Wednesday 8 May 2013

Q & A with Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed

Title:  A Deconstructed Heart

Author:  Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed

Publication Date:  November 1, 2012

Page Count:  120

Genre:  Fiction

Book Description:  A Deconstructed Heart is the story of Mirza, a middle-aged Indian college professor whose wife has left him. He moves out of his house into a tent in his back garden, where he sets up an outdoor classroom and serves tea to his kind but bewildered neighbors. He is visited by the irritable spirit of his long-dead teacher, Khan Sahib, who is befuddled by the dysfunctions of modern life.

In the north of England, Mirza’s niece, Amal, is finishing up her last year of college before she is expected to join her parents in their
new home in India. Asked by her father to talk her uncle back into his senses, she moves into Mirza’s house, and they soon are connected by their shared loneliness. She meets Rehan, Mirza’s student, and is intrigued by the path of certainty he has built over his own loss and loneliness—a certainty that is threatened by his growing feelings for her.

When Rehan disappears, Amal's suffering forces Mirza is to face the world once more. Together, Mirza and Amal must come to a new understanding of what it means to be an immigrant family when the old traditions have unraveled.

A Deconstructed Heart is a novel that explores the breakdown and rebuilding in one immigrant family trying to adapt: how lines in families and cultures are forcibly redrawn, how empty space can be reframed by a tent into a new definition of home... but how, no matter how hard we may try to forget, the past refuses to be contained.

Reviews From Amazon:
"The "deconstructed heart" of the title concerns the disconnection between a husband and wife, but could also be a stand-in or metaphor for the disconnection within a family separated from loved ones in a former homeland, or between old and new cultures. The author has a fine sense of style, with a wry sense of humor, rich images, and skillful use of simile and metaphor. Writing this good is rare." O. Barnack

"Unabashedly, I can say I loved this book." Leila Smith, for The Kindle Book Review.

"Let me start by saying that I loved A Deconstructed Heart! It was a sweetly poetic, easy read. Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed's writing style has a soothing, melodic quality that invites readers to be drawn into her stories easily. I was hooked from the beginning and immediately found myself looking forward to what would happen next. I would highly recommend A Deconstructed Heart be put on anyone's must read list." Susan Elizabeth Barton, eBook Review Gal.

"Beautifully written story about loss, heartache and family." R.C. Bennett.

Q & A with Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed

Q:  Tell us a little bit about your main characters.
A:  I have written a book, A Deconstructed Heart, and a short story series, The Purana Qila Stories, with three releases so far: A Change in the Weather, The Dust Beneath Her Feet and The Well-Tended Garden.

The main characters of A Deconstructed Heart are Mirza and his niece Amal. Mirza is a middle-aged college professor whose wife has left him. He has a breakdown of sorts and makes the impulsive decision to move into a tent in his back garden. Amal is asked by Mirza's brother, who now lives in India, to see what is going on with her uncle. A college student, Amal has lived on her own since her parents moved back to India, and she forms a connection with Mirza as she assumes the role of caretaker. Together, uncle and niece must make sense of their fractured family; their loneliness creates a strong bond between them. Amal soon falls for Mirza's student Rehan. When he disappears without a trace, Mirza is forced to come out of his isolation to help his niece.

My short story series is centered around a tight-knit community in India who live or work at the wealthy house which gives the series its name, the Purana Qila, which means 'the old fort.' The main characters are Safiyah, and her daughters Henna and Laila, who come to live at Purana Qila as servants and Imran, the young man of the house. In my series, I begin in 1947, the era of India's Partition and move forward through time and across nations, as this group of people is affected by historical events that pull this community apart. Safiyah is a strong woman, modeled after my own aunt, who has to keep going despite the disappointments that life deals her and the incredible danger she must face to attempt to hold her family together. Her husband is unreliable and she must take over the leadership of her family, using her will and her resilience to create a future for her daughters.

Q:  Are any of your characters inspired by people you know?
A:  In A Deconstructed Heart, there is a little bit of many people I know in my characters. The banter between the students who befriend Amal is inspired by people I remember from my own college days in England.

In The Purana Qila Stories, Safiyah is most closely based on my aunt, who was faced with the same terrible decision as Safiyah is in The Dust Beneath Her Feet at the time of India's Partition. Her husband went to find work in the north, which was to become part of the new country of Pakistan, leaving her with their small child. She heard the rumor that he had remarried and decided to travel across the country at a dangerous time to see for herself.

Q:  Khan Sahib is a colorful character, a ghost, who haunts Mirza and berates him for being alone, living in a tent. What role does Khan Sahib play in the character development of Mirza?
A:  Khan Sahib arrives at what is Mirza's lowest point and provides a comforting link to the old days of life in a communal setting in India, when Mirza was younger. They visit those days together by reminiscing and looking at slides of old photographs. Khan Sahib is also a foil for Mirza, a painful reminder of how life has changed since then, and how he can no longer rely on a tight, supportive community in his life in England. He can only be nostalgic for a time and place where everyone knew their role and largely stuck to the script that was written for them. This is a central concern for Mirza, who has realized with his wife's departure that he cannot depend on the old ways to shape his family life. Khan Sahib arrives at a crucial turning point for Mirza, and when he leaves, Mirza is forced to focus on the present, to take action and to finally face up to his loss by helping Amal process her own sorrow.

Q:  What inspired the title? Did you have an alternative title in mind?
A:  A Deconstructed Heart was originally going to be called The Breakdown. I was thinking of the idea of pulling things apart to re-examine them, which is what people often do with their lives when they enter their middle-aged years. Mirza's wife leaves him and that precipitates a kind of emotional breakdown, but also a re-examination of his life and how he got to this point. I then thought about literary deconstruction, which pulls apart the hidden meanings inside words, showing us how one word can be made up of so many ideas. That concept was perfectly apt for what I was trying to do in the book. We are all made up of multiple identities that jostle with one another, and are sometimes contradictory. We have to resolve the differences, to somehow make meaning out of these identities, and of our lives.

Q:  Mirza's wife leaves him and we learn that she becomes an artist. What role does her art have in moving the action of the story?
A:  Naida smashes the empty wine bottles from their parties and turns the glass shards into mosaics. She discovers her potential as an artist through this process, and this self-discovery ultimately leads to her leaving Mirza and creating a new life for herself. It symbolizes a fulfillment that her husband cannot provide her, as much as he wants to. The emotional center of the book, if you will, is a moment when Mirza attacks her art in his frustration and misplaced jealousy. Later, her art is a tool that brings him face to face with her again, and reminds him of how far apart they now are.

Q:  How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
A:  I have grown up with my mother's stories about life in India and that rich vein of storytelling has certainly influenced my desire to tell stories of my own. I felt her nostalgia for a country that she left in her twenties and saw the price of that emigration on her and her extended family. The separation between the generations who remained in India, and the young professionals who headed West, is a constant theme in my writing. I spent my own childhood and young adult years in England, and that experience meant that England could be the only setting for A Deconstructed Heart.

Q:  What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
A:  I cannot write until I know the moment is right for me. When I begin, I am completely focused, and even if life draws me away from my writing desk, I will steal away whenever a new idea comes to me. I am careful not to rush the process however, since I find that time allows new ideas to grow and each story makes its own progress towards maturity and completion. For my latest story, The Well-Tended Garden, I was stuck at the very end of the story and was not satisfied with its original ending. I found I had to be patient. That extra time allowed me to find what I was missing and I restructured the ending in a way that made perfect sense for my central character, Safiyah. I'm so glad I did!

Q:  What book are you reading now?
A:  I just finished The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair, which is a tale of serial murder in 19th century England. The protagonist is a young Indian man who is innocent of the crimes, but who has told lies about being a thug in India during his past and therefore made himself a suspect in the murders. The next book on my list is The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. I also want to read Jeet Thayil's Nacropolis. I love the moment before choosing my next book, because there are so many wonderful possibilities out there!

Find the Author:
Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed is the author of A Deconstructed Heart and she is currently writing an interconnected short story collection titled The Purana Qila Stories. Three of those short stories, A Change in the Weather, The Dust Beneath Her Feet and The Well-Tended Garden, are available on Amazon for Kindle. Shaheen won a national essay competition about Indian life held by the Indian High Commission in England and has had her poetry published in the Cadbury's Book of Children's Poetry, Tomorrow magazine and Nadopasana One. Shaheen grew up in India and England and now lives in Chicago with her family.




Author Page:

Review Links: The Purana Qila Stories

The Dust Beneath Her Feet:

A Change in the Weather:

A Deconstructed Heart:
Leila Smith, for The Kindle Book Review:

Susan Barton for eBook Review Gal:

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