Noreen Masud

Finding solace from trauma in flat landscapes

Academic Noreen Masud on how visiting Britain’s level terrains helped her face her complex post-traumatic stress disorder
May 10, 2023

“I’m not good at walking,” says the academic and author Noreen Masud. “And I’m not an expert or a geographer. I’m just a small, unfit, brown woman who finds a particular shape of land very absorbing!”

Wearing a cheerful pair of dungarees, Masud is speaking to me over Zoom from her home in Bristol. She has just finished laying down a carpet and apologises for the remnants of the DIY project sitting behind her. I joke that hopefully the new flooring will remain as level as the subjects of her first non-academic book, A Flat Place. In this memoir-travelogue, Masud describes her experience of living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) and the solace she has found in flatness.

Masud was born in Lahore, Pakistan, to a British mother and a Pakistani father. Her childhood was disruptive and claustrophobic: her father did not allow the family to leave their house and Masud and her sisters were raised only speaking English. When Masud was a teenager, her father disowned her and others in her family, and she travelled with her mother and siblings to Britain.

A Flat Place, however, is “not about how bad things are in Pakistan, or how bad Islam is, or how if you come to Britain you become cured”, she says—but rather the trauma incurred by a wider colonial backdrop, in both Pakistan and Britain. “The pain and the trauma are rooted in what the west did to the east,” she tells me. “My father’s behaviour wasn’t rooted in Islam, but rather in his obsessive Anglophilia.” 

A Flat Place is structured around Masud’s visits to Britain’s flat landscapes, such as Newcastle Moor and Morecambe Bay. She she explores how these places have helped her understand and relate to the cPTSD she developed during her difficult upbringing. While traditional trauma studies connect PTSD to a single turning point event, cPTSD is not so easy to locate. “Complex trauma is something that happened before you were old enough to understand what an event was,” Masud explains. As an adult, she finds flat landscapes remind her of Pakistan and the open fields she saw from the car window, as her father drove them back to their claustrophobic home. 

They have also become a metaphor for the “flat” feeling of cPTSD itself. “I was interested in moving through a flat landscape and how we react to it,” she says. “There’s something that happens to you when you stay in a repetitive place over a long period of time. You enter a space where your mind can wander and come back while your brain does whatever it needs to do to survive.”

Masud is aware that flat landscapes don’t tend to be among most people’s favourite landmarks. “It’s to do with traditional narrative patterns,” she says. “A mountain is satisfying because there’s tension, suspense, climax and relief; it’s telling a story and working narratively. It satisfies our work fetish in the west. We don’t respect things that are easy, in the same way we don’t respect work that is repetitive or boring. We’re so quick to call that work unskilled.” 

A Flat Place argues that Britain’s flat landscapes have historically either been overlooked or overwritten by nationalism, as dull-seeming places that need to be filled with human activity or littered with national symbols. “A flat landscape is always threatening to turn into a featureless landscape, if you look at it lazily,” says Masud. “There’s an anxiety that it must be marked out as British because it risks being misrecognised as something else. In the Cambridgeshire Fens in particular, there seemed to be a reaction to that. As I moved out of the suburbs of Ely, paraphernalia of Britishness began accumulating: red postboxes, Union flags, an antique shop selling golliwog badges.” 

In the book, Masud draws a parallel between flat terrains and trauma narratives: there are no hills to summit, no satisfying narrative climaxes, no final resolutions. Both, too, are misunderstood. “There’s a truism in trauma theory that trauma is uncommunicable, that people don’t know how to talk about it,” says Masud. “I think in some cases that’s true, but I think it’s equally true that people do know how to tell their trauma; people just don’t know how to hear it.” Masud has created a dedicated space for those who, like the author, deserve to be heard.