Shehnaz Mohammed is third-generation Indian descendant whose maternal great grand father came to Trinidad and Tobago when he was nine years old.
In 2015 she visited India for the first time and she told WMN it was not at all what she had expected.
"I remember telling one of my classmates at university in 2010 that I have to lead a tour group to India and he asked, 'Why? What is India known for, arranged marriages?' and we both laughed."
The UWI graduate attended a three-tier leadership programme at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and experienced first-hand, some of the culture and traditions of her ancestors.
"After visiting, I realised how skewed our perception was. India is a spiritual, artistic and intellectual society. Driving through state to state one quickly realises that each village and metro city has its own cultural nuances, language and traditions.
"There was culture shock at first as the systems are different, English is widely spoken in metropolitan cities and south India. Another culture shock was the attitudes towards time, driving, different modes of transport, work timings and customs, different festivals and even birthday celebrations," she said.
Mohammed, 30, is the author of Haphiza's Odyssey – a book inspired by her mother, Haphiza.
She said after her mother died in 2020, she needed to find an outlet to release her feelings over this loss. The book was meant to give readers an insight into what her mother had to endure in her life and as is used as a way to immortalise her.
“She started her career as part of the ancillary staff at an insurance company and then became a receptionist at a travel service in Carlton Centre. She eventually became the manager heading a staff of 12. She then made her entrepreneurial debut in 1983 starting a travel agency on Cipero Street in a patriarchal society. She managed to play ball in a man's world and earned the trust and admiration of the public with her natural soft skills and village mannerisms.”
Mohammed's formal training is in Spanish, communication studies and theatre arts, but she now runs the agency from which she learned so many informal lessons.
“My mum established the travel agency before I was born. She was my first teacher and the agency was my first school. I was blessed to grow up with people from all different walks of life and learned how to manage conflict, deal with crisis and befriend others."
She said although Haphiza's Odyssey is her first book and was written in 2020, her writing journey began after she finished her post graduate diploma in education in 2017. And while her mother would have inspired the book, her writing style came from Chilean writer Isabel Allende and the character Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights.
She was asked to read an excerpt from it at the Bocas Lit Fest in April at Nalis, Port of Spain. So far, she said, she has got positive feedback on the book from people who have read it.
“My mum's childhood friends in London and New York said they read it in one go and they just wanted to know more and more. My uncles in Trinidad, who aren't avid readers said they are reading one chapter a night to fully absorb it, while friends have said they appreciate the reflective questions at the end which make them think about the spiritual lessons learned from their parents.”
She said her writing process is meant to put her thoughts and conversations with herself – from the heart – onto paper.
When asked if writing is stressful for her, she said, “At times, yes. In the words of Ira Mathur (author and journalist), ‘It is a demanding craft.’ It's tiring, you have to let it rest for a few months and let it take its own form. It’s an iterative process, a lot of back and forth.”
Mohammed said when she experiences writer’s block, she just lets the piece rest and revisits it after a few months.
“I make it a part of my life, aspirate on it, sit alone at a coffee shops at times and tweak it as I go along."
She has no formal training in novel writing, but has dabbled in script writing as a theatre student in Mumbai in 2015.
When Mohammed isn’t writing, she juggles between being a travel agent and teaching Spanish and Hispanic literature to secondary school students. She uses a variety of artistic pedagogical techniques – script writing, character analysis and sketching – in her teaching.
“Travel also comes into play, as I use a lot of interactions with people as a frame of reference from growing up in a travel agency as well as my experiences leading group tours to India. So foreign languages such as Hindi and global culture practices are subconsciously weaved into my teaching.”
As a Spanish teacher, she was invited to conduct a training workshop for Spanish teachers at Symbiosis University in Pune, India in July 2018.
She said she got into teaching because of good teachers who extracted the best in her and encouraged her to reach her potential.
Mohammed encourages young people to make "journalling a part of your reflective practice. It gives insight, builds creative and critical thinking skills. Writing helps you find your voice. And your voice matters."