Memoirs have sometimes been considered a form of fiction, not as false accounts but by being enriched with the layering of symbols, place, and affable narration. Noreen Masud’s A Flat Place: Moving Through Empty Landscapes, Naming Complex Trauma picks up these tools and employs them to full effect, as she takes the reader further and further into these vast, empty-but-not places to share her experiences.
“The world was a flat plain with nowhere to hide…Nothing was all right…Flat landscapes have always given me a way to love myself,” are just a few of the achingly honest and intriguing lines Masud shares in her introduction. It helps frame and give shape to this work, in understanding the three main focuses therein: her perspective as a Pakistani immigrant in the U.K., her diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD), and her fascination and feelings of safety in flat places. This is all woven together throughout the memoir, giving a textured and intimate portrayal of a woman who has come into her own, but is unwilling to let any of the past go without giving it a name or story—“We tell stories to make them visible. Or we tell stories so that we don’t have to look at them any longer.”
The complexities of Masud’s highly controlled and abusive childhood are brought into focus from the start but skews dwelling on it, choosing instead to highlight what came after. Her sharp words and mind cut through the chaff of what commonly bloats memoirs. She describes playing with ants as a child and makes the comparison to upbringing, “My father put his two big hands on the ground around us, and we crawled around inside.” The we here speak of herself and her sisters. The relatively simple line, set up by the preceding paragraph, encapsulates the claustrophobic nature of her rearing. One line succinctly summarizes a whole breath of feelings and experiences without her belaboring the point. There are passing mentions in later chapters but the foundation has been laid.
The structure of A Flat Place is striking, diverging from a conventional methodology. Masud chooses locations she visits in order to frame each progression as she dives deeper into her struggles and identity. From Orford Ness to Morecambe Bay to Newcastle Moor, the reader follows as each place unfolds in an indeterminate direction, melding with the horizon. Yet, despite these locations being places of sanctuary, Masud is not naive and refuses to romanticize the past. She is self-aware, “We think of places like the fens as rural, and yet that flatness derives from intensive human intervention.” With the brief and informative sense of a crack journalist, Masud highlights the complicated history of how the English changed the very landscape she now appreciates. What was once a marsh is now rich farmland, known as Cambridgeshire, thanks to the colossal public project of draining the region. The lite-terraforming is something she traces with bittersweetness because the flatness that exists reveals a sanctuary. She also cannot avoid the coy reference that these places may soon be reclaimed by the same waters that were banished due to climate change.
The style of Masud’s writing is like that of the eels she mentions in the Fens. Her words twist and wrap around various concepts, at times in the same paragraph, challenging the reader to take her work as a whole, rather than pin it down for dissection. The concerns of her work, while innately personal and self-refectory, retain a global scope as she considers her homeland of Pakistan and her new home in England. She remains an outsider, mostly because her cPTSD forces her to be, but she cannot excuse herself from her ancestry or the empathy she feels towards those similar to her. Upon her visit to Orford Ness, an old WWII base turned historical tourist attraction, she considers the experiments and foul things created there in hopes of turning the tide on the Germans. “I’m always interested in which parts of history British people want to know more about, and which parts they’re happy to draw a veil over.”
Buried in these flat places are not only the ruins of history but the spiritual wreckage of a life repressed. Masud writes openly about the grief of her family fracturing and the inability of being able to put it back together. The hauntology that pervades these insights and the book as a whole is heavy but does not overwhelm. These feelings and circumstances continually drive her back into the wilderness, the flat plains, in order to work through them. It is only in all of these spaces she can process and connect to that which is the most broken. This combines as a challenge to the reader, although Masud is not intentionally issuing one. We, as the reader, are asked to reflect and make peace with the circumstances that we cannot change. The relationships that may never reappear or heal. The kind of open consideration that should be felt for individuals who struggle socially, mentally, physically, or economically.
It is commendable that the work does not fall into a spiral of attempting to define terms or hand-wringing around what might be more politically correct to say. Masud is careful to mention and draw the line of how various things such as the COVID-19 pandemic were beneficial to her because she was able to enjoy the time alone and inside without dealing with peer pressure to go out. One might think her authenticity and brutal honesty may leave her vulnerable to critique, but it may in some ways shield her because all of her cards are on the table. This kind of prose does not come along often and should be treasured as a rarity.
While it would be too soon to expect another work from Masud, it will be and should be demanded in the future. Too few writers are able to combine personal essays, memoir temperaments, and piercing social critique, all in the vein of unpacking and reflecting on trauma. Readers of all preferences, history, narrative, and social sensibilities will be able to take something away from the work and maybe learn something as well about themselves or others, as an excellent work of literature like A Flat Place does.
by Noreen Masud
Published on June 6, 2023