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.