On January 18 2006 my second novel Swimming Upstream in Heels and Skinny Pants, entered the New York Times Bestseller list for Week Four.
In that episode of inspiration – the book’s third of four – I was inspired by a childhood photograph of my mother and grandmother in their swimsuits, with tiny beach balls in one hand and parasols in the other. These Jewish women wore their bikinis even in England, where I was born. This photo represented something I’d worked into my imagination in the character Lucy: She’s a New Yorker who’s always been born with a New York edge, even when she was a mere pup.
When I was growing up, summers were spent in the Hamptons, Long Island. Every summer since high school, I’ve been invited to spend the summer on Shelter Island, the same peninsula I named in the novel. And every year, I’ve revisited the summer with the particular bikinis, parasols and baseball caps I kept coming back to.
For many readers, swimming upstream is a faraway dream, difficult to articulate and impossible to picture. Swim clothes allow for body movement, which in turn allows us to commune more intimately with our bodies. The book’s protagonist, Lucy, tells herself she’s just going for a swim, but ends up racing to beat what might have been the fastest young New York man – to survive the image of herself as a low-life, New York woman.
James Baldwin famously said it’s the only birthright of African-Americans to be forgotten. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Baldwin said it’s the “mestizos” who are overlooked, not the magnificent urban blacks. As I write this chapter, I’m reminded of that last remark, when I look down at my camera phone and the images are of those who swim upstream, the new-found freedoms celebrated.
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Looking at the lists of books that started among the 30 Top Selling Nonfiction Books in 2016, a distinction for which I am very grateful, I’m struck how many books contain travel and/or apparel in some form. Consider Modern Romance by Justin Peters, which includes a page that says it makes you want to “sock it to the algorithm” and does the same to anyone who sits down with its article. Or Leisure Suit Larry by Larry Shue, whose cover art includes Larry Shue himself wearing a pair of Nikes.
I’ve heard from many of the lasses and lads, international and domestic, who wore bikinis for our nautical chapter, and perhaps for some of the readers of Swimming Upstream in Heels and Skinny Pants: it’s been a long, gorgeous swim between the time they bought the book and the time they saw it.