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Ian Urbina longlist author interview

21 October 2019

Ian Urbina hopes his longlisted book The Outlaw Ocean will encourage people, governments and companies to address the shocking abuse of both people and nature on the lawless high seas.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

It is an honor and a surprise. I had no idea how this book would be received by the public. I feared that the content might be too dark, so it is deeply affirming that the highest order of readers are connecting in a personal way with the reporting and writing.

What inspired you to write this book?

Before joining The New York Times, I worked as a cultural anthropologist on a ship in Singapore and was fascinated by what to me seemed like a diaspora and transient tribe of relatively invisible workers, namely, seafarers and fishers. These workers had their own lingo, etiquette, superstitions, social hierarchy, codes of discipline, and, based on the stories they told me, a catalogue of crimes and tradition of impunity. In their world, lore held as much sway as law. So for years, working as a journalist, I wanted to return to this place and these people to chronicle their stories.

How did you research? 

I spent about five years reporting, mostly offshore, hoping to offer first-hand testimony of the lives and work of these people, and the heroism and depravity of what is happening out on the high seas.

What were some of the most shocking discoveries you uncovered during your years reporting on the high seas?

It is difficult to reduce this answer to a list. I might panoramically try to answer by saying that it was certainly shocking to find that human slavery is still real and relatively pervasive (a man named Lang Long was shackled by the neck). It was shocking to have revealed a mass murder that was caught on camera, and to see that witnesses/culprits took selfies in front of the carnage. It was just as shocking to have investigated that case for a year, only to be met with indifference from a half dozen governments. On the broadest level, it is shocking that there is a place on this planet that happens to cover 2/3 of the Earth’s surface that is so devoid of real governance or law enforcement.

Why is it important that people learn about these lawless corners of the world?

It is important that people are aware because 90 percent of what we consume comes by way of ship, and more than 50 million people work in this space. The seas produce 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. For these and many other reasons, we are all both dependent on the oceans, and complicit in the abuse of this environment and the people who work there. By understanding this reality better, the hope is that people, governments, and companies will be inclined to begin fixing it.

What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?

Forgive me the cliché in this answer, but I’m going to have to say The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian for its ability to tap into ambiguous truths, skill at channelling authentic voices, and bravery in passing judgement when it was merited. (Yes, I know this book is commonly classified as fiction but I disagree.)

What are you working on next? 

After 17 years on staff at The New York Times, I have decided to step back from the newspaper and for the next five years, continue reporting on the kinds of stories that are in this book. There is a dire lack of journalism coming from and about this topic and this space, and I think it is important to keep reporting on the oceans.