A few days ago we announced the publication in Spain of the book “Barbarian Days“, written by journalist and surfer William Finnegan, and awarded with the Pulitzer Prize 2016. At Surgere Magazine we had the pleasure to read the book a few weeks before its publication and share with you our impressions.
We have no doubt that the book will impress you as much as it did to us, and that’s why we have a surprise for you. We have recently been able to chat with William and not only that, but we have a copy of “Barbarian Days” signed by him and dedicated exclusively to the friends of Surgere Magazine. Stay tuned because we will soon tell you how you can get it! Now, we leave you with the talk we had with him.
Only when we see him approach, we can see that we are dealing with a person with an innate captivating capacity. With a serene look and broad smile, William can not deny his American background. At his 63 year old and underneath the suit, one imagines him easily wrapped in a neoprene and with a board under his arm.
As a journalist, you have covered wars, political conflicts, disasters, etc. worldwide. How can you keep your head in place after living these things? Is it possible to return home after covering a war being the same person?
Covering civil wars, political and economic desperation, and humanitarian emergencies in the developing world requires, from a rich-world journalist, a careful balance of detachment and empathy. It’s different for every reporter, but getting that balance right can make all the difference—between good work and mediocre work, and in the struggle to maintain one’s psychic and emotional health. You have to see the people you’re writing about as people, and try to understand how things feel and look to them. At the same time, you have to try to avoid becoming so distressed by their situation, by their suffering, that your story goes out of focus, your responsibility to your readers to produce an accurate narrative neglected. I usually take reporting trips, then come home to write—so I am not a news reporter; I don’t normally need to file stories from the field. Nor am I a foreign correspondent, in the sense that I live in New York. But coming home can be very disorienting. I just finished a story about the crisis in Venezuela. It’s not an armed conflict, but there is widespread hunger in Venezuela now, a critical shortage of medications and medical supplies, and a terrifying level of violent crime. After coming home, I found it difficult to walk on my own block at night—I was hyperalert, always peering into shadows and looking behind me. I kept admonishing family and friends to be more careful in public—when there was absolutely nothing to be concerned about. It seemed to me incredible, unfair, that the supermarkets were so full of food and there were always good hospitals and medical specialists available if needed. Of course, that kind of disorientation passes in a few weeks, but regularly traveling between worlds defined by trouble, violence, and poverty on the one hand, and the peaceful, prosperous West on the other, does produce, in the long run, at least in my case, a deep appreciation of, first, the comforts we tend to take for granted, and, second, the ultimate fragility of democratic political institutions and social bonds. We in the West are very fortunate, but our continued good fortune is not guaranteed.
In those times, did the thought of surfing help, as an evasion?
Yes, it’s a strange comfort and nice distraction to think about surfing when the world seems like a dark and dire place.
Because of your profession, did you at some point have to ask yourself to stop surfing to develop your career?
I never actually stopped surfing. I sometimes went a few months without surfing, while living in places far from the ocean, but never an entire year. And it was never a direct conflict between surfing and career for me. Moving to New York from San Francisco was, however, a definite choice of career over surfing, and I was worried for a while that I would not be able to surf as much as I wanted. But I took many surf trips from New York and then I discovered that there are good waves near New York City, especially in the autumn and the winter. So I began to surf locally, and now surf year-round in New Jersey and on Long Island. I also still take as many trips as possible to Hawaii, Mexico, Indonesia, and other places with great waves.
As a surfer, you have faced death more than once. As a conflict reporter too. Do you think they are comparable situations?
There can be a similar anxiety, particularly in anticipation—the night before, when you know that the waves are going to be big, or you know that the next day’s work may be dangerous, and it’s difficult to sleep, or even relax. But the situations are completely different. In surfing bigger waves (I say “bigger” because I do NOT surf the biggest waves—those are for specialists only), you can rely on a lifetime of ocean experience and your abilities (surfing, paddling, swimming, breath-holding) to remain relatively safe, to take only carefully calculated risks. In conflict reporting, you often have much less control. People act unpredictably, situations suddenly escalate, shelling and gunfire and other violence can be quite random—the element of luck can be much greater. That said, there are precautions you can take, choices you can make, that will reduce the risk of injury or capture. Also, it must be noted that print reporters like me are not required to take risks on the level that photographers are—not at all. We can hide under the bed in our hotel room and still possibly find some story to tell. Photographers must follow the infamous dictum, “Get closer.” I actually stopped doing war reporting after my daughter was born, in 2001. I still write about political violence, and I still work in some places with poor security—I’ve written a series of articles in recent years about organized crime in Mexico, for example, sometimes reporting from cartel-controlled areas. But that’s very different from battlefield reporting-which was never, in any case, my main occupation. I am interested in politics, power, justice, and human rights, not military strategy.
In the book we discovered two searches, one for the perfect wave, and one for the meaning of existence. After spending most of your life looking for both, do you think that they really exist, or is it something subjective, something different for each of us, something that we are always chasing, but perhaps is within us?
The second half of your question is well-put. That is indeed what I think, concerning what you call the “meaning of existence.” As for the perfect wave—it is an idea, not a reality. There are great waves, magnificent waves, which we travel the globe to find and ride, but they are not fixed objects of contemplation in nature, like a diamond or a rose. They are quick, violent events, collisions of ocean energy and land, and each one is different. Perfection is a word that surfers use, but it is a very clumsy, ill-fitting concept when applied to something as wild, evanescent, and unique as a wave. Also, of course, one surfer’s “perfect” wave is another surfer’s nightmare—too difficult and dangerous to ride, perhaps, or just not suited to the next surfer’s style and abilities.
What does it mean for you, after 5 books, in addition to a whole journalistic career, receiving the Pulitzer with “Barbarian Days”?
It’s ironic, I suppose, because the Pulitzers are strongly associated with journalism, and this is my least journalistic book. But they give the prize to novels and plays as well, so why not one for a memoir? I feel deeply honored. I only wish my parents were still alive. They would be even more thrilled than I am.
“Barbarian Days” has been proclaimed as the best book of surf history. Do you agree?
It’s not a book of surf history. It’s personal history, with my surfing obsession as a narrative thread. The best book of surf history is “The History of Surfing,” by Matt Warshaw. I also recommend, for obsessives, Warshaw’s “Encyclopedia of Surfing.” It’s both a book and an online encyclopedia—the online version has video, and is constantly expanding. I don’t know if either book is available in Spanish.
Would you recommend the book to anyone who is not related to surfing?
My book is written for the general reader, not for surfers. I don’t include a glossary, but every technical surfing term is explained, for non-surfing readers, at the point when the term is introduced. Many readers have told me, “This is not a book about surfing,” which I very much like to hear. They say, “It’s a book about men,” or “It’s about friendship,” or “It’s about love,” or, “It’s about how to live.” I even had an interviewer in Barcelona recently tell me, “It’s a book about a bad boyfriend. He slowly gains some self-awareness.” Surfing scenes do not comprise most of the book—not even close. It’s a memoir, about youth and age, love and heartbreak, male friendship, literature and politics, a singular obsession and its glories and consequences, my generation’s life and times, and some of the crazy places I’ve lived and worked.
Which values do you think surfing provides? How far have they been valuable / important to you?
1) Self-reliance—nobody can help you in the water. You are on your own. 2) Humility—you are compelled to respect the ocean’s power and beauty. 3) Irresponsiblity and selfishness—there is nothing more socially useless, pointless, and unproductive than surfing, and yet, once you are addicted, you will spend many years and incredible amounts of energy chasing waves, purely for your own gratification.
In “Barbarian Days” you talk about the meaning of surfing in Hawaii, where it is a cultural thing, and involves respect for the sport and the surfers. Have you found the same kind of thing in other parts of the world?
No. Not to the same extent as in Hawaii. In some places, it is considered an anti-social activity. The police or local authorities may be hostile to surfers. In other places, it’s an accepted, approved “sport” or pastime. In Australia, surfing champions are celebrities, like other top athletes. In the U.S., most people know nothing about it. They can’t even name the 11-time world champion, Kelly Slater, who is American. Hawaii is special because it is the birthplace of surfing, and is strongly associated with indigenous culture—even with indigenous resistance to the Calvinist business values first brought to the islands by American missionaries in the 1820’s. Those missionaries explicity tried to eliminate surfing in Hawaii, and they almost succeeded. Diseases brought by the colonists and conquerors to the islands nearly exterminated the Hawaiians. In slightly more than a century, they reduced the native population by 95 per cent. So surfing was the least of the Hawaiians’ problems. But they continued to surf, and today surfing is a source of great passion and pride in Hawaii. People there also enjoy some of the world’s best (and biggest) waves.
And now a series of brief questions to summarize:
If you could go back in time, would you stop doing something as you have explained you have done in the water and now consider unnecessary and / or reckless?
I have some regrets, of course, but the answer is, No.
Best surfer with whom you have had the pleasure to surf?
Shane Dorian, in Fiji.
Which wave, from all of the ones in the book, would you choose to surf forever?
Lagundri Bay, Pulau Nias, Indonesia. Or Honolua Bay, Maui, Hawaii. Or Rincon, California. Or Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. The problem is, all of these spots are famous, and therefore very crowded now. My fantasy would be to surf them alone, or with only a few people, which will never happen.
What time in the water do you remember with special feeling?
Tavarua Island, Fiji, 1978. One of the world’s greatest waves, breaking off an uninhabited island, not yet known to the surfing world. Two of us camped on the island, supplied by local fishermen, and surfed the wave in all conditions.
If you had to choose a beach, which would it be?
I have no favourite beaches. I actually hardly notice beaches. I usually just hurry across them, looking for waves.
A place to live?
I’m pretty happy in New York. It’s not Hawaii, but it has waves, and lots of interesting people, and so many things going on. I think it’s a good place to raise our daughter.
Thanks so much for your time.
For Helga Molinero / Twitter: @HelgaMolinero