Saturday Oct 20

Mehreen Ahmed Headshot
Mehreen Ahmed is an internationally acclaimed author. Her books, The Pacifist, has
received "Drunken Druid The Editors' Choice for June 2018", and Jacaranda Blues,"The Best of Novels for 2017 - Family Novels of the Year" by Novel Writing Festival. Her flash fiction, "The Portrait" chosen to be podcast by Immortal Works, Flash Fiction Friday, 2018. Her books have also been nominated for other prestigious awards such as Aurealis Award for Fantasy Short Story/Novella (2015), Ditmar Award for Best Novels (2016), and The New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, (2018). One of her shorter pieces has been nominated for the 'Publication of the Month' on Spillwords Press, April/May 2018 due to popular demand. She has been featured writer for Spillwords Press, The Punch Magazine, Connotation Press and Dastaan World Magazine. She has published flash fiction, short stories, novels, historical travelogue, academic reviews/article (See ScholarSpace), journalistic write-ups, and nonfiction essays. She has published with Routledge: Journal of Computer Assisted Language Learning, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge Journals Language Teaching, (see Cambridge Core), Language Learning and Technology, Call-EJ, Straylight Literary Magazine: University of Wisconsin-Parkland, English Department (the magazine currently offline), Storyland Literary Review, Spillwords Press: Where words matter, Wordcurd, CafeLit Magazine, Story Institute, USA, Cosmic Teapot Publishing, Canada, The Sheaf: Campus newspaper for the University of Saskachewan, Clarendon House Publications UK, 2018, Dastaan World Magazine, 2018. Two of her short stories have been translated in German and Greek. The Anomalous Duo has been translated in German (translation:Frank Joussen),Familie (er)zählt: Selection of stories completed; Sammlung abgeschlossen, (In press) and The Black Coat, in Greek:ΤΟ ΜΑΥΡΟ ΠΑΛΤΟ (translation:Meleva Anastasiadou), published in Nyctophilia.gr.
She has an MA in English Literature, Dhaka University and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Queensland, Brisbane Australia. She has been profiled on AustLit. She was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but lives in Australia.

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Mehreen Ahmed Interview with Jonathan Cardew

Thank you, Mehreen, for joining us for the September Issue at Connotation Press!

Thank you, Jonathan, for interviewing me.


I love the surreal, almost hallucinatory quality of your short story, “Backstage”. The story begins with a make-up artist applying foundation to the narrator--a “mask” as it is referred to in the story--and then quickly the narrative disappears into a series of cloudy memories, of family and the death of a child. What was the genesis for this story?

That is an interesting question. The genesis for this story is my own thoughts. I was once backstage, assisting a make-artist, and I was toying with that word. I was thinking of the unconscious mind and how this word could be exploited to represent the undercurrents of thoughts, which take place behind the curtain. The story came much later, but the word was hovering in the forefront of my mind all along.


The ocean holds a very prominent place in this story. I love how the descriptions seem to mirror the emotions of the narrator: “Boats passing through mountain ridges. Suddenly all falls apart. No boats. No ships, only the sounds of the raging seas.” Did you have a specific location in mind for this story? What can water tell us about the human condition?

I am very fond of the ocean, specially on stormy days, I find oceans spectacularly surrealistic. Water is the source of life, sustenance, thoughts. Everything we are today is because of the oceans and water. Ocean is where life originated. In the Hindu Upanisad, there is a succinct saying that, life is water-borne, as in, it came from water. It has a kind of primordial link to all earthlings, in my view, which I find fascinating.


The son in this story flits in and out, murkily; we are never quite sure about his death and when it happened. Spectral visitations are often used in literature for numerous reasons and ends (for example, the ghosts that haunt Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). What literary ghosts catch your imagination?

Hamlet’s ghost has haunted me all my life. Apparitions, their occasional visitations are too common in literature, and indicative of the writer’s flight into deep imagination. The death of the son remains murky and unclear, because we don’t know enough about this realm. By far, it remains an untapped territory of the artist’s unconscious mind alone.


You were born and raised in Bangladesh, and now reside in Australia. Can you tell us a little about the movements you have made around the world, and perhaps also how that has informed or changed your writing? Do you find you write more about your old homes or your new ones?

My latest book, The Pacifist is a historical fiction set in the NSW gold rush period, in Australia. However, Moirae written in a stream-of-consciousness style, somewhat depicts the old home although it is set in a world of imagination on a planet orbited by two moons, called the lost wind, the geographical location unknown. The entire book is a dream allegory, and a metaphorical presentation of the homeland, somewhat.

I have travelled quite a bit. My collection of short stories and my travel book, stand witness to that. All of these experiences have facilitated in the growth of my writing, I think. My writing has evolved out of everything.


You have written a number of novels (for which you have received numerous awards and accolades). Could you tell us a little more about your work and where we can find out more?

Yes, I think awards and accolades are incidental. What’s important, is this passion which shouldn’t be deemed as a passing phase.

My books are selling online in various stores, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and so on. Most of my books are works of fiction, hence came out of my imagination, except my nonfiction travel book, Snapshots. My collection of short stories, The Blotted Line, is set in various places of the world. Each story is set in a new country, such as Spain, Paris, Sydney, Brisbane, Halifax, Dhaka, and a remote village of Bangladesh. Moirae is an allegory and a stream-of-consciousness fiction, where the entire story is hatched in the dream of a protagonist in the form of dialogues and monologues, a depiction of the plight of refugees, fleeing by boat, from one end of the planet to another in search of a safe haven. Again water and sea are dominant imagery in this book too.


What’s next? What writing and/or artistic projects are you currently working on?

At the moment, I am writing a book set in Bangladesh. It is about an old, Zamindari (heads of villages) family in Dhaka. This book is another magical realism just like The Pacifist.


Thanks so much, Mehreen, for your time and excellent fiction!
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Backstage
 
I sat in front of a mirror. My reflection on the mirror was enhanced by the many glaring lights fixed on its frame. I saw a masked face in white make-up paste. The make-up artist diligently applied colour dust with a small sponge on my dark skin.

“You really have very soft skin,” she whispered into my ears with a smile.

I smiled back asking, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

Don’t know,” she said, moving her attention to my eyes now. Eye make-up was the hardest to do. I empathised with her and asked her if her arm was aching. She had it suspended for quite a while now. But the artist continued without complaints. She took out the brush from a mascara tube and poked it into the tube with its dry bristle to catch a patch of colour. Then she brushed it over skillfully on each of my naturally long lashes. Nearly an hour later, the make-up artist finished making a face of thick unrecognisable mask. She looked at me with a definite smile of satisfaction spreading across her painted lips, and a deep twinkling in her eyes.

“It’s done. You look different, nice,” she said. “Take a look.” She held up the mirror so I could take a closer look.

A transformation did occur. I also thought so. I smiled and said to myself, what a good cover-up this could be? Not just to hide one’s own grief, but also other emotions, too. Masks made sense. They always did.

And then my thoughts suddenly switched to a different mode. I floated on its stream.

I didn’t. No. No. No. No Last thing this Problem. I no want this trouble… Oh God. Oh this loneliness. It kills me. Gently, it does. I know not how. But it does. Lovingly and softly. His smooth touch. Hypocrisy of it all, Pills. Bring me them. My pills. Bring my pills.

“Are you okay?” the makeup artist asked, looking at my face with an expression of concern. My eyes were shut and a deep frown appeared between my thin brows. My pupils darted underneath my eyelids. The makeup artist wasn’t getting through to me. I heard her from a long way away, trying to break through my gushing monologue; the cinemas of my mind.

The wind was rough. I woke up with a terrible pain. In the early dawn, the door rattled vigorously in the stormy winds. The pain increased gradually. I screamed and held on to the flimsy bed frame. A summer’s day. The winds revved up like a car in the hands of a novice driver. Five years of age. I sat by the window as winds knocked on the glass pane. Another morning. Some clouds had gathered. I opened the windows and a sudden gust of wind whipped my face as it passed through the hut. My hair blew wildly over my face, almost veiling it with a mass of dark locks. I looked at the distant sky and saw layers upon layers of dark clouds; each layer a different shade of grey. The little daisies down the mountain danced insanely in the ferocity of the winds. Poor yellow little souls and bleeding blades of grass. Then there was a knock on the door. They came back. There was a ship wreck off the peninsula. Couldn’t make it in the storm. How was I to endure that? Those faces of the desperate sailors floated in the ocean of my eyes; their bodies floating. But the garden still looked nice.

Who’s at the door? Son, my son. Did you come for me? Have you come for my soul? Oh God. The wooden door went off the latch. It flew apart, flung open. Crazy! The crazy winds. My hut seemed to be wrung out of its soil. But the door flung open. The mountains green, but dark and grey today. Dark. Yes, pitched dark it was too, when my 16 year old sailed away off to the edge of the peninsula. On a boat they sailed towards some faraway coral islands. The mountains spring. The fall from this height among the rocks and the craggy crevice. The rains lashed its spray across the…My son, are you even alive? Come back to mama. But no drugs and overdose. The ship that drowned in that ever engulfing sea. Took away. The water. The ocean. This stream. How I miss you? Little baby. Little. No more. My son. Down by the green valley, I see him running. I see him now and then he vanishes. There he is again. Play. Play. Playing hide and seek. Don’t run to the ocean though. Come back. Come back. Oh dear child. There he is coming home. Up the hill he climbs to get back. He’s here. In my arms. Kisses and hugs. The ocean rises and falls. Boats passing through mountain ridges. Suddenly all falls apart. No boats. No ships, only the sounds of the raging seas.

I think I might have killed him. Actually I did, I believe. The sea didn’t take him. I did. I took his baby life the night that he was born. The storm had raged just outside my wooden door. It had rattled persistently in the crazy winds as it rattles now. Oh my dear, dear baby. Did I grab the pillow and smother you? The cries. I couldn’t take it anymore. The cries kept getting louder and louder relentlessly but, my baby. Not 16? No, he was but a day old. I had picked it up. Fed it, put it back on the pillow. Then I took the pillow from underneath and placed it on his face. I pushed. I pushed it hard on his baby face. His tiny little nose. His dad was away on a fishing boat. Fishing yes, he was. Caught loads of fish too. Off the peninsula. Mummy, mummy. I hear his slight voice crying, calling me from far afar. Only Heavens know. I see him floating up in the sky doing a sommersault. Why? Mama why? I cried. I was hungry. The hunger pains were terrible. You didn’t feed me enough though. I cried. You took it. The pillow and pressed it down until the last breath slithered out of me. Baby. Come on baby. Come now. Mummy didn’t do that on purpose. I wish I could do this to myself. My baby. Come, come now. No. No. No. No. Standing by the glass pane of the window. I see the sky cracking up in delightful, severe lightenings. The fireworks of the sky. I ran along the mountain path. My sister behind. She stopped and took a deep breath. Clearly, couldn’t keep up. I looked behind. She’s gone now. Just gone, vaporised from the phase of the earth.

Dinnertime was quiet. Soup. Watery soup and a few measly pieces of meat afloat. I break a piece from the corner of my bread. My sister does the same from the other end. Mum and dad look on. They pick up scraps from the table. There’s no more bread left. Dad has not been paid for the work he did. His employer went bankrupt. The carpenter hasn’t been paid. Dip your bread not in wine but in water. Lo! The fury of the ocean. The sound and the fury. Waves overlapping, layer upon layer. The ocean couldn’t be contained. The wind and the ocean entwined in the fury of a twister. The boat tussled across the waves. Boats were rare on days like these. They are on their way to the Netherlands, for sure. A man did come through the fog and knocked on the door. I turned 18 and me, sister 20. Mum, there was no money at home. For dad had gone for a long haul across the seas. My husband. That’s who he was. He said. And yes, we had a church wedding. It was small, all paid by the husband. Eyes half shut still on my honeymoon, but stayed in the cottage. Sister and Mum next door. Dad not home.

My husband not with me. Half-asleep, I listen. There’s suddenly lots of food on the table. I stand looking at it through the gaping hole of the wooded hut. The fury of the seas. I see through the gaping hole my husband paying his good money to my mother. My wedded husband! And then he left. The sailor who sailed into my life, sailed out the same way he had come. Off the sea shore, his sailing boat wrestled. Cheering with his mates he left. His ship over the bosom of the great waves, dancing like a toy. I saw through the crack of the shaking door. The flimsy bolt did shake. He left but he put a smile on Mum’s face. My sister sat alone by the window watching the ship float.

Oh the horror. Few years past I’m now big with child. All the money has now run out. No more boats or sailors did drop by our hut. Mum sat mute. The man who fathered my child had left me, not wanted in his life, no more. No none of the children were really wanted. What did we do to deserve this? Why us? Oh why us? But surely it was going to be you. The easy targets by the sea. No one was there to protect us. A sailor’s wife. There’s a wife for him at every port, I’m sure. There was me and another somewhere. A storm did rise dark in the evening sky. By the window pane, shut and a rattling bolt sat my sister alone looking into the grey, melancholy. He’s but my husband alone, and I’m meant to share a life of love with him without a contester. But I think others loved him too, although he didn’t marry them. Why did he need to marry me? He could’ve just broken in and out of our lives, paid mum for our services and left laughing jolly out of that door.

But no! Somethin’ made him marry one of us. In God’s name in the merry white chapel hall across the graveyard and behind the grey walls of the mossy run down church. There was endless booze and his friends swam in it not in the ocean so much, I reckon. Fish were caught in the muddy waters. Huge mouth watery barramundis and pints of ale. Luckily mum’s white bridal veil was still there I wedded my husband in. I felt blessed, until I found out how he screwed us. Big time and yes, big time. My child would probably go the same way too as soon as he learnt to row the boat across the hundred seas. 16 was the age. Tender and malleable when he would go out like his father. That’s when his father left home to become a sailor. He saw and learnt from all his drunken mates what they did at the end of a day on every port the ship threw deep anchors. While it lay fallen under masses of water.

My sister declared. She had it up to her eyeballs. No more no more of this nonsense. She was going to get a job. She wanted a clean life for herself and for us. My baby was going to be borne out of a legal marriage. My sister understood that well and truly. She took off in the evening when a fierce storm gathered high in the sky. She cloaked herself in black widowed coat. Black like the dark day and the murky sea water. She took off. But not to return. I weaved at the fire with Mum. Weaving a knitted sweater for my little unborn. Sea-farer that he’ll become like his father. But I did nothing to stop my sister. My own mother’s womb that we shared once. Home that sheltered us. My blood. My sister. She went out in the foul winds never to return. Mistaken. She returned all right afterwards but battered and bruised. Something went wrong at her job search. She couldn’t wipe the slate clean. Water in the well went round and round. There was no exit.