BackStory: Six Questions with Mehreen Ahmed

BackStory: Six Questions with Mehreen Ahmed
Author of East Bengal, 1971

What inspired you to write ‘East Bengal, 1971’?

I was reading an article on the Bangladesh Independence movement of 1971 one day in a newspaper. The article was about the contribution of women in the civil war. Taramon, a legendary female freedom fighter fought this war courageously and was awarded the highest honour, the Bir Protik award. She was in direct combat with the enemy. Another female freedom fighter was also awarded this award. This article inspired me to write this piece.

What are your favourite pieces of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? Who are your favourite historical fiction writers (flash or otherwise)?

Some of my favourites, I read were on FlashBack. Not just one but many, however, I really liked, A Note on the Understanding of Fossils by Cathy Lennon. I liked it from the perspective of stream-of consciousness. I think this style made the story telling, compelling.

I liked Adib Khan’s Homecoming. This was about the Vietnam war and Australia’s involvement in the war. I loved it because of the way he wrote it, there was a sense of forlorn sadness about it all. He depicted the horrors of the war, the killing of innocent people, the rapes, the casualties in a way as if to say the futility of it all, retrospectively. War creates history, and is necessary to bring political changes and regime changes and so on, but the prices of war are just too high, both from the point of view of civilians as well as soldiers.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I researched quite a bit about Taramon and the war of independence in Bangladesh. I was surprised to find the number of female soldiers participating in the war. There were many, and I was awed by the level of courage these women had shown in combat. Ordinarily, mostly housewives and daughters of villagers, and farmers with low literacy level, they learnt to use guns and fight a bloody battle against a formidable army. They gave themselves away selflessly for the freedom of Bangladesh. That was amazing.

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?

Love for humanity, I think. Taramon did what she had to do to save her country and her fellow citizens. However, where I think I would fall short is her immeasurable courage. I don’t think I’m that courageous to fight a real battle.

What do you like most about writing flash, and what aspects are the most challenging or rewarding aspects of writing historical flash, in particular? 

Flash is short, neat and brilliant. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Shakespeare.

The research has to be thorough. However, as writers, we must remind ourselves that we are not writing yet another history book, but fiction out of history, that is the most challenging part, I think is to create fiction by maintaining the integrity of historical facts. The reward is the outcome of a successful project.

My favourite part of the writing process is when words flow into the empty sheets without any blocks. This undeterred thought process finding its way out and resulting in fluid writing is my favourite part.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?

Ancient India, The Indus Valley, I think, I often romanticise about the Aryans and how they came about to conquer India in its most pristine, and undivided state. I romanticise about the languages they spoke at the time, the Avesta and the Sanskrit. The lifestyle of the time, how businesses was carried in the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, what they traded and who they traded it with. The government of the time, which was kingship, the fire worshipping in golden temples and liturgic dances in the moonlight. I find these really romantic.

How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

It is the most important thing. History, must not be distorted under any circumstances. That’s why it is such a challenging venture to undertake historical fiction.

Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning, internationally published and critically acclaimed author. One of her flash fiction was winner of the Waterloo Festival Writing Competition, 2020. She also received Reader Ready Awards, 2019, Silver and bronze medal for her books, The Pacifist, The Blotted Line and Moirae. You can find her on Facebook at mehreen.ahmed.3551 and on Twitter @Ahmed2Mehreen.

Cuckoo photograph courtesy of the National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh, revised Second Edition (2012).