by Shoba Viswanathan
Devi Laskar’s debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues (Counterpoint) can be described as her exploration of an alternative sequence of events, inspired by her family’s experience of a police raid. While the harrowing real-life events included a prolonged legal battle, with the judge eventually dismissing the case, Laskar has used the raid as a creative seed to explore the swirling racial reality of suburban America. Breaking the shackles of model minority South Asians, the protagonist, simply known as Mother, confronts the unfairness of the raid and she is shot. As she lies wounded on her driveway, the novel delves and drifts between the past and the present exploring themes of otherness, immigrant identity, being a mother of color, and gender expectations. The book feels like an emotional triumph, especially when we learn that Laskar’s computer with her work in progress was seized during the raid, forcing her to make a fresh start to create The Atlas of Reds and Blues. The book is a must read for anyone interested in exploring contemporary racial dynamics.
In this phone and email interview poet and novelist Laskar, quick with her responses and generous with her time, spoke about the emotional reality of writing disturbing experiences, her gratitude for reader engagement as a debut novelist, and the need for writers to invest in their craft by emphasizing practice.
Shoba Viswanathan: Your book is an exploration of an alternate reality of some extremely challenging moments in your life. Yet, the life experiences that lead to key moments are recognizable as episodes of subtle or casual racism familiar to many people of color in contemporary America. As a writer, was it harder to write about the dramatic events or the smaller episodes?
Devi S. Laskar: Good question! The poet Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” There were so many moments as I wrote this book that I was angry and weeping—not because I was sad, but because I was angry. I think it’s harder to write the smaller moments.
SV: As the Mother and her reporter colleagues try to create a story on the anniversary of the Kennedy’s assassination, there is a sense of weary resignation. What is your feeling about American attitude to history? How do you see this influencing attitudes to immigrants and the changing composition of American society?
DL: I have mixed feelings about history and how it’s taught in America. There are so many variables: who gets to write it, how it’s presented, what is left out. A good history book is a rigorous study of the many factors that led up to a particular event and then a thorough accounting of the consequences. It does not side with the winners.
Unfortunately, not all history books and texts are created equal—and there is a huge disparity in education in America. Nowadays, I think students are not receiving a well-rounded foundation in its own laws and government, its histories, both local and national. Until or unless the educational system is overhauled, I don’t think the pervading attitudes of the dominant culture are going to change—many of the marginalized communities and their stories will remain invisible and unheard.
SV: The way you have structured your book, and your use of language, make it easy to see your poetry background. What were your challenges and joys in transitioning to fiction with The Atlas of Reds and Blues?
DL: I think the one thing I had to fight for consistently was the book’s designation. I knew it was a novel. But its length and structure led some people to question whether it should be called a novel instead of novella or prose poetry. I have been a longtime fan of Sandra Cisneros, and I have held up her seminal novel, The House on Mango Street, as the gold standard. She is a poet who wrote a novel. If you take all of the beautiful short chapters of her book, it is a novel. And yet, many of the individual pieces of her book are heavily anthologized in poetry volumes.
Also, I’m a poet and a former newspaper reporter. One of my joys is compression—how to make a sentence or a chapter even shorter. So, I’m glad that worked out for this book.
SV: I really enjoyed the sections of your book where you talk about the Mother’s observations of her daughters and their personality quirks. The very normalcy of those moments stand in stark contrast to the coldness of the police encounter. The balancing of the dark dissonance with the everyday normalcy is very effective. How did you arrive at this balance?
DL: It is a literary conceit to have a life-flashing-before-your-eyes narrative. However, it is also true somewhat that when a policeman is pointing his weapon at you—you do quickly think about what is important. You are at once in the present and racing through the past. I wanted to give that feeling to my Mother character so she could impart it to the reader. Everyone in real life goes through difficult moments, and I wanted the readers to experience that feeling. The only way I knew how to do that was by returning to the driveway in between her memories. Also I was playing with the idea of synesthesia. She can’t move, but she can hear things and sometimes she can see things and this evokes in her another set of memories.
SV: There are a couple of times in the book that you refer to Mother’s family members protesting the possibility of her writing about them. One daughter goes so far as to threaten to hold a placard outside a bookstore asking people not to buy Mother’s potential book! This bring up the eternal question of how much of your life do you use in your work?
DL: Grace Paley said (I’m paraphrasing), that you shouldn’t write what you know. You should write about what you don’t know about what you know. So yes I gave my Mother character a few of my things, as a place to start. I needed to start from a place of familiarity to explore the unknown.
SV: Do you worry about what and who you fictionalize?
DL: Not really. I wrote my book, and I gave it to my family and close friends to read ahead of the publication. And they were fine with it.
SV: Given that this book is based partly on real events, was it cathartic to write about them?
DL: I would not say cathartic. My real life experiences changed me as a person and as a writer. I was glad to be able to communicate that change to the reader. But writing the book itself didn’t necessarily make me feel better.
SV: What prompted you to write this book without quite naming any of the characters? The Baby Sister was identifiable as a translation of the typical pattern of many Indian languages, but how did you decide on the other choices?
DL: Two reasons. 1. I’m Bengali and in my family and community we don’t usually address each other by our given names; there is always a relational title and I wanted to pay homage to that. 2. This family is invisible in America and unacknowledged as Americans. There was no point in me giving them names, no one in the world of the story would learn it or bother to remember it.
SV: In a book about racial injustice, you wove in the limitations of gender expectations. How did you arrive at the Barbie and dolls theme?
DL: I was indirectly referencing the model minority myth, how Asians are seen as the model minority—we’re all doctors, make good grades, pay our taxes, are silent. And women are so mistreated in this country—they make less money for doing the same work.
I am the daughter of an academic, and I had the great privilege of traveling to India and to Europe when I was young. Everywhere I went, people would ask me where are you from, and I would answer America. And back in the 1970s and 1980s, their response was always the same: Oh. America, land of Barbie dolls and Coca-Cola—I wanted to explore that memory, about the iconic toy and how it’s associated with a society. I have never been a fan of Barbie dolls, they are anatomically impossible and they set an impossible standard of beauty. And yet girls are crazy for them, and I think it sets a bad tone.
SV: While you have published as a poet before, this is your debut novel. What can you share of your creative experience as someone finding a new level of exposure at this stage in your life? What helped bring you here?
DL: I’ve tried to stay grounded in my writing life. I am still trying to write every day, I’m still in my writing groups and following my routine. My writing family is large and they’ve been so supportive—I think it’s important to realize that the attention is fleeting; and your true friends aren’t. I think it’s important to keep writing and produce work, even if it’s bad, as the book is released into the world. Stay focused and grounded.
SV: In the course of our phone conversation, I was intrigued by your reference to the notion of writing as practice. Can you elaborate on this idea and share how you engage with the craft of writing?
DL: Well doctors train for a long time and then they have a medical “practice”—it’s not called medical perfect, it’s a practice. And writers should think of their craft in that way. It’s a journey. In order to improve, you have to practice. I know some writers say they don’t write every day, and that they don’t need to write every day. I disagree with that—it’s a writing practice, you have to practice a little bit, even ten minutes, every day. That means reading, and thinking about your work, as well as writing. It all counts toward the writing practice.
SV: In the book events and reader feedback, have you been surprised by any of the engagements with your book? Have you felt like explaining anything or re-framing any scene?
DL: I am so grateful when strangers and friends alike hold up the book and say how moved they were by it, how it changed them. I am a 52-year-old debut novelist. I had no expectation of this level of engagement and response. I’m so grateful.
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. As a book reviewer, she enjoys discovering new writers and is particularly interested in immigrant narratives and in translated literature. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.