Jamie Brisick
Becoming Westerly

“How do I look?”

“You look great.”

The exchange serves as a kind of refrain, a call-and-response between subject and biographer. “Ah, Jamie,” comes the invariable rejoinder, “say it like you mean it.”

US-based Jamie Brisick interviewed Westerly Windina for a magazine profile of the former Peter Drouyn in 2009, after the Australian surfing legend revealed her new, female identity. Westerly emerged full force following a concussion in 2002. (Only in retrospect, it seems, has conflicted gender identity come to account for Peter’s lifelong restlessness. She speaks of Peter in the third person, wistfully, as she might of a brother who’s died.) Captivated, Brisick began a documentary about her transformation.

It’s clear Brisick bears Westerly a real affection, which is just as well. In other hands, this could have been the biography of a monster. Westerly emerges every bit as volatile and narcissistic as her former self, Peter, seems to have been.

Brisick interviews Peter’s old friends and rivals from a career that spanned the longboard era of the ’60s through to the scrubbed-up industry of the ’80s and beyond. All attest to Peter’s surfing virtuosity, as well as manic high spirits, capacity for self-sabotage and vengefulness, and insatiable thirst for attention.

Mostly though, Brisick lets Westerly speak for herself. Her tendency to rant, boast or wheedle would pall pretty quickly were it not for Brisick’s documentarian’s eye: he knows when to cut away, but also when to let a scene run long enough to discomfit. He accompanies Westerly to Thailand for her gender-reassignment surgery, on shopping-mall trips with her son, and to her triumphant appearance at Surfing Australia’s 50th anniversary in 2013. All the while, he parries her incessant demands regarding the documentary’s “showcase finale”, words that become Fawlty-esque in their comic dread. Westerly envisages a climax of her performing a cabaret show before a glittering Hollywood audience.

Brisick, a former pro-surfer himself, is a fine, insightful writer. Observing Westerly’s command of a wave, he writes that “she emanates ocean knowledge, a sixth sense of right place/right time … She makes me realise just how feminine good surfing is. When the rider utilises the wave’s sweet spots, it is not an act of grunts and clenched muscle, it’s light and yielding and fluid.”  FL

Allen & Unwin, 344pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Jamie Brisick, Becoming Westerly ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL