Review of ‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ in Rapport newspaper

Resensent: Johann Lodewyk Marais

Die oplewing van reisliteratuur is ’n opvallende verskynsel die afgelope jare in Suid-Afrikaanse literatuur. Hiertoe het die Suid-Afrikaanse reisskrywer, prosaïs en fotograaf Justin Fox ’n groot bydrae gelewer.

Soos heelparty ander skrywers dra hy daartoe by om die leser aan fasette van die lewe in Afrika bekend te stel.

Daar was groot verwagtinge oor die verskyning van Fox se eerste roman, Whoever Fears the Sea.

Op die voorblad verskyn ’n aanprysing van die Suid-Afrikaanse Nobelpryswenner J.M. Coezee waarin hy klem lê op die romantiese en avontuurlike in die werk, asook die ernstige herbesinning oor hedendaagse Somaliese seerowery. Die roman beloof as’t ware ’n kombinasie van populêre fiksie en perspektiewe op maatskaplik-politieke kwessies langs die ooskus van Afrika.

Die storie handel oor die Suid-Afrikaanse teksskrywer Paul Waterson, met ’n belangstelling in geskiedenis, wat opdrag kry om navorsing vir ’n National Geographic-fliek oor Kenia te gaan doen.

Waterson se verhouding het kort voor sy vertrek in Oktober 2001 op die rotse geloop. In die naweë van die 9/11-aanval in Amerika bevind hy hom ná avontuurlike reise per bus en op ’n dau (Arabiese skip) in Mombasa, Malindi en die Lamu-argipel waar die oorlog teen terreur veral die Moslem-gemeenskap in beroering het.

Met sy vermoë om hom van jongs af na ander tye en plekke te verplaas, is Waterson ’n gevoelige waarnemer van die plekke en tydsgewrig waarin hy hom bevind, en word ruim en gemaklik gebruik gemaak van onder meer inligting wat ook uit reistekste sou kon kom of daarin sou kon tuishoort.

Waterson se kennis van die ryk maritieme geskiedenis van die Swahili-kus laat hom tewens ’n bykans obsessiewe belangstelling in die mtepe-dau langs die Somaliese kus ontwikkel. Op die spoor van hierdie legendariese vaartuig word Waterson se besoek aan Somalië, met sy politieke onrus, ’n groot uitdaging.

Wanneer Waterson eindelik geleentheid kry om al varend met Somaliese seerowers kennis maak, kry hy beter begrip vir die redes vir hul optrede wat uit kolonialisme en die stroping van hul hulpbronne deur buitelanders sou spruit. Hierdie perspektief word breedweg binne die konteks van die redes vir die 9/11-aanval geplaas en Waterson tree as ’n spreekbuis vir hierdie sentimente op.

Whoever Fears the Sea kan op verskillende maniere gelees word. Vir lesers op soek na ontspanningsliteratuur is dit ’n meesleurende roman met, ja, baie avontuur en seks. Vir die lesers wat belangstel in Oos-Afrika bied die roman egter veel meer. Met sy kennis van talle fasette van die bestaan langs die Keniaanse kus, slaag Fox daarin om die leser ’n goeie beeld van onlangse kwessies en woelinge daar te gee. In die lig van die voortslepende krisis in Somalië, seerowery en die uitkringende uitwerking van die probleme op veral Kenia, word die lees van die roman ’n verrykende ervaring.

Dr. Johann Lodewyk Marais is ’n skrywer en letterkundige.

Podcast: ‘Whoever Fears the Sea’

A podcast interview with Justin Fox by Michele Magwood:

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

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,

Avert your eyes in the sex scenes: ‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ review by Vivien Horler


Review of ‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ in the Atlantic Sun


Review of ‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ in the Weekend Argus


‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ review by Brian Joss in the Atlantic Sun


‘Whoever Fears the Sea’ review by Sophy Kohler in the Sunday Times

A friend recently revealed to me that she has stopped reading fiction – that, as she sees it, life is too short for novels. At the time I met her confession with silence. What I should have said is that the best fiction teaches us about the world, it shows us how to be in the world, and it offers us different ways of understanding the world. Justin Fox’s first novel is a fine example of the possibilities of fiction.

In Whoever Fears the Sea, Paul Waterson travels to Kenya to develop a script for a documentary about the Swahili coast, provisionally titled People of the Monsoon. The ending of his relationship with his New York girlfriend, has left him reeling and, thus, a perfect victim for the sea’s sirenic lure. His initial plan is to explore the Lamu Archipelago – a group of islands off the coast of northern Kenya – where dhows are still used as the main form of transport. But as he travels through Nairobi, Mombasa, Malindi, and on to Lamu, Waterson becomes consumed with finding what is rumoured to be the last remaining mtepe dhow – a craft stitched together with thread, rather than built with nails – an obsession that takes him closer and closer to Somali waters.

Fox has set the book shortly after the September 11 attacks and, in doing so, he considers the historical conflict between Islam and Christianity, between East and West, and the longstanding effects of colonialism on Africa’s coastline. Setting this scene of tension is crucial for the denouement, in which we are offered an alternative reading of modern-day Somali piracy, predicated upon East Africa’s rich maritime history – a tradition of sailing that dates back over 2000 years.

This may be his debut novel, but Fox is a master travel writer: he is the former editor of Getaway magazine and the author of close to a dozen non-fiction titles. Whoever Fears the Sea comes, therefore, out of his many years of travelling and documenting. His fiction, like his non-fiction, is lucid, graceful, and stowed with facts. More concretely, his novel developed out of two trips Fox took to Lamu for Getaway, in 2001 and 2006. If the dialogue seems precise, then, it is because it is likely that many of the conversations in the book took place; if the encounters seem real, it is because they probably happened.

Bobbing up between passages of historical and geographical detail are levity and humour. When Waterson encounters Dalila Kariuki, a nineteen-year-old Kikuyu from Nairobi, Fox writes: “He was caught between a neo-colonial rock and a hard-on.”

Whoever Fears the Sea may be, as JM Coetzee says in his cover shout, “full of sex and action”, but it is what Coetzee calls the book’s “revisionist message” that really makes us pay attention. In a variation on the terrorist-or-freedom fighter paradox, Fox offers us a different way of understanding modern-day Somali piracy, built upon its beginnings as a means of defence against over-fishing by western trawlers and the illegal dumping of toxic waste. He allows us to see, however briefly, pirates as guardians of the coast and not as desperate criminals.

Fox is one of South Africa’s finest writers of non-fiction outside of the dreary, pervasive realm of political writing. If he continues to write novels, one suspects he’ll soon be lapping at the sides of the international fiction scene.

Whoever Fears the Sea: interview

Tyson Jopson of Getaway magazine interviews Justin Fox about his new novel.

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 publishing, 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 Africa’s “Impossible Five”.

Review of Justin’s latest e-book

Book review of Unspotted (Mampoer Publishers, 2013)

Book review

  • Buy Whoever Fears the Sea

    Buy Whoever Fears the Sea by Justin Fox
  • Buy The Marginal Safari on Kalahari

    Buy The Marginal Safari
  • Buy Under The Sway on Kalahari

    Buy Under The Sway by Justin Fox
  • Buy Cape Town Calling on Kalahari

    Buy Cape Town Calling edited by Justin Fox