Bruce Dennill
3 minute read
26 Mar 2014
5:00 am

The tyranny of possibility

Bruce Dennill

Paul Waterson, the protagonist in travel writer and author Justin Fox's first novel, Whoever Fears The Sea, is, like Fox, an excellent researcher, a big fan of Africa's East Coast, and a South African.

Justin Fox

How autobiographical is the character, given that Waterson’s undesirable traits – he can be shallow and selfish, for a start – can be explained away as fiction?

“I started off writing a travel book,” says Fox.

“The bare bones of this project was a travel framework, but the novel ended up taking 12 years to write. Paul and I are very similar. We both love the sea and travelling in general, and we’re both writers. But I went into fantasy in order to make the story exciting by adding guns and sex.

“Paul is more adventurous than I am. I’m quite a nervous traveller. I’m always watching my back. He’s laid-back, where I want everything to run on time.”

Fox had to do a great deal of research for a book about a man doing a great deal of research for a documentary. Are there two stories in one here?

“Parts of the story are very close to truth,” he says.

“In 1996, I was asked by a film company to research a documentary called Winds Of Change. We were going to sail a dhow from Arabia to Mozambique.

“I spent three months in the Wits library, and ended up with a big box full of notes. The fiction part of Whoever Fears The Sea was much more difficult. In that situation, there is the tyranny of possibility: Paul can do anything, and for a meticulous writer like me, that’s terrifying.”

Waterson, whatever his faults, tries to see both sides of the story when it comes to the anti-American feeling in Kenya (the story is set shortly after 9/11) as well as the annoying behaviour exhibited by his fellow tourists. Does that constitute a challenge to readers to consider a similar perspective?

“Yes,” confirms Fox.

“The challenge was first and foremost to me to be open-minded; I often find myself not being particularly good in that regard. I found going into Muslim Africa around the time of the September 11 bombings very nerve-wracking. I worried about it until I started to immerse myself in the culture there – getting to know people; going into mosques; having things explained to me.

“I found there to be a very gentle, benign aspect to Islam in those instances. It was all about peace and forgiveness – the opposite of the sort of Christianity many of the colonial powers had introduced.

“Paul has some experience of the piracy for which East Africa is becoming infamous. Setting the story at the time I did was important. Until then, the pirates had, in some ways, the moral high ground. After that, on balance, with the War on Terror and all that, the Americans could be seen as the bad guys.”

Waterson is singled out in Kenya and Somalia because of his skin colour and stereotypes about what South Africans are like and what they believe. That’s a racist concept. Waterson is angry about it, but responds by gravitating towards fellow (white) foreigners.

“It’s reality,” shrugs Fox.

“White South African travellers in Africa naturally gravitate towards tourists. Paul sees a strong distinction between himself and Americans, but the Africans he’s working among don’t. It’s an attitude that’s been around for 500 years – since Vasco de Gama stepped ashore.”