The Youth Libraries Group are pleased to welcome author and editor Beverley Birch to discuss her new novel Song Beneath the Tides and the influences suffused through the story.
The first whisper of Song Beneath the Tides entered my head in childhood. I was wandering among broken walls and arches of the ancient Swahili ruins of Gede. Cradled in the primeval Arabuko Sokoke forest on Kenya's coast, there was a restless play of light and sea winds through trees, bird and monkey cries, animal snufflings in the undergrowth – and then sudden, peculiar silences, as if everything held its breath for some imminent event. It frightened my 12-year-old self, and it thrilled me. What was the place waiting for? Why was the city abandoned, twice? What happened here?
There was a great strangler fig tree, with aerial roots forming a huge doorway through its centre, shafts of sunlight gold beyond, as if showing a path. 'A gateway to another world!' I thought. At night there were drums echoing across the bay: telling what story? Celebrating what? I carried those memories into my first novel, The Keeper of the Gate, whisking my characters back in time to a thriving fictional Gede, which I called Kingwana.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Africa, split between a rural area 12 miles from Nairobi and months running wild along the coast. It affects everything I write, not just the books actually set in Africa (3 novels, a picture book, retellings). I always feel Place as a character, tapping all my senses, communicating with the human characters. The continent has such a profound effect on the senses, and its stories, from different authors, different countries, different traditions, different landscapes, different histories, nevertheless seem always to reflect the way people naturally give power, personality, significance, to Place.
Over my teenage years, I began to put fact and detail around my feelings. I found out about the life and death of the Swahili stone ruins that litter East Africa's coast and what happened to them when the first European ships reached there just over 500 years ago. This joined with other experiences, with encounters and friendships, with other discoveries, with the narratives of African writers from across the continent that I started to read then, fascinated by their distinctive voices - what a bottomless treasure trove!
Song Beneath the Tides is a love story, ghost story, and thriller. Ally is an English girl on her first visit to my fictional country on the eastern coast of Africa. She encounters Leli, from a fishing village nearby. Instantly he sweeps Ally into the world of his village and their sacred offshore island, Kisiri - protected, forbidden, revered, a place of legend. Their friendship, instant and overwhelming, is at the heart of the story, all the more intense because they are both having uncanny, inexplicable experiences: Ally - presences, voices she can't quite hear, Leli - dreams, haunted by legend, urgent warning calls.
There's a third voice telling another story winding through and round Ally and Leli's tale, the connection between them all only gradually revealed. This, and the legendary backdrop, spring from the 200-year pursuit of trade and control of the area by those first Europeans on that coast, the Portuguese, arriving under the command of Vasco da Gama, in 1498. They expected to find primitive, isolated communities. Instead they found prosperous Swahili states in stone cities, with Kings or Sultans, trading across the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Arabia and India, as they had for centuries. The Portuguese 'explorers' wanted that lucrative trade in gold, ambergris, ivory and slaves. They set about subjugating the Swahili cities.
There followed massacre and pillage: reading the chroniclers is horrifying. Even contemporary Portuguese writers condemned the savagery, shocking even by the violent standards of those centuries. The coastal people struggled to survive by juggling fierce opposition, attempts at treaties, shifting alliances between each other and the Arabs of Oman, who had their own quarrel with the Portuguese invaders and sailed down the east coast to challenge them.
It's all in official reports, records and letters, diaries, eye-witness accounts, found in museums and university libraries, in Portugal, East Africa and London. Add the archaeological excavations in Swahili ruins like Gede (but there are many), with their palaces and courts, mosques, houses, wells, cisterns and conduits which show how developed they were, and Portuguese forts in East Africa, like Fort Jesus, and it's a bottomless mine for inspiration.
Why explore it - apart from personal obsession? Because the other central inspiration for the story is what's happening to the world's wildlife, people and the planet because we aren't facing up to the consequences of our actions. In the microcosm of my story, it's what uncontrolled tourism does to people and places, for here I saw a parallel, in the present, with the historical onslaught under those first Portuguese ships.
Peaceful, purposeful communities, beautiful beaches, reefs, mangroves and forests are buried under massive hotel building projects for tourists. I saw it, in my teen years; I didn't have to look far to find present examples to bolster my memories. There are court cases to stop sacred sites being seized for mining, tourism or other business interest. It's happening all over the world: land-grabbing by business interests, often in alliance with corrupt politicians or organised crime, riding brutally over the lives of the people whose territory is seized. And I feel fierce about so many visitors, eager to visit new places, indifferent to the consequences.
And so in Song Beneath the Tides I imagine the turbulent past rising to an urgent echo in the present, the present mirroring that past. I imagine two youngsters attuned to the tides washing round them, Leli from a community buffeted by these winds of change, in the past, and now, and Ally from England, beginning to see for the first time, to feel, to understand – and both hearing that insistent warning cry ...