Gemma Birss’ The Gift was Highly Commended in the 2009 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices children’s book award.
Gemma is a fabulously warm and energetic writer who has lived in Iran, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Japan, France, India and England. She says she has “millions of stories from different countries and cultures in my head, all jostling with each other to be told.”
Here we interview Gemma about The Gift, her writing, and the magic of good cup of Tetleys.
The Gift tells the tale of Chipo, who wakes up one day in a strange place. She has no memories and has lost the ability to speak. The story follows Chipo through the African bush on an adventure involving witch doctors, Tokoloshes, crocodiles, snakes, magic and treachery. With an extraordinary ability to read the sky, Chipo’s adventures finally lead her to discover her true identity and the harrowing truth of her past.
‘I want to show you something,’ Tendai said, jumping up.
I followed her towards the lucky bean tree.
‘Do you think you can remember to climb?’ she asked.
Tendai climbed quickly. Her feet knew all the knots and ledges. I followed her carefully, putting my feet where her feet had been and using the same hand grips she used. She stopped at the top of the trunk where the branches split out in different directions. There was a hollow in the centre of these branches, which was big enough for us both to sit in. I clambered up after her.
An excited grin spread across Tendai’s face as she reached her hand into a small hole in one of the branches. I thought nervously about the boomslang that had fallen from this same tree. Pungwe’s warning rang through my head; I didn’t have my magic anymore. I no longer knew how to sing to snakes and I couldn’t protect either of us as I used to. I hoped that Tendai realized this too. She didn’t pull out a boomslang, though. She pulled out a handful of necklaces. My mouth fell open with surprise. There were necklaces made from lucky beans, necklaces made from bird feathers, necklaces made from small bones. I reached out to take the one that caught my eye. It was made from thousands of yellow, jagged teeth. My fingers closed around the sharp edges.
‘That one is made from crocodile’s teeth. It is to protect you from the crocodiles in this river. It is a Tokoloshe necklace. Pungwe gave it to you.’
What do you usually write about and who do you write for?
I usually tinker away at a little diary, which means I write mainly for me. In my diary, I write about my life. I like to capture all those millions of fleeting moments. It’s like a photo album but with words. I’m always pottering about in my diary, and I don’t ever leave home without it. I write whatever pops into my head so it’s a kaleidoscope of my thoughts. I suppose I use some of these ideas and expressions in my books, so in that way, I’m writing for everyone.
Why do you write?
I have to confess; when I’m writing a book, I don’t actually write it. The book writes itself; the words spill out onto the page as they please and I don’t have much say in the matter. When I wrote The Gift, it was incredibly exciting because I didn’t know how the story was going to unfold. Chipo was having all these brilliant adventures and I had to keep writing to see what would happen next! The main reason I write, though, is that when I write, I am superlatively happy. Happiness for me is a cup of Tetleys, a notebook and a black pen.
Where and when do you write?
I write everywhere, but I spend a lot of time writing on trains and buses. Long journeys are the best for writing – watching the world unravel past your window, you have all the time in the world for ideas to unfold.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Kpo the Leopard by Rene Guillot. It was the first book that I chose for mum to buy me.
Who is your favourite children’s author either writing today or from the past?
I still have a deliciously soft spot for Quentin Blake’s work, particularly his Lester goes to the Seaside. My favourite character from this book is Otto. Lester and Otto are at the beach and Otto picks up a stick to write his name in the sand. Then he tries to write his name backwards. It comes out as Otto. So he tries again, Otto, and again, Otto, and he gets very down in the mouth because, unlike Lester, his name is the same both forwards and backwards. Finally, an ingenious idea dawns; he grabs his stick and writes ‘Toot’! And then he dances about with glee at his cleverness. I also love Mini Grey and Oliver Jeffrey.
What are your plans for the future and for The Gift?
Whilst getting my story published, I’m also illustrating my picture books and training to be a Kundalini yoga teacher.
I’m working on a grown-up book at the moment too, which is a bit of a ‘spiritual journey’ kind of book… it’s taking its time to work its way out and is a challenging but really worthwhile process.
Who knows what the future holds – but if my past is anything to go by, it’s going to be an interesting ride!
Good luck with your writing and illustrating!!