Book launch: Interview with Melissa Volker on her novel Shadow Flicker

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.”

Talking about books and the big-wave brotherhood

“Me and My Board” was a discussion session hosted by the 2016 Open Book Festival in Cape Town on Saturday, 10 September 2016. The panel included: Capetonian big-wave surfer and SUP adventurer Chris Bertis, with his autobiographical account of his 2010 Mavericks Big Wave Invitational win in  Stoked! (Zebra Press, 2015), and Andy Martin, University of Cambridge French literature and philosophy academic and surfer with his Stealing the Wave (Bloomsbury, 2008), subtitled “the epic struggle between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo”, about their big wave surfing rivalry in the 1980s and 1990s. I was asked to chair the session.

The session was captured by surfer, SUP’er and writer Melissa Volker for Wavescape.co.za as “Talk About Waves“, noting who else came to listen: “It was as much a weird blend of academia and aloha on stage as it was in the audience. There was a mix of readers who surf (or surfers who read?) and literati, those bookworms and mind surfers who never have (and never will) get on a surfboard.” Read the full article, with photographs and the podcast of the session (it runs for about 1 hour).

Among her reflections, Melissa captured the contradiction of speaking about a big-wave brotherhood that emerged during the conversation – it “does not refer to gender, but rather to the connection with people in the ocean” (Bertish) and “strikes a patriarchal note” (Martin). These views are poles apart, the former an example of a hegemonic surfing masculinity at work and the latter a pro-feminist reading of surfing’s male domination. This raised the question of naming women surfers as girls from the a member of the audience, and my reply that in surfing culture the representation of the “surfer girl” has a history of subordinating women surfers to the male surfing imaginary. However, while that cultural history is acknowledged, some recent third-wave feminist sports scholars have seen girl surfers as advocates of stealth feminism empowering women as athletes within the sport of surfing. It was here that the “Me and My Board” session connected with the broader currents within contemporary surfing culture and its changing gender order – pointing to the continued need to interrogate why we create myths out of big wave surfing and how those myths reinforce the masculine within surfing and society.