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Introducing Readers on Writers – the series where our shadow judging panel interview the shortlisted authors for the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. In this interview, shadow judge Emily Goulding speaks to Noreen Masud about her shortlisted book, A Flat Place. They discuss psychogeography, heritage, Virginia Woolf and other inspirations for this expansive work. Read more of their discussion below.

Question 1. First of all, a huge congratulations on being shortlisted! How are you feeling about it?

It’s just absolutely surreal, the people who’ve won this prize in the past – Zadie Smith, Simon Armitage, Rob McFarland – it’s just extraordinary for me to be on the shortlist for this prize and alongside the rest of the lineup. All three of them have won prizes and I very much feel like the underdog on the list, so I’m just delighted to be along for the ride and even considered alongside such amazing writers.

Question 2. You and the other shortlisted writers are so talented, what does a prize like this mean to you?

When I wrote A Flat Place, my main concern was representing the experiences of being inside a body with complex PTSD and a body with postcolonial trauma as fully as I could. It was a very personal experience so I wasn’t really thinking about what other people would think. I was just concerned with being attentive to the experience and honouring the experience of something I’d never seen discussed before in quite this way. And then when publication approached, I became quite frightened and I thought that people would be angry, that they’d think I’d crossed a line or represented things too honestly, so I went and said to my Head of Department that I was worried there might be trouble at the university. And then it came out and nobody was angry, and I started getting emails from people saying that A Flat Place had given them a language for their experience, particularly from women of colour and people with complex PTSD, but also people whose experiences on paper were nothing like mine but who connected with what I’d written. I thought that nothing could be better, that this was all I could have hoped for – it felt like what I’d done was something that was useful to the world, so then to be shortlisted for this on top of that is like I’d got the icing on the cake, and now this is more icing – it’s the cherry on the top. It’s just completely wild and I feel incredibly grateful.

Question 3. So I absolutely loved the book, it was such a pleasure to read. Your writing both on your heritage and the world around you was so powerful, I really couldn’t get enough. In the introduction to the book, you use the Virginia Woolf quote, ‘it was the base that her life stood upon,’ in relation to your grandma’s life. How do you feel about that – do you believe that we all have one moment which can act as a touchpoint for our existence and heritage

So the Woolf quotation is: ‘If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory.’ Woolf describes this incredibly simple early memory, and it’s not even her first memory but it’s the one that was crucial to her – it’s of lying in bed in St Ives and listening to the wind blow the blind and feeling this extraordinary ecstasy at the wonder of life.

When I read that as an undergrad, I knew that the base that my life stands upon is this memory that I have of flat fields in Pakistan – not my first memory but the memory on which everything else was subsequently built. Some people agree with the quote and other people say that they don’t think their life is structured in that way, they don’t think there is one base that their life stands upon, and I find that very beautiful as well. Maybe some people don’t have that kind of physical way of understanding their world or their life at all, but it’s just amazing to me how many different ways we have of conceiving the same thing.

Question 4. Could you talk a bit about your relationship with the flatlands you visited – what kept bringing you back to them?

So, it’s interesting because when we think about flat landscapes generally, we talk about them as bleak or boring places, maybe somewhere where one feels unsettled or disorientated, but perhaps because of the life I’ve had, I find these places really energising. I feel that my inner life finds an outer form, because what happens with complex post-traumatic stress is that it’s different from regular post-traumatic stress disorder where there’s often a particular event that you can pick out that’s the turning point – in other words it fulfills a kind of traditional narrative logic. With complex PTSD it’s complicated precisely because there is no single event; it is so many events and often ones that happen before your memory begins or which are blotted out, and so it’s exactly like a flat landscape in that there is nothing to look at and yet you can’t stop looking. There’s something incredibly compelling about that sheer line, and the courage and audacity in the way a flat landscape cuts itself across the sky without any apology. It’s like ‘I am here and I’m not pretending.’ So it’s a space that I can’t stop looking at, but also I have no way of looking at it because there is no kind of cultural language for how we look at a space, whether that’s a physical space or a narrative which doesn’t have a focal point, so that’s compelling to me thinking about how we talk about these spaces and how we talk about these lives which do not form traditional patterns of a story.

Question 5. How was it writing something which moved between place so much? You chose to pair specific moments from your past in Lahore with different UK flatlands, how did you choose how to link them?

My memory of it is that it was quite organic. My process with each flat landscape was to record without a filter – when I say record, I mean to record what came into my head, and the associations and feelings I experienced – and I found that often what I found myself remembering presented its own narrative logic. So, when I was crossing a fence, I would see a wet patch and, in my mind, it would be a buffalo wallow, and of course it’s not a buffalo wallow, but it’s my memory of my life in Pakistan coming out. I didn’t go to any of the spaces with an expectation about what I would find out, but Orford Ness is an interesting example. I fully went to Orford Ness thinking I’d love it, but what I actually found was I felt very little. I felt nothing because I found that Orford Ness is now a National Trust site and it’s quite curated for visitors, and that’s amazing – it’s so important that we make these spaces available to people in different ways – but the biggest thought I had in my mind was the idea of the predetermined story. There were all these signs suggesting that as you walk around you could be mindful etc, and I’m sure it makes so many people’s experience way better, but for me it was as though I was being given a channel of what was available to me. And that’s not interesting to me; what I’m interested in is seeing what happens when you go in as cold as possible to a space – what does the space do to you without guidance. So that could have been disappointing on paper but in fact it was really useful and made me think about the idea of the ready-made story as a woman of colour.

Writing about a difficult childhood I’m so aware all the time of the way that my story can be misread, because people don’t listen very well to women of colour, and people often come to women of colour thinking they already know what we’re going to say. It makes me laugh because I’ll say something as clearly as I can and people will kind of report it back in completely different terms – nobody listens. I mean, people don’t listen to each other, but particularly I think women of colour people find it hard to listen to. My story is always at risk of being misread as one of those misery memoirs about, in particular, white women going to Pakistan or Iran, and having a terrible time there, an abusive time, and then fleeing, and there’s so many of those books. But Pakistan and Islam are not the enemies – the problem is the postcolonial trauma in which Pakistan is locked in, which my father was locked and in which my mother was locked in. We’re all locked because of the lives we’ve had, but it’s colonialism that I focus on, and I thought about the readymade stories on Orford Ness, and the readymade stories available to me as a woman of colour, and it then becomes a question of how we resist those stories or how we tell new stories, so actually allowing myself to be open to what the landscapes had to say to me was my technique and often it took me in really surprising directions.

Question 6. In A Flat Place you obviously also switch between your past and present a lot, and I’d love to know a bit about how that was for you. Memory is a huge theme in the book, how did it feel revisiting those memories, when it can be such an everchanging thing?

I found it a great relief. I’ve been trying to write about my life since I was 14 and since the events in the book were actually happening to me, so I knew from a very early age that language was going to be the life raft that I was going to cling to, whether I was allowed to or not. It was my secret sense of a way out, whatever that looked like, and I felt that if I could give it form I would get some comfort. But because it’s a very difficult story to tell, it doesn’t fall into the typical shape of a story, so then how do you tell it as a story? Is it a story? To find a form with the help of my glorious agent and editor, which allowed it to exist physically in the world – I just felt this massive relief and ever since then I have felt a burden being lifted. It is no longer how it’s felt in the past, something filled with this awful, bitter liquid that spreads throughout my whole body, that filters everything I see and everything I try to say. I thought I would just have to live alone with it, but now it’s got a form of its own – it’s outside me – and I can do other things. I can keep other things in my body now, there’s space.

Question 7. When writing about UK landscapes, you not only talk about the geographical nature of the flatscapes, but also about their history, and those who have been written out of that history. How did you find researching those who have come before?

Again, this wasn’t something that I planned; it was completely organic. In Orford Ness, the tour guide mentioned the Chinese Wall and I had to go and look that up, and in that way, I learned about the history of the Chinese Battalions who served in the war and were really badly treated and marginalized. A monument was made which included the Chinese Battalion until the Americans joined the war, and then they were painted out and replaced by the Americans, so quite literally effaced from history. Another example is Newcastle Moor, which is again one of the flat landscapes and one that I traversed many times as I lived near the moor during lockdown. I ordered the archaeological report from the city council to find out a bit about the history of the moor and it stated very explicitly and openly that in 1929 a human zoo was held on the moor, in which Senegalese people were kept for people to come and ogle.

 

What really struck me in both of these cases was that these were not hidden histories, these were histories which were just there. People talked about the Chinese Wall, and the information on Newcastle Moor was freely available in the archaeological report. I wasn’t recovering things that everyone had forgotten about, these were stories that were right there but that no one wanted to think about, or that somehow people weren’t able to see, and I think that links to the flat landscape as well. Flat landscapes make everything visible and yet we don’t know how to look at them, and I think the same is true of these kinds of postcolonial histories; these truths that British people find difficult to face are right there and yet they manage not to see them. I don’t mean this individually, but socially and structurally at the moment there’s a lot of resistance towards facing up to what everyone knew happened, so it was interesting to explore that phenomenon of historical consciousness where we can know and not know at the same time, where we choose to not know. And this is the other thing, there’s this narrative of colonized people, who should just get over it or should just move on – but right up into the 70s we had kind of the colonization of Zimbabwe – if we were to use the University’s categorizations of historical periods then this is not just recent history, it’s contemporary history. I’m always interested in who is allowed to nurse pain, who is allowed to have legitimate reactions to historical pain, and who is told to get over it. It’s always along racial lines.

Question 8. Your writing on the Shell Line in Orford Ness was something which really stood out to me. How did it feel to know that there were others who take comfort in these flat spaces?

So, the Shell Line was created by two women from the Netherlands, childhood friends, who were diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. They came to Shingle Street, and they stayed there and relaxed together and went on walks, and at some point, they started collecting white whelk shells and making them into a line. They chose the best shells and they made this long line of white whelk shells called the Shingle Street Shell Line. They made a book and a film about it, and it’s an incredibly poignant film, because sometimes the art world feels really dominated by sort of bright young things, and one of the things that I think particularly women find very comforting is to see is a kind of road map for how to grow older as a creative person, and to see these kind of middle-aged women sort of bundled up and unfashionable in their big coats lying on the shingle together making this project. I find that, as a way of kind of coping with the very normal but utterly agonizing human experience of bodily decay, so touching and so moving – it’s not that landscape will heal pain, but that the landscape might be with you through the pain in some way.

Question 9. Let’s talk about the bones – and that pull out line from your interview with the Sunday Times. Throughout A Flat Place, and through your journeys, there are objects that you seem to really connect with within the flatlands. Do you want to talk about that a bit?

I could not believe it – I should not have mentioned the bone bucket. So, I love objects, and when I was a child there wasn’t always a sort of safe, reassuring adult that I could go to when I when I needed one, and so you find a lot of comfort in that situation in objects. Often, I remember the objects in my childhood home much better than I do the people’s faces because they were the ones with whom I had sustained relationship: the texture of the sofa, the things on the shelves, that’s what I remember. And now I’m such a magpie. I love collecting things and particularly I love collecting bones and stones. I have a bucket of bones always soaking, I’ve got a sheep skull in there, I’ve got a hip bone too.

So, I keep finding bones in A Flat Place and sometimes I found the bone and decided to leave it there, sometimes I found the bone and took it home. I think it’s quite a comprehensible impulse to love a bone or a stone; something hard and reassuring which seems to imply a kind of permanency, something that we can hold on to when there’s so much we don’t know. There’s also a sense with a bone or a stone of it being a kind of remnant, the kind of the thing that stays when so much has been lost, but then that can be a red herring too. At the end of the book, I write that if I were to dig up the bones of certain things that happened to me, what would I know that I didn’t already know – we can sometimes over fetishize the revelation and the found object. I think that collecting bones and stones gives us a sense of accomplishment and goals met, which allows us to convert our experience into comprehensible stories, and so I’m very interested in affirming the value of that, and the joy of that while also saying what if we acknowledged the limits to this way of thinking – what if we said sometimes you don’t dig up the bones; sometimes you dig and there are no bones; sometimes you know the bones are there but you leave them in the ground?

In the chapter with my mother, bones become very important. My mother knows I collect bones and she doesn’t really understand it, but she says that she’ll help me with it. I found that such a beautiful moment with her and a real act of love, where she acknowledges that she doesn’t need to understand me to love me. Sometimes it can be a real act of love and respect to say ‘I could understand you,’ but actually it can sometimes be an act of violence almost towards you, that would be something so alien to the way that you see yourself or the way that you understand yourself, that it could do more damage than good. I have a real ethos, particularly in the chapter with my mother, of describing rather than concluding or trying to capture feelings as they rise and fall. One moment I’m annoyed, one moment I’m just in love with her – and the truth of a relationship is that it’s always in flux, there’s no final bony residue that you can pull up and define it as.

Question 10. Your writing on your relationship with your mother is really interesting, and I’d love to know how it was to share your memory of the flat place in Lahore with her, and take that trip to Orkney as a pair, when your relationship with flatlands has been such a personal and instrumental one?

I felt what was interesting about it was that it came to stand in for a dilemma that my mother and I have had throughout our adult relationship, where I’ve had a very different kind of life from my mother. I’ve had an incredibly lucky life, and my mother has had an almost exceptionally unlucky life. I think she’s been incredibly badly treated, and there are things which I’ve been able to enjoy that perhaps have been closed off from her, and so there are places we connect, and places that we find it very difficult to connect over, and that’s true of any relationship.

Flat landscapes are something I have quite an idiosyncratic relationship with, and I had a lot of very mixed feelings over the course of that stay, but I didn’t go to Orkney knowing what I would discover. I let the relationship take its own form, and what lasted was that sense of ‘I won’t necessarily understand but I’ll be here with you.’ There’s a bit in the book where we go onto a little island, with technically a population of three, and I say to my mother, ‘you don’t have to come – this is a total wild goose chase.’ To get onto the little island you had to make your way along a causeway which only appeared at certain times of day when the tide was out, and there was this awful fence you had to climb over, and my mum is now 70, she was 68 I think when we went there – but she insisted on coming and climbing over that gate with me. It was this beautiful solidarity, and it’s just one of the most beautiful qualities about her.

Question 11. I love the bit of your writing about your mother as communicating with you about what she wants for the first time as well, and understanding her as a person as well as a caregiver.

When you grow up, you learn to recognize your mother as almost another person, rather than as just your mother, and there’s a process also of a mother having to reconnect with her ability to be a person, to be a solitary unit rather than a mother with child. It’s a change in relationship and dynamic, and it’s something we really need from our mothers as well; it’s this terribly destructive thing because mothers are our caregivers but also, they are the people who teach us how to be – it’s very hard to not become like your mother as you get older. It’s not a great service to your child if you remove or kind of disown your own personhood. It’s a generous and beautiful thing to actually stand up for your personhood and say what you want and need from life, because that gives your daughter the courage to do the same.

Question 12. And in the (glowing) review from the Financial Times, they talk about how the book explores being alive in a landscape. For you, what does that mean?

So many of our thoughts about things in the world are ready made thoughts, they’re versions of things that other people have thought, and then we think them in turn because we know that we’re allowed to think them. For me, being alive in a landscape is to do with giving oneself over wholly to one’s own reactions, even if they’re idiosyncratic, or weird, or inexplicable, and to notice them without wondering whether they’re the right ones to be having.

Question 13. Are there any other authors whose work you admire – or any whose writing and thoughts informed your writing process?

Oh gosh, so many. One author to whom I am endlessly indebted is Sarah Ahmed. She’s a cultural theorist whose book on queer phenomenology has been crucial for understanding my own queerness. She, and I quote her in the book, talks about queer sexual orientation in terms of spatial orientation to be orientated towards something, so she helped me understand both my love of flat landscapes and my queerness as something which is circling and diffuse. I am also very drawn to authors who say things boldly without apology so Virginia Woolf, W.S. Graham’s poetry, the poetry of Dylan Thomas – anything which is invested in what language can do and doesn’t apologize for playing with it.

Question 14. And finally – what’s next!

I have a couple of irons in the fire, and a couple of things I’m sort of working on; one’s another creative non-fiction book, and one’s a work of fiction. But what I’m noticing at the moment is the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the world’s reaction to it, or lack thereof. There are ways that we can no longer pretend, if we ever could, that all is right. We can no longer pretend that the world order is something that we can rely on as any basis in justice. We are entering a new era in the world’s history, and I can feel a sense once again that the old forms and preoccupations are not equal to this time – that what we must do is listen, and wait, and bear witness. I can feel something forming in me, a reaction to that, that I don’t yet have words for, and I’m not going to rush – but it’s slowly beginning to take shape.

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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