To celebrate the paperback publication of Song Beneath the Tides (Guppy Books, July 2021) I had the absolute honour of chatting to author Beverley Birch about growing up in Africa, Swahili legends, writing tips and tiger lullabies!
Your recent YA novel, Song Beneath the Tides (Guppy Books, 2021), is an absolutely extraordinary book which I truly loved. Set on the shores of Africa, Song Beneath the Tides is a combination of mystery, thriller, and romance. When and how did this idea first come about?
Really, it’s been with me since I was 12. That’s when I first experienced the ancient Swahili ruins of Gede in Kenya. We were camped on a beach nearby, and rambled into a forest, a whole bunch of kids together, messing about, chattering. Then we stumbled on the ruins, and instantly were all spooked. The forest round it felt restless, agitated – flickering light through the tree canopy, rustling winds, a cacophony of bird and monkey cries, animal snufflings and shadow shapes sliding through broken walls and arches. A sudden silence, as if the place held its breath, waiting. Then tentative sounds starting up; a moment later that abrupt, blanketing silence again. So strange! I glimpsed the great strangler fig tree with aerial roots twisting to make a door through its centre, a stab of sunlight beyond, lighting a path. I remember thinking, ‘it’s a gate to another world’.
The place stuck in my head, and of course I went back (you can too, it nestles in the glorious and unique Arabuko Sokoke forest). I went to other such ruins, found out as much as I could about them. Years later, the image of the door through the tree prompted my first novel The Keeper of the Gate: my characters time-travel back centuries to a fictional Gede called Kingwana.
Fort Jesus in Mombasa was another teen experience. Hitch-hiking with a friend, we curled up between the cannons below the fort’s outer walls through a nervous night, eyeing the looming walls above. I knew of the fort’s turbulent and violent history! These two influences twisted about in my mind: I toyed with writing a sequel to The Keeper of the Gate. Instead other writing and other novels happened. Then, more recently, Song Beneath the Tides started shaping in my head, catapulting me on a sustained trip back down that memory lane and a long research journey.
You spent a large part of your childhood in East Africa, what was it like living and growing up there?
The first 18 years of my life were in Africa: we lived in a rural area 12 miles from Nairobi, beginning during the transition years from British colony to independent state. Everything was in flux, changing, not least attitudes in the former English colonial communities. But often not fast enough, in fact often they weren’t changing at all. Even as a young child I didn’t feel at home in that community, ill at ease with opinions I heard around me, though too young to make sense of that. You can imagine the tension between the demands of the new independent state and resistance to that from the old colonial communities. (I was able to martial it clearly in my head only when I came to university in England, and developed distance and political judgement.)
As a youngster I didn’t come across many other kids or families that I connected with very easily. So I escaped, running a bit wild with my younger sister. My parents got hold of two wild ponies, tamed enough to accept us on their backs and not throw us too often (though I still broke my arm twice). It gave us enormous freedom: we explored plains, forests, villages within range of our home, talking to anyone who’d talk to us. With hindsight and perspective, of course I see that some of this was outlandishly intrusive on the local African communities – but I remember only amused indulgence, courtesy, curiosity towards us. Not a single instance of hostility or anger at these two white kids on horseback poking about being nosy.
How much of an influence did this experience and your memories of Africa have in writing Song Beneath the Tides?
They’re at the heart of it: in Europe we tend only to hear about the countries of Africa when terrible things happen: genocide, famine, political violence. My life there gave me a fierce desire to reflect the kind of people and place I knew, growing up. The modern characters all spring from my direct experience, all my encounters are ingredients in the brew of this story. So is my later dawn of political understanding. I wanted to explore that awakening – and at an emotional level – in a young person, through a relationship, beginning to ‘see’ it through someone else’s life.
But also the place is hard-wired into all my senses: that intense quality of light, the sounds and scents and variety, vibrant colours, those vast, overwhelming landscapes and wildlife. It infuses all my writing, not just the books set in Africa. I tend to approach place as a character, live and sentient, communicating with the human characters. Also, novels from Africa that I began reading then and continue to read, from different authors across the continent, different countries, different traditions, different landscapes, different histories, resonate in my mind as I write, part of my fabric of memory and imagination.
Despite your experience of growing up in Kenya, you set Song Beneath the Tides in a fictitious part of Africa, what was the decision behind this?
I wanted to achieve verisimilitude and authenticity, but everything in the service of my invented story. I didn’t want to be bedevilled by accuracy in terms of real events or real forts or real politics of a particular country. Or by the necessity to bring in actual other peoples -there’s a tremendously varied population in a place like Kenya with different traditions and different ethnic languages even though they also share Swahili and English as official languages. By opting for a fictitious country I removed all of that because it isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is this cultural encounter between these two children and a past and present link between an ancient legend and a small coastal village community today. Also I wanted to pick from real history, real locations but mix it at will to suit my story. So my research plucked inspiration from historical background the length and breadth of the eastern seaboard, not just Kenya’s coast.
The sacred island Kisiri has great significance in Song Beneath the Tides and acts as the root between past and present. Is there any history or legend that inspired the creation of Kisiri?
Overall, the book is fed by the real history of the Swahili stone ruins that litter East Africa’s coast and what happened when the first European ships (the Portuguese) arrived there just over 500 years ago. So both the legend of Bwana Fumo and Mwana Zawati and the mysterious ‘third voice’ diary which threads through Ally and Leli’s modern tale spring from a 200-year period when the Portuguese tried to grab control of the rich trading routes to the east. In 1498 an expedition under the command of Vasco da Gama first reached that coast (so 6 years after Columbus reached the Americas). They expected to find primitive, isolated communities. Instead, to their astonishment, there were prosperous Swahili city-states ruled by Kings or Sultans with a lucrative centuries-old trade across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Arabia and India. The Portuguese ‘explorers’ wanted that trade in gold, ambergris, ivory and slaves. They set about subjugating the Swahili cities, with a dual purpose: seize the trade, and turn these Islamic communities to Christianity.
It’s a horrific tale: massacre, pillage, outright destruction of people and place. Of course it was usual then for conqueror to loot the conquered, but even contemporary Portuguese chroniclers condemned the savagery as shocking even by the violent standards of those centuries. The coastal people tried to survive by juggling both fierce resistance and treaties. They tried alliances between each other against the Portuguese, and with the Arabs of Oman, who had their own grievances and sailed down the east coast to help challenge the Portuguese invaders. Disillusioned Portuguese sailors and soldiers deserted the marauding ships and fled into the African settlements to join efforts to resist their own countrymen. Over the period, most of the Swahili towns went under, and after 200 years the Portuguese left behind not much more than destruction and some forts.
Official records and reports from Portuguese commanders and chroniclers survive in museums and libraries in Portugal, East Africa and London, also letters, some from the Swahili kings to the king of Portugal, diaries, eye-witness accounts. Excavations in Swahili ruins like Gede and others add to the picture. Their palaces and courts, mosques, houses, wells, cisterns and conduits show how developed they were (more so than contemporary Europe). It was a rich mix to feed my legend and the mysterious diary in Song Beneath the Tides!
I knew of the legendary Swahili hero, warrior and poet, Fumo Liyongo: it gave me the idea for my legendary characters Bwana Fumo and his friend, Mwana Zawati, though my legend is entirely made up: if anything, it draws on incidents in the historical documents.
Kisiri is based on a number of real islands on the eastern seaboard, including those around Lamu, Kenya; some with ancient Swahili ruins, some now privately owned, some with hotels on them.
The echoes of the past and the present are reinforced through your two narrators. Did you always intend for Song Beneath the Tides to have these two distinct voices?
I didn’t start out to narrate from several points of view. I was focused on the awakening of Ally on her first visit to Africa, In fact I don’t think I ever actively make a decision about multiple narrators. I always start out thinking I’ll keep it simple, just write one person’s story. But the other narrators just appear and demand their own place! For example, I saw Leli originally from Ally’s point of view. But I began to hear his thoughts and voice, more and more insistently, demanding status as a full narrator.
The mysterious historical voice was actually the very first one I heard. I was in a forest (outside Paris, a long way from Africa!) and I was thinking about Ally and then the other voice saying, ‘I have been to their deaths’ popped into my head. Up to that point I’d been planning Ally hearing about the history from somebody. So then I thought, well, maybe she could find a diary with that ‘voice’. And then I thought, ‘no, he’s going to be there from page 1’. And it just took off from there.
Focusing on your present narrative, Kisiri is an island that’s threatened by modern development, tourism, and corruption. What do you hope readers take away from Song Beneath the Tides?
I’d like them to be in Ally and Leli’s head, to see the predicament of Leli’s community (and other communities like it) from his point of view. A growth of awareness, of empathy.
I want young people to be eager to find out about new countries and absorb the richness of culture and place. But I also want them to see that thoughtless travel, selfish travel, can bring with it unforeseen consequences including complete destruction of the way of life of the people you visit. The Portuguese historical story was that: we may recognise the extraordinary feats of navigation and bravery in those early pioneer explorations. But it shouldn’t mask that those ventures were fuelled by greed and the desire to seize land and its resources for their own benefit, regardless of theft, destruction, and murder involved.
One aspect of the modern version of this plunder is that peaceful, purposeful communities, unspoiled beaches and reefs are overrun by massive hotel building projects designed for the traveller. It happens all over the world: a short internet search finds plenty of examples of land-grabbing by business interests, court cases brought by people fighting to protect sacred sites from seizure for tourism, mining or other business interest. Always, of course, ignoring the rights of people whose territory is seized and livelihoods threatened. I’d like readers to ‘see’ through the eyes of people buffeted by this and fighting the attack on their way of life.
Did you face any particular challenges during your writing process? And how was it having a book published during lockdown?
The story had been with me for so long, I knew where I wanted to go. There was the usual challenge that any writer faces in any story, of achieving on paper what you have in your head. Some particular challenges in juggling my multiple narrators, and in weaving the history and modern story together, keeping the pace of both going, not allowing either one to intrude or undermine readers’ interest in the other. It’s a complex weave, but the end goal is to make it an uncomplicated read. Big challenge!
Lockdown publication – very strange: the book was launched right at the beginning. Normally publication would be followed by meeting and talking to readers, particularly going in to schools. All authors with new books coming out had a frantic rush to move what would have been live dialogue online. There was a very supportive response from the book community to all of us in that boat, so online launches were enthusiastically ‘attended’. But inevitably getting the book into the hands of readers was difficult, and there was none of the browsing take-up through bookshops that you’d normally get. But compared to the horror and disaster of the virus and what many people were going through across the world, I didn’t feel it was something I could legitimately get too wound up about!
As well as being a writer, you’ve also been a publisher and editor, what advice/tips can you give to aspiring writers?
Trust your subconscious. Give it time and space. It’s easy to be so seduced by ‘how to write’ tips and technical advice on planning and plotting, being clear about your idea, that you treat this most precious of ingredients as an intruder making your head untidy when you’ve organised your game-plan neatly.
But writing is about playing and exploring. Our uniqueness, our individual reservoir of memory, experience and perception hides in our subconscious, rising to the surface in dreams, reactions, emotions, and even stray thoughts, ideas, images floating to mind often when we’re doing something mundane. Treasure it! It’s the spark that propels you forward with something unique, that’s YOU, possibly offering a nugget, or the key to unlock your plotting puzzle. So, let the subconscious intrude whenever it wants!
Your novels have been set all over the world, including Scotland and Italy. As a writer, does travelling have a big impact on your writing?
Yes, ‘place and its people’ have figured large in my previous novels too – Rift, Sea Hawk Sea Moon, The Keeper of the Gate, The Night of the Fire Lilies. The lens I peer through is the outsider learning to see, hear, smell, feel a place differently from their first perception: peeling back the layers. I suppose it’s partly because I write for youngsters not yet able to take off and investigate – I want to let them try on other lives, other thoughts and emotions, have a look through other’s eyes – it’s after all what any fiction is about, but I think it’s a conscious purpose in my stories, fuelled by my own journeys into new places.
What’s next for your writing journey?
I’m landing much closer to home. I don’t want to say too much at this point, it’s still brewing. I will say that I vowed to myself that I’d write something much simpler in structure, but I can already feel the multiple voices clustering … I’m preparing to do battle with them and beat them back!
What’s the last ‘armchair travel’ book you read?
Nikki Marmery’s On Wilder Seas, a fascinating narrative imagining the life of a real enslaved black woman on Francis Drake’s Golden Hind on his circumnavigation voyage in 1579.
Let’s talk books! What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you’re loving reading now, and a book you can’t wait to read?
As a child, My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara– my childhood freedom was based on my pony! Now – can I have two, very different? Wrecked by Louisa Reid and Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay. Eagerly about to read Cane Warriors by Alex Wheatle. I’d read every new book by these last 3 writers.
If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – who would you invite and why?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: I started reading his books in my teens and he transformed my understanding of the country I lived in. Mary Leakey: pioneer in palaeontology and behind some of the ground-breaking finds about our human origins in Africa. Louis Braille: aged thirteen in the early 1800s, inventing braille, an international alphabet read by touch – transforming the lives of people with impaired sight. Mary Shelley: her myriad preoccupations with science and philosophy infuse Frankenstein, written when she was only a teenager – fascinating! Finally, Shakespeare – I’ve had to think about him a lot, first when I wrote my retellings, and now there’s a link with my next novel. I’m awestruck that a single intellect can write so much that sustains relevance for us over 400 years later.
Finally, we’d love to know three random and/or interesting facts about yourself!
1. As a child, in bed, I regularly fell asleep listening to a leopard circling the house, breathing under my window. It came close every night when the lights went out. Bizarrely, I found the sound comforting, like the patter of rain on the roof!
2. I once spent a night (with a friend) in a tiny tent on a river bank in the middle of a herd of elephants milling about. I didn’t know! I didn’t wake once, and only discovered when we crawled out in the morning and toppled into a large muddy hole. Then we realised there were lots more holes, and why – a hundred yards along the bank the bank the herd was still there, ignoring us, still making holes as their huge feet sank into the mud.
3. I have a tiny old tower on top of my flat now: windows on all sides, and just enough room for some chairs. To north and east you look over a wooded valley, to south and west over the city to the masts of boats on the river and the bulk of container ships in the docks. It’s a magical place to sit and dream up stories and journeys!
Beverley Birch spent her childhood roaming vast plains and deep forests near her home in East Africa, dreaming of becoming an intrepid explorer in fantastic, far-away places. Instead she became a writer, and explores people and places through her books. Her novels range over time-travel, mystery-thrillers, ghost stories, and adventures and are set in Italy, Scotland and East Africa. She also writes picture books, biographies, narrative non-fiction, retellings of folk tales and classic works, and collaborations with her husband, photographer Nick Birch. Critically acclaimed, and translated into more than a dozen languages, she has been nominated for the Carnegie medal, and shortlisted for awards here and abroad.
Song Beneath the Tides is published by Guppy Books, April 2020.