Noreen Masud

A Flat Place

SHORTLISTED 2023

Noreen Masud has always loved flat landscapes – their stark beauty, their formidable calm, their refusal to cooperate with the human gaze. They reflect her inner world: the ‘flat place’ she carries inside herself, emotional numbness and memory loss as symptoms of childhood trauma. But as much as Britain’s landscapes provide solace for suffering, they are also uneasy places for a Scottish-Pakistani woman, representing both an inheritance and a dispossession.

Pursuing this paradox across the wide open plains that she loves, Noreen weaves her impressions of the natural world with the poetry, folklore and history of the land, and with recollections of her own early life, rendering a startlingly strange, vivid and intimate account of a post-traumatic, post-colonial landscape – a seemingly flat and motionless place which is nevertheless defiantly alive.

Noreen Masud is a lecturer in twentieth century literature at the University of Bristol, and an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker. A Flat Place is her first trade book.

 

2023 shortlistee, Noreen Masud, on how she wrote A Flat Place – her breathtaking and reflective memoir on Britain’s flatlands and their influence on history, identity and trauma.

Noreen Masud on A Flat Place for Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award

In A Flat Place, I tell the story of my childhood in Pakistan, of being disowned by my father two weeks before I turned 16, and of my life in Britain thereafter, living with the long shadow of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. In parallel, I visit and explore a handful of flat landscapes around Britain: eerie places which I find mesmerizing. They make me feel seen, and  give me an enigmatic, powerful language for my unusual inner life.

This was a difficult story to tell. Not because it was painful, but because it’s the kind of story that’s easy to misread. You might assume it’s a story about how Pakistan is bad and Britain is good; about how being disowned was my life’s defining trauma; about how nature can heal even the deepest wounds. Those are easy, comforting stories. But they aren’t the truth. The truth is waiting somewhere else, out beyond the familiar narrative of things that get broken and things that get fixed. And it’s livelier, quicker and brighter than you might expect.

The other reason it’s so easy to misunderstand this story is because there’s a hole in the middle: an event I can’t talk about, an absence right where one might expect answers. And also because there are many things I don’t know myself – memory gaps are one effect of complex PTSD. Without these conventional building blocks, the book doesn’t follow the usual rules of rise and fall, climax and resolution, tension and release. I had to find a different shape for it – a way to write into its flatness.

I set myself some rules. Firstly: to refuse the traditional narrative patterns available to me. Secondly: to simply describe, rather than diagnosing. Thirdly: to resist easy conclusions.

All these rules meant – to quote Donna Haraway – staying with the trouble. Listening to the tiny, quiet voice in my head which I usually ignore because it doesn’t conform to the ways I’ve been taught to think. Dwelling patiently on things which seemed straightforward at first, which even seemed blank and empty (like a flat landscape), until I saw something unexpected and new flickering into vision. And knowing how strangers might interpret an ambiguous situation, or a difficult person, or a foreign place, trying to fit them into neat, regular shapes –  but not giving in to that version of the story. Asking my readers instead to accept the unresolved nature of things.

Living with complex PTSD means living with questions that have no answers, with the knowledge that there are things I will never know. A Flat Place seeks to honour that experience, and to give it form.

I’m more grateful than I can say to my agent and publisher, for their unstinting support as I wrote towards and through that difficulty. And I’m thunderstruck to have been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Writing A Flat Place meant committing very seriously to the description of places, relationships and experiences which were unlikely to be thought of as ‘relatable’ – because we don’t yet have words or categories for many of them. Complex PTSD has only recently been classified by clinicians as a distinct disorder, so very little has yet been written about it for the general public. But even beyond that diagnosis, there are brains that work differently; post-colonial experiences which don’t fit familiar storylines; contradictory feelings which exist all at once; sexualities which don’t slot neatly into contemporary categories.When we don’t have a name for something, we’re less likely to notice it, even when it arises in our own lives. So I didn’t expect anyone to notice A Flat Place, either – and if they did, I thought that most likely it would make them angry and upset. I tried not to think about it too much, and practiced being breezy.

Then when I started getting letters and emails from people who saw themselves mirrored in the book – women of colour, sometimes, neurodivergent people and people with PTSD, but also sometimes people who were very different from me, and had had very different lives – I thought: this is it, this is the pinnacle, what more could I possibly ask for than this?

And now this book about unnoticed things has been noticed, in this incredible way, and valued by a panel of judges whose work I admire so much…it’s brain-breaking. I screenshotted the email from my publisher so that I could keep checking it was real and I hadn’t dreamt it.

This shortlisting gives me faith that writing which does its best to practice courage – to refuse easy conclusions, and to attend to things which are difficult to see and think about – will speak to more people than one might expect.

 

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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