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Justin Fox

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

PEN SA’s Q&A with Justin Fox

Justin Fox

This is part of a series of profiles on PEN SA members:

Justin Fox is a photographer, travel writer and novelist. He has written many works of non-fiction and published his first novel Whoever Fears the Sea last year, which was longlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Justin’s new book, The Impossible Five: One Man’s Search for South Africa’s Most Elusive Animals, will be out next month. He is on the board of PEN South Africa.

Favourite South African novel?

JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K.

What are you working on at the moment?

My next book, The Impossible Five, is due out soon with Tafelberg. I’m busy with the final proofs. It’s about my (humorous, madcap) attempt to find South Africa’s five most elusive mammals.

Favourite part of the writing and publishing process?

Seeing the wretched thing on a shelf in the bookshop, quietly minding its own business.

Any advice for writers starting out?

Make sure you have a decent-paying day job.

Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?

I have yet to find the easy part.

South African writers or books that have made an impact on you?

Stephen Watson, JM Coetzee, Breyten Breytenbach, Alan Paton, Lawrence Green, Eugene Marais, Olive Schreiner, Ivan Vladislavic, Damon Galgut.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m steeping myself in World War II naval literature with the vague idea of writing a maritime novel set in Simon’s Town during the war.

If you had to pick one book to give to all South Africans to read what would it be?

William Dicey, Borderline.

Any characters that have stuck with you?

The austere protagonist of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Lensman Raconteur

Karoo: Long Time Passing

By Obie Oberholzer


Review: Justin Fox

Oberholzer’s latest book is a lavish celebration of the Karoo which showcases photographs from five recent journeys. It’s a travel memoir about wanderings and wonderings and gives a highly personal take on this parched land.

The book opens with an evocative image, crafted in words rather than photos. Oberholzer invites the reader to place a hand on a map of the Karoo and run the fingers over its scarred body, feeling the smooth dunes, rough dolerite outcrops and bristles of the scrubland. It’s an image he brings to pictorial life in the ensuing pages.

The very first photograph draws together typical Oberholzer themes. A drunk man stands before a Loeriesfontein graveyard, his arms outstretched in a farcical crucifix pose. There’s the beauty of the flower-strewn landscape, the melancholy of the graves, humour in the man’s bathetic pose and the uneasy sadness of a lonely Karoo sunset. It’s vintage Obie.

Over the last 40 years, Oberholzer has undertaken countless African journeys and produced almost a dozen coffee-table books recording his adventures with passion and humour. His style is a kind of photographic plainspeak. What you see is what you get. Oberholzer has no time for the obfuscation of the art world. ‘My photos are just an extension of me, nothing more,’ he says. ‘I photograph what I love: they are the core of me and I don’t worry about the art.’

This may be so, but the weight of his learning, and decades of teaching photography, is evidenced in his skill. He claims that his photos are instinctual, that he listens to what his eyes say to his mind via the camera. But there is also deep observation here. Indeed, many of the set ups and perspectives speak of careful reflection and years of experimentation.

In Karoo, we have plenty of trademark Oberholzer scenes: rusting cars in the veld, bullet-holed signs, windmills and colourful characters. So too, his tried and tested methods, such as the slow-exposure, ‘torch painted’ image shot at dusk or after dark.

But there’s more landscape photography than usual in this book. Each chapter begins with a terrain sequence, devoid of people. Often it’s a series of overlapping hills or a long straight road. These become refrains, the essential elements to his odyssey, and he repeats them as a sort of visual mantra. ‘Maybe I’m getting older and don’t want to have to talk people into letting me take their pictures anymore,’ he says. ‘I’m finding great satisfaction in the landscape and still life.’

Indeed, there’s far more emphasis on texture and abstraction – his ‘still lifes’. Details of fruit packing cases, the shadows of lanterns or a close-up of lines on 82-year-old Katrina Mentoor’s face, lit and rendered as though a Karoo landscape. There’s poignancy and beauty in these pared-down works.

As always with Oberholzer, we get plenty of humour, either in the image itself or the captioned anecdote. In Willowmore, Kosie Swarts’ donkey cart is the Willow Limo; at Eensaam siding, Oberholzer ties his wife to the railway tracks because ‘she talks too much’. However he doesn’t shy away from the Karoo’s poverty and destitution either. We see the bleakness of RDP township living and the effects of chronic unemployment.

One of the book’s most powerful images is of a dirty Karoo boy in scruffy clothes standing on a highway barrier pretending to fly, a dark cloud arcing over his head. It’s humorous, poignant and sad in the same instant.

This brings up the old question of the moral responsibility of the photographer. Is taking a picture of someone’s hardship exploitative? In Oberholzer, the dilemma is mediated by a joyful interaction with his subjects. They appear to relish the engagement, the mutual act of telling their story. There’s a strangely empowering agency here, brought about by Oberholzer’s implicit empathy. It’s as though all three participants – subject, photographer and viewer – are charmed by the act. Exploitation? Of course, but a happy one, it seems.

Oberholzer has enjoyed the transition from film to digital. He often seeks the same effects he did with film, such as heightened colour and the stylised illumination of dark subjects. Where in the past he’d use flash and hunting spotlights, he now employs Photoshop to lighten shadows in a way that was impossible with film. Indeed, the blending of his old techniques with modern technology is for the most part successful.

At times, the viewer might feel there is too much manipulation of hue, especially where some elements of a scene are bled of colour and others cranked. This can feel gimmicky. In terms of subject matter, where Oberholzer presents ‘pure’ landscapes he is on well-trodden territory and does not bring much to the genre. It’s when he introduces his humour and quirkiness, his empathy with the sitter, that his work is at its most assured … when it’s unmistakeably Obie.

Richard Dawkins: An Appetite for Wonder

The Making of a Scientist

An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Reviewer: Justin Fox

As a young graduate student at Oxford, I lit upon the idea of writing my doctoral thesis on literature about islands. I wanted to examine how the theory of evolution had changed the way novelists wrote about islands. My supervisor, a lovable Yeats scholar of intemperate habits, suggested I steep myself first in Darwin and then ‘the chap over the wall at New College’.
Richard Dawkins was disparagingly referred to by many at Oxford as a ‘media don’, courting the limelight and appearing perhaps a little too often on the BBC. Not to be deterred, I started with The Selfish Gene and worked my way through his oeuvre. His work perfectly explained the mechanisms of Neo-Darwinism and confirmed my own atheism. During four years at Oxford, Dawkins provided perhaps the most influential material I read, but I never met the man.
So it was with no small degree of anticipation that I opened An Appetite for Wonder. At last I would meet him, albeit only in the candid flesh of autobiography.
The memoir concentrates on the first half of his life and doesn’t deal with the later fame and controversy (get ready for part two). He focuses on his ancestry, early life in Africa, intellectual awakenings at Oxford, and his journey to writing The Selfish Gene.
One of the most entertaining, and indeed original, aspects of this memoir is the way Dawkins interprets aspects of his past in scientific or ideological terms. It provides for some illuminating and amusing digressions. Talk of his ancestors leads him to analysing exactly what proportion of his genes comes from which forebear. When expounding on his circumcision, he laments the fact that preventing the practice today gets vetoed by religious sentimentality. What about the child’s rights, he argues. ‘Religion enjoys astonishing privileges in our societies, privileges denied to almost any other special interest group one can think of.’
His childhood reading is viewed in ecological terms: Doctor Dolittle books are redeemed of their racism by their more prominent anti-speciesism. When recounting the loss his virginity, he takes a moment to tell us why the nervous system has made sexual congress such a heightened experience. His wit is dry as a bone; the book could have done with more of it.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the memoir, especially for African readers, is his colonial childhood. Dawkins was born in Kenya in 1941 and spent his early years in Malawi. He paints a charming picture of an African childhood, rich with anecdotes and the peculiarities of a colonial existence. There are holidays on the Lake of Stars, endless tea parties, wild animals as pets and the like. The voice is one of nostalgia and the result is some of his most evocative prose.
The second half of the book follows Dawkins back to England and the cold environment of boarding school. Bullying and peer pressure were so widespread, so ‘tribal’, he thinks it must have some explanation in evolutionary psychological terms. However there was one inspirational teacher who put the young scientist on the road to Oxford.
In some respects, An Appetite for Wonder is a praise song for Oxford. Arriving there in 1959, Dawkins began studying zoology and was introduced to the tutorial system. It’s to this unique educational method that he credits his intellectual awakening, as it invites students to become scholars by encouraging them to pose rigorous questions and trawl libraries for the latest research.
A stellar student career led him to a post at New College, where he remains a fellow to this day. The book presents detailed descriptions of his early Popperian experiments in animal behaviour, such as an analysis of the pecking patterns of new-born chick. Perhaps too detailed. There’s only so much beak pecking, fly grooming and cricket song a lay reader can comfortably handle.
His career at Oxford took an unexpected turn when, in 1973, a general strike caused lengthy electricity cuts, and he was forced to pause his research. Provoked by the widespread misunderstanding of natural selection, he began writing The Selfish Gene, in which he set out to popularise an idea whose time he sensed had come.
Unlike most scientists, Dawkins is a fine wordsmith with a gift for analogy and quirky expression. However, this memoir does leave one a little short on satisfaction. He is strong an ancestry and childhood, but the later chapters are burdened with the detailed mechanics of his science and do not give us enough of the man.
In personal matters, he is candid about his youth but more circumspect about his adult life. There is no disclosure of indiscretions here. Dawkins writes in detail about the men who guided him, but glosses over one key collaborator, Marian Stamp, who was also his first wife. ‘It isn’t that kind of autobiography,’ he coyly asserts.
Well, fair enough, perhaps, but is surely not beyond his formidable literary talent to balance discretion with something of their personal and professional relationship, even if things went awry?
In fact, Dawkins is nice about almost everyone in this memoir. Let’s hope there’s less pulling of punches in part two.

Read My Mampoer Short, Unspotted: One Man’s Insane Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard

UnspottedMy new ebook short has just been released at Unspotted: One Man’s Insane Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard.

It’s just $2.99 and is not piracy-protected. Definitely worth the click!

Quinton Martins is a patient man, if only when it comes to the Cape mountain leopard. In the harsh mountains of the Cederberg, he spends months in icy cold conditions tracking them, often with as little to go on as faint spoor or partially decomposed scat. Justin Fox spends time in the Cederberg with this half-man, half-leopard, conservationist, to learn more about the madness that keeps Quinton in the mountains day in and day out.

ISBN: 9780992190262
Buy now at Mampoer

Somebody That I Used to Know* by JM Coetzee

Ghost written by Justin Fox

Now and then I think of when I used to live in Cape Town. Before moving to Adelaide. Before the Nobel Prize. I told myself Cape Town was right for me. But felt so lonely in its company. Intellectually lonely. But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember. The fynbos, riding my bicycle along the peninsula’s roads, the beauty of the place.

You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. I definitely have. It’s what gives my writing a certain kind of poignancy. Like resignation to the end, always the end. Like Michael K. So when I found that I could no longer make sense of being in South Africa, being a South African, well, I had to go. I felt I could still be – how should I say? – ‘friends’ with the place. However, I’ll admit that I was glad that it was over.

But now it’s as though South African critics have cut me off. Made out like it never happened and that I was never a part of them. And I don’t even need their love. (Australia has been good to me, brought me out of my shell a bit.) They treat me like a stranger and that feels so … rough. Coovadia and Poplak didn’t have to stoop so low. Or even the traitorous Rian Malan. I didn’t need that. I felt naked, without even a lick of body paint to cover my privates. Now they’re just some critics that I used to know.

Now and then I think of all the times they screwed me over, but had me believing it was always something that I’d written. Or said in some convocation speech. Whatever the case, I don’t want to live that way, reading into every word they write. Which is what I do anyway. I am, after all, a man of letters. I moved to Australia to let it go. You won’t catch me hung up on critics, controversy mongers or members of the UCT English Department that I used to know.

They’re just nobodies that I used to know.
Nobodies that I used to know.

* Original by Gotye, another Australian writer