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Waving, Not Drowning


The New Yorker writer on the politics of surfing, reporting from war zones, and the “weird genre” of memoir.

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The writer William Finnegan’s output is remarkable not only for its volume, but for its scope. On staff at The New Yorker since 1987, Finnegan has reported on a wide range of international conflicts, including the aftermath of the Sandinista revolt in Nicaragua, the civil wars in Mozambique, Sudan, and the Balkans, and the drug wars in Mexico. His recent work for the magazine is an eclectic assortment: there’s an in-depth examination of the American fast-food workers’ movement, features and commentary on the politics of immigration reform in the US, and a profile of the first drag queen star of Mexico’s lucha libre (“free wrestling”).

Finnegan’s varied research and reporting have led to several books, among them Crossing the Line (1986) and Dateline Soweto (1988), about apartheid South Africa, A Complicated War (1992), about Mozambique’s sixteen-year civil war, and Cold New World (1998), about downward mobility in the United States. His work has also garnered multiple accolades: he has received two John Bartlow Martin Awards for Public Interest Magazine Journalism, won two Overseas Press Club Awards since 2009, and is a two-time finalist for a National Magazine Award.

With his first memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, published in July by Penguin Press, Finnegan returns to a lifelong obsession. A luminous examination of his passion for surfing, Barbarian Days began with one of Finnegan’s most well-known pieces for The New Yorker, “Playing Doc’s Games.” The piece, which profiles a character Finnegan surfed with at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the 1980s, received an especially enthusiastic response from fellow surfers, who praised the insight into the sport by one of their own.

Rather than succumbing to the memoirist’s temptation to turn real life into a neat, secure dramatic arc, Finnegan organizes Barbarian Days around the deep and abiding friendships of his surfing days. From the buddies he made as a child in Hawaii to a fellow writer and surfer with whom he embarked on a four-year surfing trip in the late 1970s and early ’80s to a Broadway dancer who became his surfing companion in Long Island, he captures the particular intensity of relationships forged by a commitment to the waves.

Finnegan traces his life as a surfer alongside the development of his personal and professional sensibilities: his growth as a writer, his politics, and the way both have been informed by travels in service of his “surf fever.” Woven through it all, like a “bright memory thread,” as Finnegan writes, are descriptions of an experience unfamiliar to many but rendered stunningly in his prose: that of traversing the changeable surface of an ocean wave.

As an MFA student, I spent a semester as Finnegan’s “research intern,” a position that mostly consisted of sitting in Finnegan’s apartment, drinking coffee, and talking about writing. The self-effacement that distinguishes Finnegan’s pieces also characterized our conversations; after our first meeting, he emailed me to apologize, worried that he’d talked too much. This humility belies Finnegan’s achievements, but it is a central feature of his work. He is the rare writer whose first impulse is to question his assumptions, and it is through this process of rigorous critique—internal and external—that he is able to uncover untold truths in familiar, even over-reported territory.

Nika Knight for Guernica

Guernica: One of the things that struck me throughout Barbarian Days was your attention to class and racial divides. From your childhood in Hawaii to your travels through Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa, you’re tuned into divisions between yourself and others, as well as disparities in the various cultures you encounter. How does surfing intersect with those divides?

William Finnegan: Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing, and many Hawaiians or part-Hawaiians surf, but in the rest of the United States it’s a pretty white sport. I’ve surfed with Native Americans in Massachusetts, and Native Canadians in Nova Scotia, and with many Latinos and other people of color in California, but US beach communities still tend to be white. Latin America is a different story. There are big surfing communities in every country with an ocean coast that I know in Central and South America. Same with Mexico, Bali, and nearly every island nation that gets waves in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But that’s a relatively recent development in most places. I remember surfing in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, even Madeira, when local fishermen had never seen a surfboard before, and refused to believe that we could ride a wave on one.

Surf tourism has really taken off in the last generation or so, and it can be fairly gross. Rich white people show up in a poor country to pursue their leisure-time fun, get served by black and brown people, and live in relative—or absolute—comfort. In the water, that situation can get turned on its head, though. Local kids learn to surf, know the breaks, and take most or all of the best waves, fuming turistas be damned. Poor-country surf communities can be complex and, to some extent, leveling. The fisherman’s kid is competing head to head with the plutocrat’s gilded son. Your father can’t buy you a good frontside hack.

In the book, I tell the story of a great wave in Fiji that my friend and I lucked into. It broke off a tiny, uninhabited island. We camped there and surfed it alone, with fishermen coming by once a week with fresh water. It was the best wave either of us had ever seen, let alone ridden. We didn’t tell anyone about it or, for years afterward, even speak the name of the island to each other, we were so superstitious. But eventually the secret got out anyway, and two Americans leased the island and built a resort there. In collaboration with the Fijian government, they privatized the wave, reserving it for resort guests. That was outrageous to a lot of people, including me—it was the first surf resort of its kind—but the wave became world famous, at least in surf world. After a couple of decades of fuming, I swallowed my principles and went back as a resort guest. By then, there were Fijian surfers, and they were pissed about being barred from the wave. In the end, in 2010, they convinced the government, which is now a military dictatorship, to revoke the resort’s exclusive rights to the wave. My feelings, upon seeing the great wave mobbed, mainly by other white guys from all over the world, coming in by chartered boat, were mixed, to say the least.

Guernica: An excerpt from your book came out in The New Yorker around the same time as Cameron Crowe’s movie about Hawaii, Aloha, which was widely criticized for its all-white cast, including its casting of Emma Stone, a white actress, as a character of Chinese and Hawaiian descent. In contrast, your piece was commended for its nuanced depiction of race in 1960s Hawaii. Do you have any thoughts on Crowe’s film? And how have racial dynamics changed in Hawaii, since your childhood?

William Finnegan: I haven’t seen Aloha, but I did see the wave of criticism, particularly in Hawaii, that it generated. I don’t know if racial dynamics in Hawaii have changed much since my childhood. The leading prep school in Honolulu—Punahou, which I didn’t go to, but which happens to be Barack Obama’s alma mater—is less white than it was when I was a kid, I’m told. I was surprised by how flustered some people in Hawaii seemed to be by the depiction of racial tensions in that excerpt from my book, which was mostly about my experience in a public middle school in Honolulu in 1966. For instance, I mentioned a mythical local holiday called Kill A Haole Day, which worried me at the time—a haole is a white person, which pretty well described me.

In the book, I was just making fun of myself, and of the myth, which everybody talked about but which, as far as I know, was never an actual event. I figured it was probably ancient history now, long forgotten, or possibly still a local joke. But then I saw a column in a Honolulu paper expressing shock that this dirty secret—described as closely guarded, insider information—was being exposed in a national magazine. It wasn’t that the supposed holiday was real, but that the myth was embarrassing, still cringe-worthy. That made me wonder about the progress of local racial discourse. I still go to Hawaii quite often—my sister and her family live there, and I recently taught at Punahou—but I may be badly in the dark about contemporary Island racial dynamics. I don’t know.

It’s so much harder than it looks—to conjure a fictional world that some passing wolf of skepticism can’t just blow down in one breath.

Guernica: A large section of the book describes your four-year surf trip through Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa, which you took in your twenties. You note that you were occasionally anxious about the apparent aimlessness of your journey, but the culmination of that trip—a teaching job at an all-black high school in apartheid South Africa—led to a well-received nonfiction book and a long journalism career. How did that transition happen? Where do you think your writing ambitions came from?

William Finnegan: I always wanted to write. While I was on that long surf trip, supporting myself with various day jobs, I was working hard on a novel. My third novel, in fact. What happened in South Africa was that I found myself in the middle of an uprising. I was teaching in a township outside Cape Town, and our students went out on strike, protesting apartheid in education. That turned into a national schools boycott, which at first caught the state flat-footed, but eventually the apartheid state hit back very hard. There was a lot of violence in the area where I worked, a lot of people disappeared into the regime’s jails, including some of my students and colleagues. So it was an extremely intense year, and it left me feeling impatient with the kind of literary, language-heavy, narrowly American fiction I had been writing. Basically, I came out of that experience interested only in political journalism.

I started freelancing—making a living as a writer, finally, when I was nearly thirty. I had to teach myself how to be a journalist, and it took me years to square my essential sympathy for the anti-apartheid struggle with my role as a reporter, but I eventually wrote the book you mention, Crossing the Line, about my time as a teacher in Cape Town, and then another South Africa book, Dateline Soweto, about a group of black reporters on a white liberal newspaper in Johannesburg. I’ve been a political reporter, very loosely defined, ever since. Actually, this memoir does not qualify as political reporting, even loosely, though it does include the story of my own political evolution.

Guernica: I wondered what happened to those novels—the novel seemed to drive you almost as much as the surfing, in your descriptions of that trip. Do you ever still write fiction?

William Finnegan: Those three novels ended up in a drawer. I have tried, just a bit, to write fiction in recent years. It’s so much harder than it looks—to conjure a fictional world that some passing wolf of skepticism can’t just blow down in one breath. In the years when I wrote novels, I got steadily more self-critical, less self-admiring, which really began to slow me down. Still, that was nothing compared with the self-critic whom I hired when I started writing for a living—writing nonfiction. He’s a truly tough bastard, with a much stronger bullshit detector. He has to be like that, though. Among other things, all the facts have to be right. In some ways, the years I spent writing fiction were helpful, I think, when I became a journalist, particularly for doing long-form narrative work. I was used to slogging, to wrestling with words for months on end, to stringing sentences together, just trying to make a story flow. In some ways, that was better training than a newsroom. In other ways, not.

Guernica: While Barbarian Days is a surfing memoir, it also provides a glimpse into the trajectory of your career as a reporter. You’ve reported on conflicts around the world, as well as on the poor and disempowered in the US and elsewhere. What draws you to your subjects?

William Finnegan: Outrage, sometimes. Mystery, often. There’s something unknown, possibly unknowable, but distinctly compelling about a place, a problem, a story, a group of people—those are the pieces I usually gravitate toward. Even wars, big conflicts that have drawn a lot of news coverage, sometimes seem to me to have a center that hasn’t been described, that might yet be glimpsed if approached from some odd angle. With heavily covered subjects, there’s usually a whole field of clichés and preconceptions that has to be crossed, or cleared, first. The lede may be simply recasting the subject in a new light—not necessarily confronting the worn-out stereotypes head on and criticizing them, but ignoring them—maybe treating, say, a super-oppressed group of people as powerful, funny individuals, not victims, and proceeding from there.

I was recently in a gold-mining boomtown in the Peruvian Andes called La Rinconada—a tough, high-altitude, terribly cold place known for its violence and lawlessness. I wanted to know why people went there, and how they stayed—if the money was really enough to make the hardship worthwhile. In a black-market gold dealer’s shop, I met a Quechua miner I liked, Josmell Ilasaca. I ended up following him around—into the mines, up to the glacier, into the processing mills, into cantinas where we talked for hours, and then down the mountain to his hometown, back in the oxygen-rich world. I had read all about this medieval labor system, known as cachorreo, which is, by reputation, a form of serfdom that massively exploits indigenous, illegal gold miners in Peru. But I had also heard that when the government has tried to abolish cachorreo, to formalize the mining sector and modernize labor practices, the miners have gone out on strike, protesting in their thousands. Tripping around with Josmell, I began to understand why. Cachorreo turns out to be highly flexible, with many variations, and with large allowances made for both individual luck and the ancient mountain gods, the traditional keepers of the gold. The miners refused to work without it. For me, La Rinconada, the whole scene, got both less and more mysterious.

Now I’m trying to find out what’s actually true, which is nearly always something, if not a world of things, that you can’t read in books.

Guernica: I like the idea of clearing “a whole field of clichés and perceptions.” In the memoir, too, you show yourself as often willing to question and revise your preconceived notions about places and people. Where does that impulse come from? What role does it play in your writing?

William Finnegan: It’s pretty basic to my approach. When I go out reporting, I’ve normally done some background research on my subject, but now I’m trying to find out what’s actually true, which is nearly always something, if not a world of things, that you can’t read in books, that you have to see and hear for yourself. The differences between the received wisdom, the standard version of events, and the facts on the ground may be subtle or they may be stark, even profound. I went to Mozambique during the civil war there believing that the war was one thing—a proxy war being waged by Pretoria—and resurfaced a couple of months later with a completely different understanding of the conflict. On some stories, that correction, or adjustment, or total overturning of a previous conception, is the story. The old version is very often the version that the reader already has in mind, however vaguely, and my work then becomes its narrative dismantling.

This is a habit of mind as much as it’s a journalistic method, which means that it also informs, I guess, some of the storytelling in Barbarian Days. I thought Australia would be bland, and instead I found it full of wry wisenheimers, and super-egalitarian, almost electrifyingly so. I had fantasies of preindustrial, prelapsarian Polynesian life, and then there was the mixed-up reality. Etcetera.

Guernica: How do you see your position in your subjects’ lives? How do you negotiate the power dynamic inherent in reporting on impoverished or oppressed people?

William Finnegan: It varies with the story, of course. It’s completely different, for instance, to report on poor farmers in Africa than it is to report on, say, poor African-Americans. The familiarity of my readers with the terrain, and their preconceptions, are quite different in those two cases, and their perspective, as I imagine it, has to be taken into account at every turn. The degree of my own implication in the lives and difficulties of people in these two disparate groups is also very different. And the attitudes of the people themselves toward this white, college-educated American sailing into their midst asking questions is likely to vary greatly as well. I need to conduct myself differently in different communities. In my experience, the journalistic conventions—you know, I’m the reporter, you’re the subject, the interviewee—actually tend to hold steady much more consistently in rural Africa than they do in the American inner city.

Speaking generally, I think it’s useful to acknowledge explicitly the power imbalance between a journalist and the protagonists in a story about poor people, even to make that imbalance part of the story—and to redress it, narratively, where you can. Basically, that means raising the question of who has the right to tell whose story how, and then trying to keep that question front and center. Don’t insist on your own analysis of a situation, particularly not if it contradicts an indigenous analysis. Hand over the microphone, as it were, let the subjects speak, uncontradicted. Point out the limitations of your own perspective. Question your own authority. Make yourself the foil, the comic butt, if that works. I know this approach sounds like a lot of hand-wringing, shit-eating liberalism, but humility really is called for in this arena of reporting. I even think it’s essential to any solid, improved understanding of the actual lives of the poor.

Guernica: You don’t usually focus on yourself and your own experiences in your nonfiction. What was it like to write a memoir, in comparison?

William Finnegan: It was strange. I often felt foolish, kind of embarrassingly self-involved, and had to take breaks and do magazine work. I had to curb my learned inclination to tell other people’s stories, force myself to concentrate on my own experience, some of which was quite uncomfortable to recall. But memoir is a weird genre for a reporter. You end up investigating your own memories, reporting out your past. And you’re not, of course, the only interested party. Nothing that happened in your private life was on the record, but now you’re giving yourself license to depict friends and loved ones in unguarded shared moments, most of them many years ago? That’s a big arrogation. Where do your loyalties lie? With the reader, with your desire to tell a good story, or with the people in your life, most of whom are still alive? There are many tough calls. Pull too many punches, downplay too many conflicts to spare people’s feelings, to respect their privacy, and you won’t have a story. The same issues come up in long-form narrative journalism, but the moral points are sharper in memoir.

You’re after something—not a story, but a certain, exquisitely intense encounter with beauty—and the only way to find it is to tiptoe past the dragon’s cave.

Guernica: That reminds me: you write that the New Yorker piece that led to this memoir, “Playing Doc’s Games,” wasn’t much liked by Mark Renneker, its subject. Were you afraid of that same kind of rejection from your surfing friends, who feature so largely in the memoir? How have they responded to the book?

William Finnegan: I haven’t got much response to the book yet from the main characters in it. Not all of them plan to read it, I’m told. Yes, I’m nervous.

Guernica: As someone completely unfamiliar with surfing, I was impressed and, to be honest, terrified by some of the close calls you’ve had. The series of massive waves in Madeira is a particular standout. But you’ve also taken obvious risks—some mentioned in the book—in your conflict reporting. How do you negotiate fear?

William Finnegan: I’ve felt afraid as a reporter many times. Sometimes it’s sharp, as in a bad moment, or a bad situation; other times it’s general, as in a country known for kidnapping, where you can never quite relax. Like every hack, or almost every hack, I try to avoid unnecessarily hairy situations. You often end up relying on the judgment of fixers, interpreters, bodyguards, and you just have to pray that you’ve hired the right people. In some places, I think it’s actually safer to hire no one. Just stay as low-pro as you can, ghosting from place to place on local transport, getting people to talk to you—assuming you speak the language.

I stopped war reporting after my daughter was born, in 2001. But recently I’ve started doing stories, like a series on Mexican organized crime, that are nearly as stupid, risk-wise. There are parallels, yes, to surfing bigger waves. You’re after something—not a story, but a certain, exquisitely intense encounter with beauty—and the only way to find it is to tiptoe past the dragon’s cave. Like most people, I hate the feeling of being scared. There are a few surfers who don’t seem to get scared, who don’t seem to have a normal fight-or-flight instinct—those are big-wave surfers, and they’re extremely rare. I’m not one of them, not even close. But every surfer has his or her upper limit—the biggest waves that they’re willing to paddle into. That limit isn’t necessarily clear or fixed. It may change with age, with experience, with new spiritual circumstances.

My own limit has moved around. It was severely tested, you’re right, in Madeira. Then I had a close call last year in Hawaii that I’m trying to take as a final warning to dial it down. I have a daughter. I’m getting old. I can’t hold my breath as long as I used to. But it was really never about the danger as such. It’s always been about the beauty.

G

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