Travel writer and photographer Justin Fox chats about his debut novel, Whoever Fears the Sea.
The sea is scary. What with all those waves, white water and wide-in-the-beam whales. Scarier still, I imagine, is having your first novel published. I chatted to Justin Fox shortly after the release of his debut fiction, Whoever Fears the Sea. It’s a wild tale of dangerous obsession set against the backdrop of East Africa’s rich maritime history. Well-researched and action-packed, Fox has clearly done his homework and, as no stranger to the world of storytelling, navigates his way around the virginal blunders that cling like barnacles to many first-time novels. It is also based on two assignments he did for Getaway magazine …
TJ: What was the initial inspiration behind Whoever Fears the Sea?
JF: I did a Getaway story in October 2001, one month after 9/11. I was sent to catch a dhow from Mombasa to Lamu. I flew to Mombasa, tried to get on a dhow and eventually managed to get a fisherman to sail me from Malindi to Lamu. I spent a week in Lamu doing research. That started the spark of the idea: being in an Islamic African environment just after 9/11, with the Americans about to do first strikes in the Middle East. Everything was very tense. Everyone was in mosque. And there I was, trying to integrate myself into those kinds of communities. It was absolutely fascinating, and initially scary: a white South African with dollars alone on a dhow with a bunch of Swahili Islamic fishermen sailing alone up the coast.
TJ: Did it ever escalate?
It was definitely nerve-wracking, at least in the beginning. But once we got going and I was in the groove, it was OK.
TJ: Did you already have an idea that it would become a novel then?
JF: I had initially planned it as a travel book, which I began writing that November (2001). I really wanted to capture that story in some way. I wrote it for a few years and then abandoned it. Then in October 2006 I was back for Getaway, chartering a dhow from Lamu, through the Lamu Archipelago and right up to the Somali border. We sailed in a big Swahili dhow, slept either on the beaches or on the dhow as we moved through the islands. I went back to the book and thought maybe I could use these two stories to write something about that stretch coast. I started to think more about switching it into fiction, primarily because piracy was becoming more prevalent then and it was something I really wanted to write about. It was something I didn’t want to approach from a non-fiction point of view. I wanted to get right into it.
TJ: Your views on piracy in the book are discordant with most views of piracy on Africa’s East Coast. The book, according to J.M. Coetzee contains a ‘revisionist message regarding modern-day Somali piracy.’
JF: Yes. Well it’s not actually a pirate book. It’s a celebration of maritime East Africa. It’s a book about dhows and about sailing and about the incredible flowering of the last 2 000 years of African sail. The fact that pirates come in is almost incidental. They’re a part of this great tradition that goes back 2 000 years.
TJ: I don’t think a lot of people know that …
JF: No. Just about all the literature I’ve read on the topic has been very anti-piracy. “Let’s kill the dark savages with their AK47s!” That sort of thing. I wanted to to turn that on its head. My story tries to give them some perspective and highlight the reasons behind what they were doing at the time. I mean, in 2001 pirates were, on balance, still the good guys. They were fighting against western fishing trawlers and trying to keep out western nuclear and medical waste dumpers. Foreign trawlers were completely fishing out that stretch of coast and chasing the Somalis out of the water, sometimes even ramming there boats. As a kind of defense mechanism, Somali sailors formed themselves into a kind of national coast guard because at the time there was no law and order. Today, those coast guards have turned out to be hardcore pirates but in the late 90s I think they were still in the right. That is why I’ve set this novel at point when I think that, on balance, they were still the good guys.
TJ: What’s next on the horizon for Justin Fox?
JF: Well, the next book will be a natural history book, again stemming from a Getaway magazine assignment I had done, in which I went in search of The Impossible 5.
Whoever Fears the Sea
South African scriptwriter Paul Waterson is in Kenya to research a documentary film. It’s October 2001, and his relationship has come to an unexpected end. Searching for solace in Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, he becomes obsessed with finding the last remaining mtepe dhow in Somalia, a magnificent, sewn vessel harking back to Africa’s rich maritime past. But getting someone to take him into Somali waters is proving near impossible. When he does manage to talk a dhow captain into the journey, he and the crew are oblivious to the dangers that lie in store.
Travel writer and photographer Justin Fox is the former editor of Getaway International magazine. He received his doctorate in English from Oxford University, after which he was a research fellow at the University of Cape Town, where he now teaches part time. His writing and photographs have been published worldwide and he has a dozen non-fiction books to his name. He lives and works in Cape Town.
Book launch details
Catch up with Justin Fox at one of these venues for the launch of Whoever Fears the Sea:
18 February – Book Lounge, Cape Town: 18:00
27 February – Kalk Bay Books, Kalk Bay: time tbc
4 March – Love Books, Melville: time tbc