and personal profiles that reveal modern-day realities and chronicle unexpected details of life. Simon & Schuster, August 2009

Winner of the 2009 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Best of 2009: 50 Notable Bay Area Books selection

NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”: “There’s more to Chinatown than many of us realize. Author Bonnie Tsui spoke with residents about their daily lives and visited five of the most storied Chinatowns in the country for her new book, American Chinatown.”

The New Yorker: “Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown is an exploration of five communities — in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas — and how the Chinese-American residents of each have formed their own distinct cultures.”

The New York Times: “[A] groundbreaking book.”

The San Francisco Chronicle: “An updated real-life insider look… reinforces the importance of place for ethnic Chinese of all stripes — recent immigrants and generations of Chinese Americans alike.”

The Los Angeles Times: “Through reportage and research, [Tsui’s] book examines how each of these neighborhoods came to be and how their identities have evolved.”

Library Journal: “Delightful… [Tsui’s] warm descriptions are accompanied by her own photographs and hand-drawn maps. All readers interested in Chinese American subjects must consider this title.”

Evan Osnos, staff writer, The New Yorker: “A wonderfully revealing and compassionate trip into the real lives of men and women who straddle the world’s two great powers… Tsui plunges into Chinatowns that are, like China itself, reinventing themselves before our eyes, showing not only to what it means to be Chinese in the world, but also the spirit of self-invention that made America great.”

Gish Jen, author of The Love Wife: “A fascinating and thoughtful look at a thoroughly American phenomenon.”

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A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise

Warning: This is not your parents’ nature writing! A distinctly contemporary take on the genre, A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise features original essays by 20 gifted writers, all 30 and under, whose strong and diverse voices redefine nature writing for the 21st century.

Bonnie Tsui’s cast of accomplished contributors wrestle with integrating nature into daily life while putting down roots — often in urban environments. Included here are The New Yorker’s Andrea Walker on learning to hunt with her father; author and artist James Prosek on the mythology and mystery of eels; writer Hugh Ryan on being taught how to pitch a tent by a six-foot-tall drag queen at a Radical Faeries camp in Tennessee; poet Cecily Parks on reconciling her adventuress self with her fear of lightning; and journalist Alex Kellogg on rethinking his ideas about race and identity on a visit to Kenya and Eritrea.

Theirs and the other writings in this collection illuminate questions about self and place, belonging and rootlessness, and the meeting of created and natural landscapes. Brimming with insight and humor, A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise rewards us with new perspectives on personal identity in relation to nature, and on the impact of landscape and place on our lives.

Debut pick for REI’s book-of-the-month program. Sierra Club Books/University of California Press, April 2007

Utne Reader: “Whether their leaky tents are set up in a suburban backyard, in a Brooklyn farmers’ market, or next to a mouthy drag queen, these writers illuminate the inevitable connection between geography and identity, and they zip open the doors to a whole new breed of nature writing.”

New York magazine: “Contrary to popular fantasy, traveling to Montauk or Coney Island will not necessarily renew one’s bond with nature. For those looking for inspiration before a tan, there’s A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Christine DeLucia, in ‘A Place for All Seasons,’ memorably tours Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., and transcribes her melancholy reflections. On a different note, Hugh Ryan — in ‘Sissies in the Wood’ — recounts a rare camping moment, when a drag queen in four-inch heels teaches him all he needs to know about putting up a tent.”

Publishers Weekly: “Tsui asked 20 writers aged 30 and under to reflect on ways in which they have connected with nature, and in this collection presents their original, often humorous answers… No matter what the approach, all the essays are imaginative and unusual, harbingers of what we may expect from nature writing as the last truly wild places disappear, and people have to take nature wherever they can find it.”

Audubon:A Leaky Tent might well inspire you to strap on a backpack, hit the road, and do some soul-searching of your own.”

Booklist: “Tsui has included essays about finding yourself, your parents, or your people, about struggling to change or refusing to compromise. An anthology that fairly bowls the reader over with its exuberance, this unusual collection shows just how welcoming the genre of nature writing is for talented new writers. Highly recommended.”

Backpacker: “Read the new anthology A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise. The 20 stories, all penned by writers 30 and younger, are full of surprises, humor, and insight into the meaningful experiences to be found in the outdoors.”

She Went to the Field

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This book profiles several substantiated cases of female soldiers during the American Civil War, including Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (a.k.a. Private Lyons Wakeman, Union); Sarah Emma Edmonds (a.k.a Private Frank Thompson, Union); Loreta Janeta Velazquez (a.k.a. Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate); and Jennie Hodgers (a.k.a. Private Albert D. J. Cashier, Union). It also tells stories of women who pushed gender boundaries to act boldly in related military capacities, as spies, nurses, and “daughters of the regiment,” bearing the flag in battle, rallying troops, and caring for the wounded. She Went to the Field draws from recent academic work and is a lively text geared toward the general-audience reader.

Featured title at Powell’s Books. Globe Pequot Press, September 2003

Publishers Weekly: “The dynamism with which women served among the ranks is well documented… Succeeds in stoking our desire to learn more about these brave women.”