Talking Location With author Katharine Swartz – WHITEHAVEN and the LAKE DISTRICT
Interview with author Berni Sorga-Millwood
26th March 2020
We recently caught up with Berni Sorga-Millwood and asked her some questions about her excellent debut novel, Under Solomon Skies.
TF: You are clearly an environmentalist. The concern you show for sustainable logging, the preservation of wildlife, climate change, and the way of life of the Solomon Islanders is the background to Under Solomon Skies. Where and how did you develop such an interest?
BS-M: I do not classify myself as an environmentalist, we are all connected to the world, universe and all that dwells in it. I spent the early years of my childhood in Jamaica surrounded by birds, animals and nature. Several years later, my family moved to a city in England and our way of life changed dramatically because we spent much more of our time indoors. I have always felt drawn to the countryside and the sea, so shortly after leaving college I moved away to live on the coast in Kent and spent several years there. After gaining my degree and teaching qualification in London, I travelled to many countries and was fascinated by all the different cultures I encountered. I began to understand just how much local people depend on the natural environment, and the impact it has on their lives when something goes drastically wrong.
TF: How difficult do you think it is for the Islanders to maintain their way of life and culture in a rapidly developing and changing world?
BS-M: The Solomon Islanders are a very strong and close community. During World War II and the invasion of their islands by theJapanese, they supported and worked alongside the American and British soldiers sent there to help them. After the war, people came from many countries to work in government departments and to set up businesses and services, so the Islanders have always had to adapt to new ways of life. The strong bonds they have with each other through the wontok system, (which means anyone who speaks the same language) allows them to maintain their cultural practices and beliefs and support each other.
TF: The environmental message comes through strongly in the book, but it also has a strong storyline. You say that the adventures of Jack and Toni are based on a true story. Can you tell us more?
BS-M: When I worked in the Solomon Islands as a travelling teacher trainer, I spent most of my time on different islands and in villages. Whilst on a visit to the Shortlands, I heard about two men who had gone missing after travelling by boat to another village. The villagers thought they had drowned or were murdered, because there was a lot of fighting going on in Bougainville nearby. Everyone was pleasantly surprised when they were found alive a few weeks later and rescued by PNG soldiers. Stories began emerging soon after of their survival and how they caught and ate shark meat and drank rainwater. The Solomons have a great oral tradition, many stories about them were told up and down the country as they were amongst very few to survive such an ordeal.
TF: One of the things that struck me most reading the book is the considerable differences – language, culture, physical appearance – between the various islanders. At what stage of history did the inhabitants of the islands decide to come together (or were brought together) to form the Solomon Islands. Before air travel, the geographic separation must have seemed even greater than today.
BS-M: I am not a historian, but I know the population consists mainly of three types of people, the Melanesians, Polynesians and Micronesians.
TF: I have been reading about the various ethnic and political tensions in the region over the recent past – first between the PNG and the BRA freedom fighters, and then internally within the Islands up to 2003. How disruptive were these tensions – both to the lives of ordinary Solomon Islanders and to the development of the economy of the region?
BS-M: Like all societies, sometimes people don’t get along and it impacts on the lives of others. Many people in the Shortland Islands and other parts of the Solomons have relatives in Bougainville. Before the tension began, the Shortland Islanders fished, harvested fruits and vegetables and made goods which they took over and sold in Bougainville. Once the tension started and their boats were occasionally shot at, it was no longer safe to continue travelling there, so many ended up losing their precious income. The ethnic tension in the Solomons forced the closure of the SIPL oil palm plantation with a major loss of income to the country. Families ended up living with relatives and wontoks in overcrowded conditions in town and villages, so for a while it was difficult for everyone financially.
TF: A question we ask all our authors in these interviews… How do you write? Do you set aside a certain fixed amount of time each day, do you set yourself a target in terms of numbers of words? Or do you write when you are ‘in the mood’ and the words flow?
BS-M: I am a full-time primary teacher, so finding time to write when I am not working is always a challenge. I write in the evenings, at weekends and during school holidays. I keep a notebook handy and jot down ideas, then when I’ve got a few hours spare I’ll sit and write for as long as I can. During school holidays there’s no time limit as I haven’t got to get up early for work the next day, so I sometimes write throughout the night till the early hours of the morning which is incredibly satisfying.
TF: And another. Do you plan out a book in great detail before you start writing, or do you just sketch an outline and then fill it out as you go?
BS-M: I am not a great planner; I’ve tried it several times and have always ended up getting frustrated, because what I plan to write changes as I begin writing. I usually start by sketching out the idea of the story I want to tell and the path I want it to follow. Once I start writing, the story develops and grows organically, allowing me the freedom to deviate from my originally path as I am not constraint by rigorous planning.
TF: I understand you are currently writing your second novel. Can you tell us a little about the storyline?
BS-M: My second novel is about a man forced to flee with his family from his home during the ethnic tension. He starts a new job as a taxi driver in town and ends up meeting an unusual outsider. The outsider helps him develop skills he didn’t realise he had and shows him how to use them to help others. During an encounter with an ex politician, he is unwittingly drawn into helping him uncover corruption amongst several government ministers. As he gathers and record the information, he learns why the tension was created to force him from his home, but before he can do anything with it, he is attacked as they try to silence him. Unable to continue and fearing for his life, he runs away and hides but knows he must find a way somehow to reveal the truth.
Thank you so much to Berni for answering all our questions so comprehensively…
Tony for the TripFiction team
Under Solomon Skies by Berni Sorga-Millwood is available now on audible.co.uk and in bookshops. It is part of Jacaranda’s #Twentyin2020 campaign
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