Sugar Girls & Seamen: A book
"Finally," you say, "a blog about dockside prostitution!"
Yes friend, the day has arrived. And here's why:
A few years ago, I interviewed an older coloured woman from District Six who used to "entertain" passing seamen in Cape Town. Her parents ran a "suikerhuisie" (Afrikaans sugar house, ie. brothel) and she and her sisters specialized in providing sexual recreation to West Indian and Black American sailors. That was in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then the apartheid government chucked them out of their homes along with all of the other coloureds, Africans, and Indians. She and her family were removed to the Cape Flats townships, far from the downtown docklands. Her parents gave up the business and she and her sisters went to work at clothing factories.
But today, she is a member of a powerful political party, a stalwart of its Women's League. I asked her: How did you go from being an "entertainer" in the old days to becoming an activist in liberation politics?
She said that the seamen opened her mind to the world beyond South Africa. In their sweaty post-coital embrace, the West Indian and Black American seafarers told her about the Civil Rights Movement, about Black Pride, about dignity and equality for all. In the smokey lounge, they spun smuggled James Brown records on the turntables and spoke of the racial struggles in the Americas. And they told her that, as a black woman, she was beautiful.
When I started researching my dissertation on port culture, I never imagined that dockside prostitutes might become politically conscientized by their work. But it makes perfect sense: their lives are characterized by intimate dealings with a ceaseless stream of seamen who share their cultures, ideas, languages, politics, styles, goods, currencies, and diseases. Dockside prostitutes are, in a way, the ultimate cosmopolitans. The world comes to them.
Over the past two years, I have been exploring dockside social relations. Besides sailing for two months on two cargo ships from Los Angeles to Cape Town and hanging out with all sorts of maritime personnel, much of my time has been spent considering the cultural dimensions of dockside prostitution. I've interviewed many ex-sugar girls, but have also spent countless evenings at the Cape Town & Durban nightclubs, chatting with the ladies, sailors, club owners, cabbies, cops, street urchins, and so on. Though all of these efforts were for my dissertation, I was recently asked to slide even deeper into this slippery world. I didn't say no.
A month ago I was approached by Jacana Press, a leading South African publisher (motto: We Publish What We Like), to write a popular book about the social dynamics of dockside solicitation & sex. Last week, I signed the contract. (They're stuck with me now!) Sugar Girls & Seamen is due for publication next year.
Though I am still busy fleshing out my dissertation—a mammoth task in itself—I could not pass up this chance to speak to a popular readership about my journey into this hidden world. The lives of the women, sailors, club owners, and cabbies are fascinating; my own experiences with them have been memorable, to say the least. Mind if I share them?
Despite the obvious appeal of such a topic—touching as it does on sex, culture, race, money, and bodily fluids—there is little literature available about it for the general public. Perhaps scholars assume the dockside world was scuttled after the Age of Sail or at the end of the passenger liner era. I'm looking forward to showing that, even if the romance of sail has passed, the sailors' romance has not. For a fistful of dollars, they can have all the romance they like!
I created this blog so that I can chart the progress of researching and writing the book and to critically reflect upon the process of literary creation. The blog will offer a glimpse not only into the dockside sex scene—and all of the characters in it—but will also reflect on the research and writing processes. Each week, I will add a new post that explores some aspect of the dockside world and my movements within it.
Just as entertainment documentaries show "the making of" different movies, this blog will offer a real-time exploration of my research and writing of Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey Into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa. It will not duplicate the content of the book, but will offer brief snapshots of the dockside collage.
Strap yourself in for a wild ride!