Intertwined narratives tell of adventures in Africa

Reviewed by Jeff Fleischer, Foreword Reviews, 1/16/2015

Justin Chapman’s travel memoir Saturnalia tells two intertwined stories. One is the travelogue of a young American writer venturing alone through several southern African nations; the other is a memoir of a drug addict starting to relapse while abroad. The former is the stronger of the two plot lines, but both are told in conversational prose that generally works at conveying the ups and downs of the author’s untethered existence while in Africa.

Starting in Cape Town, Chapman journeys through other parts of South Africa before he visits Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Rwanda, and stays for an extended period in Uganda. He relates experiences that will be familiar to backpackers, from the way those sharing a hostel become important friends for just a few days to how something as minor as needing to buy camera batteries can become a complex ordeal. But he also memorably tells of dealing with corrupt police who demand bribes, interacting with annoying fellow expats, and surviving genuine danger in unfamiliar environs.

One notable anecdote involves the author covering a village’s traditional investigation into charges of using witchcraft, journalistically detailing the procedure while skeptically criticizing the superstitions behind it. Another describes having a train-trip discussion about depression interrupted by a spectacular view of giraffes feeding. Chapman sometimes comes off poorly in his own narrative, seeming snarky or even petulant, but this provides a different take on a travel-narrative protagonist, and hints at a self-destructive side that gradually dominates the book.

The drug-addict storyline is always present, as Chapman speaks frankly about the Africa trip being partly a way to quit heroin. He never goes long without popping Xanax or getting high with other travelers. Because relapse seems inevitable, this aspect of the book isn’t quite as compelling as the rest. Still, Chapman is aware of the travel experiences he passes up by allotting time and resources to the quest for a fix, which adds a layer of melancholy on top of the more obvious effects of his drug habit.

Overall, Saturnalia does a nice job capturing the angst of a young writer trying to experience a different life while struggling to avoid the pull of his old one. Whether emotionally affected by a Rwandan genocide memorial or physically impacted by a sudden car crash in Zimbabwe, Chapman comes away from his African journey with some interesting stories, and he shares them in an open and often engaging manner.
There was standing room only at the launch event at Vroman's Bookstore on January 13. Special thanks to everyone who came out to support this book. Vroman's staff had to ask the publisher to go out to his car and get more books, because the 40 they ordered weren't enough! Vroman's also said it was the largest turnout they've had in quite awhile, and told Justin he could come back any time.

Art Aids Art had a table at the event selling art from the township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa. Tom Harding spoke about that organization and how Justin came to visit them in Cape Town. Then Pasadena Weekly deputy editor Andre Coleman introduced Justin, who showed photos and told stories about his three-month trip through Africa, read a chapter from Saturnalia, and signed copies for those standing in a line that wrapped around the room.

Here are some photos of the event:



Justin will have a booth featuring his book Saturnalia at this year's Get Healthy Pasadena, an annual health conference hosted by Men Educating Men About Health (MEMAH) and Pasadena City College (PCC). Justin is the Secretary of MEMAH's board of directors. The event offers FREE health screenings for men and women over 18.

In addition to screenings for diabetes, prostate, BMI, hearing, vision, dental, blood pressure, cholesterol, and stroke, for the first time Get Healthy will feature three additional screenings:

  • SureTouch, a non-invasive, radiation-free breast screening (B. Smith L.Ac. - Pasadena Breast Wellness Center; Sponsored by Women Educating Women About Health)
  • Ultrasound for liver and kidney, with a liver specialist on hand to provide analysis and advice based on your ultrasound (Dr. Shafiei - West Coast Ultrasound Institute; Dr. Mena - Huntington Medical Research Institutes)
  • PULS test, which detects the #1 cause of heart attacks: unstable cardiac lesion ruptures (G. McLane - GD Biosciences; Dr. Jacobi - Healthy Living Medical)

In addition to the great local restaurants who have provided food at Get Healthy in previous years and will be returning - such as Whole Foods, The Corner Bakery, Buca di Beppo, Stonefire Grill, Heirloom, Bristol Farms, Robin’s Woodfire BBQ and more - this year’s Get Healthy food court will include local favorite Tender Greens and a cooking demo by California Pizza Kitchen. Lunch will be provided, courtesy of the Food Court, to participants who complete 5 or more screenings.

Get Healthy’s Speaker Series includes 3 seminars this year. A men’s only talk on Prostate & Sexuality will begin at 9 a.m. At 10, top medical doctors who are also on MEMAH’s board of directors (including Jerome Lisk, MD, Joshua Jacobi, MD, and Mauro Zappaterra, MD) and the Women’s Advisory Board (Beauty Swe, MD) will discuss Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, the heart, pain and “Improving a Healthy Attitude”. The final seminar on domestic violence begins at 11, with a panel including Pasadena Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez, Ahmad Elhan of the Allstate Foundation, Tara N. Thacker, MD, of Kaiser Permanente, Sandra Abarca, MS, of Planned Parenthood, and Linda Offray, Founder of Sheppard’s Door. The invited moderator for the domestic violence seminar is Beverly White of NBC.

For more information or to make a screening appointment, call (626) 389‐2759 or visit www.memah.org.

Photo by Mercedes Blackehart


Quest for self

Saturnalia author Justin Chapman recounts his adventures in Africa Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore

By Carl Kozlowski, Pasadena Weekly, 1/08/2015

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2009, Justin Chapman could have been like millions of other American millennials, with a lack of job prospects limiting his vision for his life. But Chapman stands out in a crowd, having been elected to the Altadena Town Council at age 19, as well as establishing himself as a top freelance writer for Pasadena Weekly long before he finished his education at the prestigious university.

Instead of taking a dead-end job or an internship, Chapman earned the money to follow his lifelong dream of traveling in Africa. The riveting blog that he created along the way of his three-month adventure in the summer of 2012 has now morphed into the travel memoir Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia, and he will be discussing and signing the tome Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.

“The idea was to do as much writing as possible, and the fact that it’s now turned into my first published book is the cherry on top of the cake,” says Chapman, 29. “It worked out beyond what I thought it could have. I had already done travel writing in Thailand, Europe and China and this was to see whether I could put my money where my mouth was and do a full book on travel writing.”

Chapman says he had wanted to visit Africa “since I was a little kid,” and had already been to 18 other countries before he embarked upon his journey to that continent, figuring that “it seemed the grandest adventure I could think of.” He teamed up with Art Aids Art, a charity organization he had previously profiled in the Weekly due to its work in helping impoverished African women find American markets for their art, and went along in 2012 on one of the group’s “jungle justice” trips to Cape Town, South Africa.

Aside from his connection with that charity, Chapman also received help from a priest his mother knew in Uganda, who agreed to shelter the young traveler when he passed through his area. Since the priest lived 3,000 miles from Cape Town and Chapman wanted to see that vast expanse of land up close, he rode buses and trains between the destinations.

“I had no idea what cities or even countries I was going to visit, or how I’d get there,” recalls Chapman. “I figured out my trip as I went, and after a couple of weeks in Cape Town, I decided to go to Johannesburg and stayed in a hostel before heading into Zimbabwe. I mapped it out as it happened.”

That fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach resulted in a series of memorable adventures, including a 30-hour “bus ride from hell,” a massive car crash without any available seatbelts, an encounter with a pygmy tribe that grew massive amounts of marijuana and opium, and a facedown with a bogus witch doctor. Chapman nonetheless said that he felt safer than he expected throughout his journeys, feeling welcomed by people despite his “American-ness and whiteness.” He fell in love with life there so much that he took the exam required for consideration of employment in the US Foreign Service in Africa.

“I really loved Africa, and when I was there I wanted to be a diplomat of some kind,” he explains. “I passed the first test, which only 3,000 of 20,000 applicants pass every year, but didn’t pass the second exam. I would have tried again if I hadn’t met Mercedes, my fiancée, soon after returning here.”

Indeed, out of all that Chapman learned in his travels, the most important was that he was ready to find love. His fiancée, Mercedes Blackehart, helped him design the book and by extension, “changed my life around, by being this rock for me.”

Now working as a project fellow, researcher and writer for the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, in addition to serving as the secretary for three boards of directors, Chapman clearly is not ready to slow down.”

He defends his right to occasionally embellish the tales within his book, through touches of “creative nonfiction” in the vein of James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” by noting acclaimed author Jerry Stahl’s contention that any form of memoir involves some nonfiction because events are filtered through the writer’s perceptions.

Chapman also takes pride in counting Stahl and his own favorite writer, Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame, as not only idols but also as friends. In fact, the back of his book sports a glowing endorsement from Welsh.

“I was 26 years old, a short white guy from California who set out by myself across Africa,” says Chapman. “I’m advocating adventure for adventure’s sake, getting out and seeing the world, a living-in-the-moment approach to life.”

Justin Chapman will discuss and sign Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromans.com.