My interview with Leslie Tate

24 Jul


Mehreen Ahmed

I interviewed novelist and academic Mehreen Ahmed about her stream of consciousness fiction, her five published novels, and the personal methods and experiences that underpin her Modernist writing. Mehreen, who is an expert in computer-assisted language learning, has published several papers on the subject and has been successful in a number of writing prizes. She also has two MAs and comes from a family of writers. Born in Bangladesh, she now lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Leslie: I know that being a child refugee is one of your most powerful formative experiences. Could tell me your story, please?

Mehreen: A civil war broke out between Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh in 1971. I didn’t understand the manifold reasons for the war then as well as I understand them now. But my father was a high official, a general manager of a Jute Mill called ‘The Platinum Jute Mills’, in the district of Khulna, Bangladesh. We lived in a huge bungalow on an acreage overlooking the Bhairab river. Life was pleasant, calm, living in the luxury of natural beauty.

Then one day, my father came home early and I overheard him ask my mother to pack a small suitcase. We needed to get across the river to safety, he said, because the mill was under attack from the Pakistani army and there was no telling what they might do. I remember my mother quickly packing a small suitcase… but then my memories seem to change, becoming present tense, as if everything was happening now…

Leslie: Please go on.

Mehreen: Before I can find my bearings, our bungalow is full of officers and staff working in the mill with their families. We are gathered in the front lawn, under the leadership of my father. We do what he tells us to do. We walk down to one of our many jetties of the mill and wait there while people organise boats. Boatmen are only too happy to take us across the river where the military will not find us in the safety of the villages. Once across, a village farmer welcomes all of us with open arms. He feeds us rice and dhal. So many of us too! But his incredible generosity teaches me about goodness in human nature.

Later that night I cannot sleep. So I walk outside under a starry peaceful night. I find myself on the edge of a pond. I hear people whispering and then I see a long, sharp butcher’s knife in somebody’s hand shinning under the moon light. I am scared. I flee to my mother. She tells me that we must get a good sleep because we are heading toward the capital city Dhaka the next morning. This place is not safe anymore, she says. At seven years of age, I can’t figure out much at all.

Leslie: And the next morning?

Mehreen: The next day is another toilsome long journey on foot. We meet a lot of people on the road who my father thinks are informers and military spies. In the meantime, we also hear on the radio that freedom fighters are gaining strength in guerrilla warfare with the assistance of India. I am not sure yet what to feel, happy or sad, because I am just too tired and ready to drop anytime. It’s a marathon walk to the river bank from where we are expected to take an engine boat or launch. We continue our walk in fear. People whisper amongst themselves that women, girls as young as 10 or 12 have been taken from various villages to the pleasure houses of the Pakistan army. My mother, a pretty young lady, is just as concerned about me as my father is about her.

We finally reach the river banks and again an owner of a launch generously welcomes us. In a while the launch sets sail. I eat dry rice and molasses, just one meal a day. I sit near the porthole and watch the river. But there is no beauty in its folds today, only swollen decapitated bodies floating downstream.

Moirae, an ode to a nondescript floating population which the world has chosen to forget’ – Mehreen Ahmed. Moirae was a Ditmar Award Nominee for best novel, 2016.

It takes us about seven days to get to Dhaka. Many of our fellow officers and travellers have now gone to India. And we are headed to our grandmother’s house in an auto rickshaw. There is panic on the roads. The roads are nearly empty. The driver tells us on the way about the brutality of the army, the horrific genocide. How they have already killed millions of people, poor villagers, rickshaw wallahs. They have also killed many intellectuals and university professors. My father’s life is in danger too. Next the military will come for the professionals like him. He must go into hiding. We reach our grandmother’s house. But my father cannot stay here. It is dangerous because it is too close to a military headquarters. We get separated. I still remember the horroe that I may lose him…

Leslie: Go on, please.

Mehreen: We continue to live in my grandmother’s house for a long time. We have no clothes on us, only rags. For the first few months we wear clothes handed out to us by my cousins. We have no money at this stage, because my father cannot go to the bank. Whatever cash there is must be saved and spent wisely. I am not allowed to go out for fear that the military may pick me up. At night we keep awake hearing shrieking cries for help, “Help me, help me!” from our neighbours’ houses. Young girls are being picked up almost every day. I shut my eyes. I pray. Will God listen to my prayers in the silence of this dark room as I lie there with my grandparents? My mother’s sleeping in another room. We hear gunfire every day. We hide under the staircase when the sirens for bombing go off. We hear that this suburb can be flattened any day, if the USA 7th fleet waiting not too far away on the bay of Bengal, comes to the aid of the military.

Panic seizes us as we wait for a resolution. There is none. In the meantime, the ration for daily meals get smaller by the day. My granddad, needs regular medicine for his diabetes. Mum has to go out, taking huge risks, to the drug stores to get it. Nine long months pass like this. And then suddenly we hear that the army has surrendered to the Indian army. The victory is ours!

Leslie: That’s a life-changing experience. Thank you. As you grew older, what other experiences contributed to you becoming a writer?

Snapshots by Mehreen Ahmed

Mehreen: After the war, we settled down in a relatively more normal life. I have always been a keen reader and a keen observer of nature. I wouldn’t say my interest in nature was as profound as the romantics perhaps, particularly Wordsworth who saw the soul of God in nature. But I have always been drawn towards, trees, hills, oceans, sunsets and sunrises. I would often jot down my observations and my feelings in a diary. I think my love for nature has helped me to become a humanist in the end, which I try to mirror in my books.

Leslie: What are the particular personal passions/experiences that you’ve either adapted as episodes into your books or secretly underpin the emotions you portray in your books?

Mehreen: Nearly all of my books are depictions of strong humanistic values. I uphold human conditions more so than writing in a genre such as, say, romance or adventure or thriller. My books are not a medium to express my personal feelings or experiences, but rather a platform to encourage a societal and political change. In a way, I see myself more of an activist, I think. I cannot stand wars, poverty, child molestations, human suffering and so on. I think that these feelings are driven by my early experience of being a war refugee. In my depiction of reality, I often portray such situations in my books, speaking at length about refugees, child abuse and sufferings.

Leslie: What are your daily writing routines? What helps and hinders you to come up with your best writing?

Mehreen: I am not very structured. And I also don’t write on a regular basis. I write when I am inspired by something. I’ve noticed that nature plays a great role here. Rain inspires me to a great extend; a visit to the beach will inspire me. What impedes my writing mostly, is when I am depressed for some reason. I just can’t get my pen to move at all. I think I have to be relatively at peace. Chaos and confusion do not create the perfect condition for me to write.

Leslie What part does daily observation play in building up a novel? e.g. notebooks, camera, journal, sketch book and/or visits to places etc

Mehreen: Journal and visits to places particularly, to the mountains, sea beaches and so on. My book, The Pacifist, and Moirae, both have references to the sea. Natural surroundings help me to find a deeper meaning in life somewhat; they provide the conditions for tranquillity.

Leslie: Can you describe, please, the progress of your writing from first novel, through other novels and short stories up to your latest book Moirae. What were the milestones/turning points and key insights on the way? Which is your best book, and why?

Jacaranda Blues by Mehreen Ahmed

Mehreen: My first book was a novella, Jacaranda Blues, which I wrote in a stream of consciousness style. I found myself easily drawn toward this style of writing. I never learnt it. It came naturally to me. Then I wrote a collection of short stories. And then Moirae, an ode to a nondescript floating population which the world has chosen to forget. There was a time, when I used to watch a lot of refugees on television, people trying to flee by boat for various reasons. They just couldn’t live in their own countries any more. Fear of death and persecution for religious reasons or political was so grave, that they became refugees. No country would take them either, because the vetting system was so rigorous that they would almost always not meet the criteria for refugees.

I felt their pain. My empathy for them was so great that I could envisage this chaos and confusion of their minds. I chose this style, because I thought this would best capture that kind of raw emotions.

Moirae is an allegory of an absurd world or situation if you like in which people are caught in uncertain limbo for years. A story conceived in a dream, although it is not clear from reading the book that the character is dreaming because often the dreamer doesn’t know that. The dreamer only knows upon waking. And that’s the impression I tried to create in the book.

The character is not the narrator. Rather the narrator reads the mind of the dreamer, and streamlines her own point of view into the character’s dreams like waves crashing into one another without boundaries; thoughts without borders. And part of that mix involves the author using the most suitable syntax, notably, not the most sophisticated, to truthfully represent the dreamer/character’s thoughts.

Leslie: Who have been the people who influenced you the most – why them?

Mehreen: Apart from the academic influences, my family influenced me greatly. I come from a liberal family where kindness was predominant. I grew up under the influence of two voracious readers, my mum and my dad. I heard talks about egalitarianism and eradication of poverty ever since I learnt to understand. I think these have played a major role in my formative years.

Leslie: You’re a stream of consciousness writer. What are the different ways Conrad, Joyce and Virginia Woolf practise this technique?

Mehreen: I would say, Woolf displays more adherence to grammar than Joyce and Conrad. For her, it is more a matter of thoughts losing coherence but still within grammatical principles. But for Joyce and Conrad, I think it is more a matter of what’s in the heads of the characters, rather than the technicality. In the end, they are all great expressions of literary prowess.

Adherence to grammar or norm doesn’t necessarily make the perfect art form, but rather how realistically those thoughts are portrayed. In my view, I like to work with raw thoughts and raw emotions and portray them in their inherent ‘rawness’. Therefore, stream-of-consciousness is the best artistic device for me.

Mehreen Ahmed

Leslie: How did you learn to write stream of consciousness, what stylistic mannerism characterise your particular way of writing it, and why did you choose this technique for the subjects you write about?

Mehreen: My debut was Jacaranda Blues, which I started to write almost involuntarily in a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. I was drawn towards the character’s thoughts. I didn’t learn it. It came to me.

A non-adherence to grammar would characterise my style. Because I deal with the ‘rawness’ essentially. I find this is the most realistic and natural way to present my characters’ thoughts which are vastly incoherent, not contained within any parametric boundary.

Leslie: What is your responsibility as an author to your reader? How do you justify your language techniques you use that might make your text “harder” to understand?

Mehreen: I think it all comes down to the writer’s belief that what they do has to be in the best interest of their subject. To find the right format to portray reality, as they think is fit. Readers’ tastes always may not match with those of writers’. But many readers actually like this style although they may find it, ‘hard’. The poetic passages and the sincerity of the narrative compensate for difficult reading.


  1. Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
  2. Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
  3. Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. You can read more about/buy Blue here.
  4. Violet is about late-life love. It begins in 2003 with Beth Jarvis and James Lavender on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister… Signed copies of Violet can be bought here.

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Book review by The Voice of Literature VoxLit for The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed

19 Jul
An unusual way to build a character

The Book: The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed
(link… )
The extract:

“Without a dint, the chauffeur dashed off in the direction of the news agency. The men sat quietly yet again. Being unreasonable became Malcolm no less than mourning became Electra. Lips pouted slightly, he avoided Tommy’s gaze. With bated breath, Tommy continued to look for the chauffeur, certain that he would return any time. When he did, Tommy exuded a palpable sigh of relief. So much that Malcolm could not hide a smile on his lips. He leafed through the newspaper with deft, long fingers of manicured nails, cut squarely. In a moment of impulsive munificence, he glared at Tommy’s awkwardness over the newspaper.
“Relax, what’s the matter?”
“What’s the matter? Do you not see how late we are?” Spewed Tommy in short sharp breaths. “You are doing this deliberately, aren’t you? To insult Henna and me.” In a sudden fit of temper, Tommy’s patience snapped; words spat out.
Malcolm paid attention. Out of some unspoken reprisal, he then calmly asked the chauffeur to turn the car around, back to his mansion.”

The explanation:
Many novelists ‘create’ their characters by giving a description of their personality. Jane Austen, for example, famously does it in Emma. ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’
Nowadays this approach doesn’t seem to work. Maybe this style of writing is out of fashion; maybe modern writers just don’t have Miss Austen’s talent, or maybe it is just that readers of today don’t like being told and want to make up their own minds. Contemporary novelists tend to fall back on have three basic tools to communicate the personality of their characters: how the character behaves, what the character says and what the character thinks. Done well, this approach allows the reader to assess the character just as they would someone they met in real life.
But in ‘The Pacifist’, Mehreen Ahmed hits on a less frequently used character development tool, and a particularly effective one at that. She shows us what kind of person Malcolm is through the eyes of others.
Before this extract, Tommy has been trying to get his boss Malcolm to an important event where people are waiting for him, but Malcolm has been dithering and delaying, and Tommy is becoming frustrated, because his relationship with Malcolm doesn’t allow him to say what he feels.

The extract employs the standard methods mentioned above: we are told Malcolm is ‘unreasonable’, we see his supercilious smile, and we hear his remark to Tommy, carefully chosen to annoy him. But the masterstroke is Tommy’s reaction, towards which the author had been building all through the chapter. It lifts Malcolm’s character right off the page and into our emotions: he makes us angry, the arrogant bastard.

The coup de grace of the extract is the last sentence, though. Malcolm reacts to Tommy’s worries by yet another detour and delay, thereby underlining the nastiness in his personality: he’s a real selfish arrogant bastard in fact. It’s a brilliant piece of writing and a lesson for all authors.

The technique is not unique, for example Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby portrays all the characters through the eyes of the narrator Nick Carraway. But this extract is a fine example from a talented young writer that is well worth bringing to the attention of our readers.
Contributed by James Gault

James Gault reviews The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed

On one level, the Pacifist is a historical novel set in late 19th and early 20th century Australia. It’s rag-to-riches story of the climb from poverty and oppression to wealth and power. It illuminates aspects of troubling themes like institutional child abuse, racism, corruption, mental health, relevant then and still relevant today. All of this is in the novel, but it is not the novel.

This is above all a book about people: the story of two generations of a family and how the sins of the father are visited on the son. In the beginning we are introduced to Malcolm, a successful businessman about whom we would say, euphemistically, that he is not a nice person. But how can a person become so ‘not nice’? Is he just a rich spoiled brat, or is there more to it than that? Is there a dark family secret somewhere?

Well, of course there is. Several of them. They’re hidden in a mysterious red folder. We are taken back to revisit the life story of Malcolm’s mother Rose and his father Peter and to discover how and why the red folder came to be created. As the story unfolds, we begin at least to understand Malcolm, even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to forgive him. Peter is the victim of the hard circumstances of the times and Malcolm is in some sense a victim of Peter, and therefore a victim too of the misfortunate and injustices his parents faced. It reminds us that effects of oppression extend down the generations.

This is a really well written story, especially in the way the characters are brought to life. The one thing I didn’t like was that, while the story centred on the father Peter, the author had built a much more powerful picture of the son. I was left hungering for more about Malcolm.
That aside, the book is a fascinating read. It’s an Australian novel with what seems tome an authentic Australian feel, but the story and themes are universal.

JUNE 2018: The Editor’s Choice.

6 Jun

The Editor's Choice

We saw so many great titles come through this month, it was difficult to choose a number one – but here it is: The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed. Nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, Christina Stead Prize & the Historical Fiction Global Award, comes a dark tapestry of nineteenth century Australia, using a touch of magical realism, stream of consciousness writing and super-naturalism. “The Pacifist” reveals Australian author Ahmed’s exceptional flair for narrative storytelling and compellingly memorable characters.



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The Portrait by Mehreen Ahmed first published by Straylight Literary Magazine (Magazine Currently Offline). Republished with Spillwords press.

12 Apr


The Portrait
Mehreen Ahmed

Synopsis: A portrait of an artist’s thoughts while she paints a building. It’s not just the building she paints, but life as conceived in the abstraction of cosmic colours. A full spectrum of rainbow colours depicted to create life, and other forms of transformations.

On the crossing of Victoria and Harriet Street stood a massive block of grey apartment building. Up in the front of each flat, balconies jutted out like open matchboxes, creating a blind spot for the incoming traffic. It posed an undeniable threat to the traffic on the road. Notwithstanding, the building had much to offer in the way of charm.

It would have looked quite stark, had it not been for the indoor plants and furniture. Some balconies had synthetic black chairs placed around a white table of six. Others had two strong wooden benches to seat eight people abreast. Or maybe a couple more could squeeze in too. Commonly, all the flats had plants of many shapes and colours. Bunches of scarlet geraniums, white and yellow chrysanthemums hung over the balcony rails. Rows of vines and ferns trying to reach out to the sky. The beauty of the building was enhanced by such motley colours of each of these early blooms. The blind spot made the traffic slow down, that’s true, but they could not take their eyes off the balconies’ vibrant beauty either. Each driver that passed by had a peak through the windscreen, gazing at it at least once.

An artist spotted the building at the right time. She took up her brush and decided to paint it in nuanced detail. From a distance, this building looked surreal. On the canvas, she brushed a uniformly cold structure first. Then vastly varied human stories as they percolated within its walls. On a rainy day, when the clouds descended heavily, the building had an awfully dull perspective, which gave the building a grey, surreal look. Particularly, with an untrodden path running by it, vanishing midway out of vision. What little remained to see of the path was a few wet bamboo trees aligned on the edge of half a path, drooping tender shoots and emerald green leaves. Either way, through rain and fall, cold and heat, the artist’s rendition made it pale or bright, as wild as mood swings. However, the structure remained solidly rooted to the ground.

When her painting was just halfway through, the artist sat down cleaning her brush. And then something struck her incognito. She put the brush away and picked up cans of paint one after another of pastel green, rhubarb red, “alentejo blue,”and lavender purple and splashed them vigorously on the canvas, nearly suffocating the building in a sea of callous colours. She panted as she did so. Sitting down afterwards, she reflected upon this idiosyncratic behavior on the canvas. It was a complete devastation. She painted a child’s look of horror penetrating through the riotous colours. A mother holding the child’s hand and desperately trying to make a quick getaway in utter panic. The artist conjured up an image. She took up her brush and moved on to the next canvas. The hilltop of Harriet Street, where she stood, gave her a vantage point to look through the workings of the minds of the residents. Freakish thoughts of mad desires were being reshaped on the canvas. These appeared in the coloured waves of fuchsia pink, blood orange, and translucent lemon. As though she was painting the essential gases: nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and the silken aurora borealis in the full spectrum of celestial colours to represent human love, rage, and sorrow.

Her eyes opened up to each apartment in a unique way. Mothers cooking at the stove; girls watering potted plants on the balconies; lovers’ entwined bodies kissing at dawn break; readers engrossed in pursuit of philosophy; couples arguing over silly things, causing domestic violence and eventual break-up; children going crazy at the computer games; musicians engaged in playing pianos at evensong. All events happening at once, everyday, each on its own orbit as viewed through the windows of her mind. There was no dearth of colour as she indulged herself in colour upon colour. An inner reality of abstraction superimposed unhindered. And then the artist thought of the figurines on Parthenon of the great antiquity. Possibly, she could paint real people and bring them to life. And she did. She painted little figurines, residents of the apartments and brushed them with every stroke heavy with colours, infused life into them. They took their places now on the pantheon of life’s theatre. Within the cold marble of each insignificant apartment wall, human tales played out their own significant dramas. Stories of happiness and misery, one too many, each told earnestly in various ways.

The artist now heard them speak, cry in passionate outbursts as life’s veritable tales unfolded in casual conversations. “Why was she called that, ‘Mogli’s mother,’ a male figure, demanding to know why a certain person would be called so all through her life some four hundred years ago on this very soil? Who was Mogli after all? Has anyone seen him that she should be called so? He addressed a crowd of people, whose cold muteness suggested that even they did not know, who Mogli was? Maybe Mogli was an illegitimate child of this mother, whose identity was to be remained a mystery forever so that no one would ever find him; yet, Mogli would be the one to have survived the test of time in a bizarre irony, even after four hundred years had passed. He would be remembered through a mother known only by that, ‘Mogli’s Mother’ nothing more. No one ever saw this boy. What was this mother’s story after all? Mother of an unwanted child. In a four-hundred-year old figurine, the artist was drawing a dancer, performing a dance for the Lord of a clan on a moonlit night. With a flimsy cotton wrapped around her barely covered body, she was taken by the young Lord as his paramour. A baby boy was born over a period of time. She was now seen breast-feeding it. The next depiction was of the Lord’s men marching into her hut and snatching the baby away. The helpless mother cried out in pain; the seductive dancer of the young Lord was sent to exile. Here in the new land, she called herself,“Mogli’s Mother.” To this day, she was known as “Mogli’s Mother.”

What was the portrait all about? Tales, old and new, finding their way on this canvas of life, whispered into the artist’s ears; everyman and everywoman going about their daily chores, as always since the inception of human history. Old replaced by a new wave of life on this resolute earth. Within these walls of one own’s apartment, plants grew, by the minute, at every turn of the season. Balconies were seen in different shades of colours. From God’s eye-view, seen from an outer space, the artist painted everything including changes. In one of the balconies, a change had occurred indeed! Flowers from one of the pots had died; in the event of this, in the same soil, a resident decided to plant tomato seed to foster the growth of a different life, in a different moment.



The Blotted Line, A collection of short stories and a novella by Mehreen Ahmed. Publisher, Story Institute. Seller amazon stores online.

1 Apr

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An essay

18 Mar

A diamond 5 star rating

17 Mar