Welcome back to ‘The Story Behind The Story’ series. Today’s post is by Rashida Murphy. I love and resonate with Rashida’s writing on so many levels, and thrilled to learn more about the story behind her novel.
I was born in a small town in India and came to Perth, Western Australia as a young woman with an infant daughter and my then husband, about 30 years ago. I started writing stories as a way of ‘sense-making’ in a new country. My novel, ‘The Historian’s Daughter’ was one such story. It started as a fragment many years ago, but I started to write it seriously in 2011 when I was offered a PhD scholarship by my university in Perth. It is a story about fragmented families and fragments of memory and poetry and for a long time I didn’t actually know what the story was about. Like many writers, I wrote to find the story.
The first fragment that came to me when I was thinking about writing a story about an immigrant Indian and Iranian family in Australia, was the line – ‘This is not the story he wanted me to tell.’ I didn’t yet know who ‘he’ was or what the story was. It felt like a good start to a story so it became the opening sentence of my novel.
The second fragment was a line from one of my favourite poems by Matthew Arnold, a poem called Sohrab and Rustum. The line that popped into my head and wouldn’t leave me alone was ‘O Sohrab, an unquiet heart is thine!’ Now I had a character for my story, called Sohrab, and I knew he had to be troubled in some way. This then led to another fragment – this time a real memory of a young Iranian man I had known when I was a child in India. This young man had come to India, along with hundreds of others, to study English during the 1970s. He lived in my family home for almost ten years, first as an exchange student, later as a paying guest. The Islamic Revolution in Iran that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 disrupted a lot of Iranian lives, especially those being lived outside Iran. These students were abruptly displaced and in the days before reliable phone lines or Internet, they did not know what was happening to their families. They could not return home and if they did, they could not leave. My friend was one of those caught in between. I have no idea what happened to him. He disappeared from our lives despite being like a family member for more than ten years.
The final fragment that would not leave me alone was a feeling that books had to be involved somehow – a young girl narrator with an insatiable appetite for books had to figure in this story.
So that’s what I started with; an opening sentence, an Iranian man called Sohrab and a young girl who loved books. That was the basis for the novel. Of course it changed several times. I wrote four versions of the novel before I decided on the one that I now have, but the first line, the character Sohrab and the girl who loved books have been in every version I wrote. I wrote about families like the one I grew up in and the one I made as an immigrant to Australia – complex, messy, multi-lingual, multi-racial, loving, intrusive, loyal, fickle.
I steeped myself in Iranian literature, especially books written by women about the Revolution. I went to India on a research trip and noted how unreliable my memory of growing up there, was. Things I ‘remembered’ had never happened, or happened differently, according to people I spoke to. I read poetry, and started to think about how I might link my research with my life experiences and write a story about things that cannot be easily explained. A mother abandoning her children. A brother locking up his sister. A father isolating his children. A family coming together after they’ve been displaced. Secrets. Politics, both familial and global.
I worked on the novel for about five years. I entered it into the Dundee International Book Prize in 2015 and it was placed on a shortlist from nearly 500 worldwide entries. I received my PhD in October this year and hope to publish my novel in 2016.