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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

When the Pirates were the Good Guys: The Spark for Justin Fox’s Whoever Fears the Sea

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.


Justin Fox is a notable South African travel writer and photographer who specializes in going to strange and interesting places. It seems the same holds true of his fiction. In this week’s The Spark, he sets off on a Swahili dhow for pirate-infested waters.

justin fox

The Spark: Whoever Fears The Sea by Justin Fox

One month after 9/11, in October 2001, I was sent to Kenya to research a travel story for Getaway magazine. My assignment would involve catching a sailing dhow to Lamu. I flew to Mombasa, tried to find a willing captain and eventually managed to get a fisherman to sail me from Malindi to Lamu. That journey sparked the idea of writing something more substantial about being in an Islamic African context just after 9/11, with the USA about to do first strikes in the Middle East.

I initially planned to produce a travel book, which I began writing that November (2001). I worked on it for a few years and eventually abandoned the project. Then in October 2006 I was back on the east coast, chartering a dhow from Lamu, through the Lamu Archipelago and right up to the Somali border. We sailed a big Swahili dhow, slept on the beaches or on the vessel, and threaded our way through the islands.

After that amazingly evocative trip, I revisited the book and thought maybe I could use both journeys and recast them in fiction, primary because piracy was becoming prevalent and it was something I really wanted to include. For that, I needed to move out of non-fiction and into an imaginative space.

But Whoever Fears the Sea is not actually a pirate book. It’s rather a celebration of maritime East Africa. It’s about dhows and the incredible flowering of African sail over the last 1000 or so years. Today’s pirates are merely a part of this great tradition.

Most contemporary literature takes a Western angle on Somali piracy. I wanted to turn that on its head. My story tries to give some perspective on current piracy and highlight the reasons behind it. In 2001 the pirates were probably, on balance, still the good guys. They were fighting against international fishing fleets 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. As a kind of defence mechanism, local sailors formed themselves into a ‘coast guard’.

Today, those coast guards have turned into hard-core pirates, but in the late ’90s I think they were still in the right. I set the novel at the tipping point with my hero, Paul Waterson, sailing headlong into the confusing, dangerous, contested space of northern Kenya in 2001.

Find out more about Justin Fox at

Follow him on Twitter: @JustinFoxAfrica

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