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.
She travels widely, and says, "Wherever I go, I'm fascinated by the way people and events of the past seem to me to leave a gleam, or a shadow, or a resonating murmur of sound in a place. In a way, that's where all my stories begin."
SONG BENEATH THE TIDES
SONG BENEATH THE TIDES is a layered coming-of-age story that brings English teenager, Ally, to Africa where she connects with Leli and an ancient story and traditions that have echoes for them both in the present.
As Ally and Leli become closer, the dangers to the culturally sensitive island of Kisiri - and the teenagers' connection with it - become apparent.
The novel, for readers aged 12+, brings in themes of colonialism and modern tourism, as well as respect for the environment, and local customs.
We asked author BEVERLEY BIRCH, who grew up in Kenya, tells us more about SONG BENEATH THE TIDES:
Q: What is Song Beneath the Tides is about, and why did you choose this title?
A: It's a love story, a ghost story, a mystery-thriller. It's Ally and Leli's story. Ally is wide-eyed with wonderment, on her first ever trip to Africa with her brothers. They're visiting an aunt who's been posted to work in a hospital on the East African coast (though in my story this is a fictitious country).
Leli is from the village just along the coast, enthusiastically sweeping Ally into his life, the life of his community, and their precious off-shore island. The bond between them is swift, and overwhelming, particularly as strange happenings envelop them both. And there's a third, mysterious voice, telling a parallel story that winds round and through theirs: its connection with their story is only revealed at the end of the book!
The title arose (from a conversation with one of my daughters) from the idea of the life of the island and all those who had ever been there rising as echoes through sea and earth - and there's a more detailed connection, which I will leave readers to discover for themselves!
Q: Why did you decide on this particular setting, on the East Coast of Africa? What draws you to writing about Africa?
A: The ideas and themes of Song Beneath The Tides have been brewing in my head for quite a while - almost since my teen years in Kenya. I grew up in Kenya, and spent a lot of time on the coast - a Swallows and Amazons kind of existence wandering about vast white sandy beaches, mangrove creeks and coral reefs and swimming in warm seas.
But I also explored ruins of ancient Swahili cities - one in particular, called Gede (sometimes spelled Gedi), dating from late thirteenth century or early fourteenth century, and abandoned in the middle of fifteenth century. I have strong memories of strange silences and moods of the place - and it provoked such curiosity in me. What happened here? Why was it abandoned? I started reading about it, and the related history of the arrival of the first European ships on that coast... The ideas just kept surfacing.
And Africa has affected me profoundly as a writer, in the fact that in all my fiction I feel place as a character, interacting with other characters: the continent, in all its diversity across its length and breadth, is enormously powerful in its effect on the senses, and in memory it still invades all mine - I see, feel, hear, smell, even taste it as I write. This is my third novel set in Africa!
Q: Is the island of Kisiri, which features so strongly in the story, based on a real island?
A: It's inspired by many islands of the coast of East Africa, including those around Lamu, in Kenya. Some have ancient Swahili ruins on them, and play a significant part in the history of European arrival on that coast, and the savagery of the attempt by those ships to seize control and trade. Some of the islands are now privately owned, with hotels on them (which is another thread in my story).
Q: Song Beneath the Tides follows an English girl, Ally, and an African boy, Leli, in their attempts to keep the island, Kisiri, safe from development and tourism. Why did you want to bring together these two different cultures and to explore the bond between them?
A: It's the essence of the story, really - I wanted to explore the awakening of realisations - and empathy - in Ally, who's never thought about so many things before, and the eye-view of Leli, as a young person from a community struggling with the winds of change created by the rush of uncontrolled tourism, and 'get rich quick' business interests, which will profoundly, and negatively, affect his life, his place.
I am also constantly frustrated, and angry, about the negative portrayal of Africa we so often get. It wasn't my experience of 18 years growing up there, and I want to share the truths of my friendships and encounters, then, and now. Though of course all through a fictional lens!
Q: Through the story, you explore how European invaders have impacted on this region. Why did you want to explore the legacy of colonialism in this part of the world?
A: I saw the parallels. On the one hand, in the past, the savage 200-year pursuit of the trade in African gold, ivory, ambergris and slaves, often fuelled by the unbridled greed of individual commanders and ships captains and their crews, and the dismissal, and outright attack on the rights of the people in the way, their lives, beliefs, customs.
And now, a similar alliance of business interest and political corruption - to harness this extraordinary place just for profit. Of course the Portuguese were only the first there, others followed, including Britain - but I don't take my story into all that.
Q: ...And also the continued impact of 'outsiders' in modern times, through tourism, not just on local culture but also how this affects the environment and wildlife?
A: I just feel very fierce about so many visitors, understandably eager for new experiences, new places, with beautiful scenery, fascinating wild life, but going with utter lack of awareness or concern for the consequences of how they do that, and the ripples that spread out from them.
I'm not damning tourism, just uncontrolled, unthinking tourism, where get-rich-quick business interests are fuelled by blinkered holiday makers and would-be explorers.
I was reading the other day about people wanting selfies with big game! Have they no concern for the horrifying experience of the animals held in captivity as victims in this? Just for the visitor's little thrill of excitement to post out across social media?
Q: There is also an element of mysticism in the book, as you weave together the present day with past legends. Are the stories you draw on from specific Swahili traditions, and what do they bring to your novel? How did you research them?
A: I'd heard stories as a child - I knew of Liyongo, a legendary Swahili hero, warrior and poet, celebrated in ballads and stories. And I found little snippets in the contemporary records for the period: I wove it all together.
I hope they bring to the novel a sense of the fabulous oral story-telling traditions of the place - you get such a flavour of it in so many African writers across the whole continent - I've been reading them for years, and never cease to be entirely captured by the voices and flavour. It's a bottomless treasure trove.
Q: What would you like your readers to take from the story?
A: Several things, fingers crossed! Ally's awakening: of understanding, her growth of empathy. A sense of place and people that readers may never visit - a chance to 'try on other lives', 'feel other lives', a sense of history, and how it affects the present - and how, if we ignore it, too often the present simply mirrors the past. And at root, just an exciting adventure thriller! I hope that isn't lost in the themes!
Q: Where do you write and how does your writing day go? What are you writing now?
A: I'm not very organised! I write everywhere and anywhere the Muses appear: kitchen table, park bench, cafe, beach, garden... sometimes in notebooks, sometimes on a tablet. In my home I have a study, where I go when I need to sort things out properly on the computer - and, I am immensely lucky, a little tower up a windy stair! Yes, really, it rises above my flat with windows on all sides looking north, south, east and west, always full of light, though it can be cold in winter, so lots of rugs to wrap up in.
I'm thinking about a new novel set in a place like Ipswich (though it will be fictionalised). I haven't got a title yet, but the idea is taking firm shape, as a mystery. I'm trying to keep the idea simple, but I feel the multiple strands beginning to cluster!
Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing - in normal times, and during 'lockdown'?
A: Normally, lots of walking, reading, gardening. I'm trying to learn to sail, but not very good at it! But I love the chance to get out on the river, and just meander.
Obviously I can't do that at the moment, or take my art classes - drawing and watercolour. I'm very much a beginner, but really loving it, and feel as if whole acres of my brain are being awakened for the first time. I'm trying to put aside time now to do a little each day.
Q: Can you recommend three other books for our 12+ reader members?
A: There are so many I could pick, I had difficult to making up my mind! But here are three among the many I think are marvellous: Lydia Syson's Liberty's Fire, a superb and richly imagined historical novel, driven by absorbing characters; Sarah Mussi's Siege, a powerful, wise, and shocking contemporary thriller; and Louisa Reid's extraordinary and moving, and exciting novel in verse, Gloves Off - it says so much, so swiftly, with such rhythm and precision!