On 22 August 2019 I interviewed Melissa Volker about her eco-romance Shadow Flicker (Karavan Press, 2019) at Xpression on the Beach, Muizenberg. The novel is set in contemporary Cape St Francis, where the female protagonist returns to surfing. The novel addresses environmental issues relating to the development wind energy farms in the area.
This is one of few literary outputs in South Africa to foreground surfing within the novel’s plot and frame main characters as surfers (or where the authors are surfers themselves). I am aware of a handful of novels and short-stories in English which also do so, namely: Hagen Engler’s Life’s A Beach (1997) and Water Features (1998) (autobiographical fiction, short stories) and Robin Auld’s Tightlines (2000) (beat fiction), Byron Loker’s New Swell (2006) (autobiographical fiction, short stories), Mike Nicol’s Of Cops and Robbers (2013) (crime fiction), and Mary Duncan’s Surfing Sally (2010) (illustrated children’s fiction). Andy Mason’s (aka N.D. Mazin) The Legend of Blue Mamba (2013) (graphic novel) brings this literature into conversation with the world of underground comix.
I am aware of Afrikaans youth fiction too, specifically Mary-Ann van Rensburg’s ‘n Reënboog oor Grootbaai (1995) and Jeanette Morton’s Die Vlinder en die Surfer (2012).
There are also fictional short stories published in local surf magazines since the 1960s.
There is published poetry too that adds to the literature featuring surfing, for example, Robin Auld’s “Between the Storms” and “Reef” in his Kelp (2006) and Stephen Symons’ “Death of a Surfer” and “Muizenberg” in his Questions for the Sea (2016).
It may be time to start compiling an authoritative account of South African “surflit”. Inspiration for this can be drawn from the innovative work undertaken for the Waves of Fiction: Surfing in Australian Literature project led by scholar Rebecca Olive. The aim of the project is to be “able to follow the various threads of surfing that weave through Australian literature [that] will deepen our understanding of how surfing has shaped our relationships to beaches, coastlines and oceans, and how surfing has contributed to a sense of being Australian.”
In August 2013, Meg Samuelson and I collaborated on an interdisciplinary project that considered the contemporary politics, shifting poetics and invoked pasts in the film Otelo Burning (2011), an isiZulu language film that uses surfing to pose questions about personal and political freedom during the demise of apartheid (1988-1990).
An outcome of the project was the publication of several essays and an interview with Sara Blecher (producer, director) and Sihle Xaba (actor, surfer) in the Contemporary Conversations section of the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Volume 26, Number 3, September 2014.
Contemporary Conversations: Otelo Burning
Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Introduction.” (Free Access to the article, which includes audio-visual supplementary material relating to the film and its reception).
Meg Samuelson, “Re-telling freedom in Otelo Burning: the beach, surf noir, and Bildung at the Lamontville pool.” (Free Access to the article).
Glen Thompson, “Otelo Burning and Zulu surfing histories.” (Open Access to the article).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Otelo Burning (dir. Sara Blecher, 2011).”
Litheko Modisane, “Otelo Burning: On the turbulence of freedom.”
David Johnson, “Beyond tragedy: Otelo Burning and the limits of post-apartheid nationalism.”
Meg Samuelson and Glen Thompson, “Interview with Sara Blecher and Sihle Xaba: the making and meanings of Otelo Burning.”
It’s a sad state of affairs when the one’s thoughts has continued through many months not to document a word. Does that lessen the fact that I have been studying surfing’s history at all as participant and observer? I hope not but I do feel that “the writing interregum” as a period within a research process is now shifting from contemplation to thesis writing output.
Coming later in life to this doctoral study with my own sense of nostalgia for a youth surfing past, I’ve pondered why – and been asked the same question by others on numerous occasions – this historical project on gender and politics in South African surfing culture. A short answer would be: an interrogation of my past as a surfer and an attempt to understand, over time, the agency of other surfers in periods structured by the experience of apartheid and interwoven by the gender order to frame social relations and identities.
If I look at my published writings to date on surfing, only the latest of these on how the international sports boycott against apartheid shaped competition surfing in South Africa begins to take a broader time period into account. My other pieces have been more focused on key founding moment in South African surfing’s sports history – the inaugural South Africa National Surfriding Championships in 1966 and the emergence of Shaun Tomson as an exemplar male surf icon in the late 1970s. Both pieces analysed how a hegemonic masculinity around competitive surfing was constructed and maintained. The writing on gender and surfing however goes far beyond its masculinist pretenses, and as I work through material from the 1950s through to the 1990s I am finding evidence for shifting masculine and feminine identites over time, and even with periods.
Here the 1960s have become a fascination for me and I am currently working on conference paper, for the forthcoming Southern African Historical Society Conference in Durban, to think through how global surfing can provide a lens to look at how local black and white surfers could turn to California and Hawai’i for new configurations of social identity under apartheid. This brings the theme of gender and politics together in a manner that I have only hinted at in past papers.
Pondering this theme has also been much of the reason (beside other distractions, including spending time in the water surfing for leisure or sport) why the interregnum has dragged on for some months. Looking at the surf studies forecast, there’s a swell of writing to come …