Beverley Birch has written a moving piece about her latest book, Song Beneath the Tides, and its evocative setting in Africa. Utterly fascinating, this is one to read!
I’m often asked why I’ve written several novels set in Africa. Song Beneath the Tides is my third: the first, Keeper of the Gate, was published 30 years ago! So, indeed, why? And where did the story of Song Beneath the Tides come from?
It’s about a sudden and powerful friendship between Ally, on her first visit to Africa, and Leli from a fishing village nearbye. I imagine them meeting, forming an instant, overwhelming bond, both attuned to whispers and echoes from the past, and both beginning to realise it’s not just about the past and legend, but an insistent warning cry for the present, demanding them to understand, to see, and to act …
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Africa, and I’ve realised that the effect of that extraordinary continent is hard-wired into my perceptions and my senses: the intensity of light, colour and climate, sounds and scents, vast skies and overwhelming landscapes and wildlife, my personal relationships with people and the obsessive reading of African writers from all over the continent during my teen and student years, and since. The voices of those novels, naturally giving power, personality and significance to place, and to belonging, resonate always in my mind, part of the fabric of my own memory and imagination.
It infuses all my writing, not just the books set in Africa – but my Italian set novel, and even the highlands of Scotland. For me place is always another character, sentient, alive, a creature of moods and emotions, affecting and communicating with the human characters.
Song Beneath the Tides has really been brewing in my head since I was 12. That was when I first wandered with friends from a beach camp into a forest, stumbling on the Swahili ruins of Gede in Kenya. Instantly, the mood of the forest stilled our boisterous chattering, the restless agitation of the high canopy, the flickering light through leaves and creepers, the cacophony of the birds, animal shapes slithering through broken arches, and the sudden, inexplicable silences in places: I remember so clearly thinking the place was holding its breath for us to leave!
It took deep root: of course I went back many times (you can too, Gede nestles in the glorious and unique Arabuko Sokoke forest in Kenya). I also went to other such ruins, started finding out about them and their history – including a turbulent and violent period when the first European explorers reached that coast, the Portuguese, in 1498. It combined with the modern day realities of those kinds of areas – that thoughtless tourism too often submerges communities, unspoiled beaches and reefs covered by massive building projects designed for the rich traveller, ignoring the rights of people whose territory is seized and livelihoods threatened. It can destroy exactly what the traveller purports to come to see.
The Portuguese historical story was also that: an extraordinary feat of navigation and bravery by early pioneers, but also ventures of greed, to seize land and resources, regardless of theft, destruction, and murder involved.
I wanted readers to ‘see’ through the eyes of people buffeted by this and fighting the attack on their way of life, and so the threads of the story told by Ally and Leli (and a third narrator from the past) began to form a weave – about place and belonging, about the past echoing into the present, the present mirroring the past, my ideas fed by memory and by a fascinating research journey that for me is half the fun of writing!
Creative writing competition:
Thinking about place and its significance for me as writer has also prompted me to want to get youngsters writing about places – of their imagination or that are important to them. So I’m partnering the wonderful Ipswich Children’s Book Group to launch a creative writing competition this autumn, for young people in Suffolk Schools. Book Tokens for school libraries and books for the winning youngsters are among the prizes. So watch out for more news …
Song Beneath the Tides is now available in paperback from book retailers.