Review of ‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ in Get It magazine

SNAPPING THE LINE BY NELIA VIVIER
With his debut novel Whoever Fears the Sea, former editor of Getaway International, travel writer and photographer Justin Fox of Mouille Point makes the leap to fiction-writing. He met Nelia Vivier at Winchester Mansions for coffee.

There’s utter confusion and incoherent yelling on deck on the Somali waters. Sails are riddled with holes, a skiff carrying armed men approaches at high speed while they are still shooting. There’s no way the crew can outrun them. With scenes like these, and a pumped-up blurb, Justin Fox’s first novel is a pirate book, right?

Actually it’s not. It’s the first fictional offering of a well-travelled man who, like his character Paul Waterson, has seawater running through his feverish veins. One who is obsessed with the seas and sailing and boats, and maritime life on the East African coast over the past 2 000 years.

Whoever fears the Seas, is about dhows, and almost mythical hand-sewn mtepe’s and yes, pirates as a small but crucial subplot. Should you read it, it will make you question everything printed about modern-day pirates in mainstream news.  Quoting JM Coetzee’s plug on the book cover, Justin’s story has a ‘serious revisionist message regarding modern-day Somali piracy’.

“The book has been a long time coming,” the author wades into the interview. “Starting off like all my other travel books, for 12 years it was a work in progress,” Justin who has made various trips along the coast of East Africa, recalls. “At times I would run out of steam. Then just after 9/11, I found myself on a dhow, sailing from Malindi to Lamu on a travel assignment.”

Imagine, if you can, being a white Westerner male in Islamic Africa against the zeitgeist of America preparing to strike the Middle East, for the very first time. “The trip became personal,” Justin recalls the birth of the novel. “Like those of my character Paul, my crew was Swahili Islamic fishermen.”

So where does Justin end and Paul begin? “It’s almost impossible for me to answer that,” is Justin’s honest take. Fiction writers being born from a variety of experiences, “The sea is the only place where I experience true freedom,” he says. “Being on a dhow, my senses at their most heightened while sailing on those old wooden boats on those waters is the perfect portrait of my life.”

So both he and Paul inhabit the same world. “I’m not as foolhardy as him,” the writer distances himself. “I would never put myself at such risk, venture into such dangerous territorial waters. During my travels, I watch my back all the time. In fiction, you need that extra conflict and drama.

“And, this is funny, but being a control freak, there are parts of me that are irritated all the time when I travel, only to produce comprehensive work at the end of it all. I think I’m grumpier than Paul, when I need to get to a destination and when things aren’t running on time (and trust me, they never do in Africa).”

Losing his writer’s grip on reality, to conceive a fictional character “was challenging,” Justin explains. “Even having all the building blocks like structure and plot down pat, being a creative writing teacher at UCT, I was starting all over. The toughest part was breaking away from my descriptive, at times reflective writing. Making the switch to narrative dialogue, immersing myself in an entirely imaginary experience, was daunting.”

Which he does brilliantly when he evokes good masquerading as evil, portraying the pirate leader Mohamed and also his brother Husni, who is not such a ‘good and innocent’ sailor after all. Equally, as in his travel writing, he pulls you into the surrounding land- and seascapes, and all the everyday noises, the smells, real life happening around the hotels, markets and harbours.

What plays most on his mind is what others will think of his literary offering.

It must the toughest thing ever, to make oneself so vulnerable when you’ve become respected and lauded for that very skill.

“It’s really a crazy time right now for me, with one launch after the other,” he professes. “All I want is to do is slip underneath the radar, hone my fiction craft.”

As to which he discipline prefers … as an academic with a doctorate in English, he always tells the story of how he ended up travel-writing. For over a decade, his wanderlust had led him on “weird and wonderful, if disruptive and chaotic travel adventures”. Now hooked by another lure, the surprising answer is that he’ll navigate both fiction and non-fiction, for now.

This book is going to leave a scar, a silvery fish skeleton whittled on his writer’s soul. As novelist he finds himself in a vulnerable place. Caught between “If a writer stops observing he is finished” and “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing”, a la Hemingway style, Justin wants to break the shackles. But he believes that “I may end up in middle ground, never quite achieving ‘it’.”

What remains consistent is that he is a plotter, not a pantster. Instead of spurting out lines, it’s a slow word-by-word process for him. A meticulous and in-depth researcher, he once spent months in the Wits library, the only thing that occupies his all-white study is tons of research and his creative mind.

“All writing being pure pain”. The only time he is completely free, apart from being a man with a camera and a notebook on a wooden sailing boat – is as a surfer and windsurfer, “It frees me up completely, focuses my mind like nothing else,” he exults.

One of the joys of writing is summoning up the unbidden. Sex is a gift to a good writer, and there’s more than a dark hint of it in Whoever Fears the Sea. Who knows what the future holds. For now, his next book is natural history, searching for the most impossible animals to find in South Africa (think aardvark and like).

In conclusion, Justin sits back, takes as sip of coffee, and smiles. “I would love my new novel to be a South African movie, shot off the coast of Mozambique,” he ponders, then lifts one brow in jest,” with Tom Cruise in the lead.”

“Let’s kill the dark savages with their AK47s!”

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 their boats. As a defence 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 hard-core pirates but in the late 90s I think they were still in the right. That is why I’ve set this novel at a point when I think that, on balance, they were still the good guys.  – Justin Fox in conversation with Tyson Jopson, getaway.co.za/book-reviews/whoever-fears-the-sea-justin-fox-umuzi/

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