Go Forth: Devi S. Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues

Go Forth is a series that offers a look at contemporary literature and publishing, started by Brandon Hobson and Nicolle Elizabeth in 2012.

Devi S. Laskar’s favorite Acid Jazz to listen to while writing:
“Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by Us3
“Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries” by Willie Bobo
“Manteca” by Dizzy Gillespie

Upon receiving the 2004 Sydney Peace Literary Prize, and responding to the notion of being an activist or representative of a mass movement, writer Arundhati Roy said, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” White, privileged readers should take a moment to consider what this means. As writers of color like Esi Edugyan, Natalia Sylvester, R. O. Kwon, Jamel Brinkley, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, among others, continue to push their stories to the center, we should remember their voices have been there all along. Some of us have decided to not listen or look hard enough, while others have shuttered literary or social platforms to them.

It’s this deliberate silence poet Devi S. Laskar means to break in her debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Already compact at two hundred and fifty pages, it reads as if it were one hundred, driven by the fierce honesty in Laskar’s prose. Atlasis both beautiful and raw, hitting readers head-on with what women of color grapple with daily in America—racism, misogyny, invisibility, and otherness. Her third-person narrator begins the story in the final moments of Mother’s life. Mother is protagonist and protector of her Bengali-American family. “She closes her eyes, breathes in the metal essence of her own blood as it exits the hole the bullet has created.” She’s shown her rage for the first time, and federal authorities shoot her in response. We come to learn her family’s wrongfully targeted. Rage, as Laskar demonstrates, brings with it violent consequences for communities of color.

But this is Mother’s story—her voice—traced across years of learned, self-imposed silence as survival, until this critical, mortal moment. Laskar explores this inner journey of muted expression by playing with the metatextual in an accessible way. She welcomes the reader into this subterranean space with section titles like “Inciting Incidents” and later “Act I” and “Act II,” found in atypical structural order. The disorganization of structure emulates her reaching within herself to memorialize her family and the oppression that leads to this crisis. Her voice rages from the inside out. Atlas is a self-conscious text, yes, but one that dismantles and repurposes narrative to serve Mother’s asynchronous memories of life, as she lies bleeding on her driveway.

Readers can’t help but listen, even when forced to witness the racist bullying Mother’s children encounter at school or the institutional misogyny she herself suffers at work and in social settings. It’s a reminder that communities of color live in constant negotiation of self-censorship and fury, of persecution and expression.

Devi S. Laskar and I spoke over the course of a few weeks. We met at an SF Grotto celebration for women authors, then on the phone to catch up. The first thing I notice in both occasions is Laskar’s passion and joy combined. Over the phone, within seconds, she’s laughing. We’re talking about our dogs and how much we love them. We discuss the expectations she set for herself as an older author, and the honor of Joyce Carol Oates seeking out her reading at a Berkley indie bookstore, not to mention the continued—and well-deserved—positive coverage her novel is receiving.

—Michael Adam Carroll

THE BELIEVER: How was your week? Still on book tour?

DSL: Not on tour right now, but I got a request from an indie bookstore in Georgia to engage with a book club through a video call. I loved the idea, but hesitated. It was a group of Southern women, and I wasn’t sure how they’d react to the commentary on racism that Atlas touches on about a Georgia community. It was such a great experience. They were curious and sympathetic to Mother’s story. The group had so many good questions, loved the book, and even tried to guess the town I had based my story on. They wanted to claim me not just as a southern writer, but also to their neighborhood. I’d based it on a different one, but we enjoyed the guessing game and talking culture.

That happened to me with the release of Atlas in India too. Communities there started calling me an Indian writer. I guess I’m a bit of both, but I’m American. I wrote an American story.

BLVR: Let’s keep on that topic, of an American story. The Atlas Of Reds And Blues, from its title, to its events occurring on the 4th of July, to the honest portrayal of “small town” USA, shows a grotesque side of American patriotism. Yet nothing seems exaggerated here. How did you draw the line between realism and not slipping into allegory or a story-with-a-moral as you wrote?

DSL: I’m a poet, and I had the great fortune of studying with Lucille Clifton a long time ago. She was a believer in the oral tradition of story; that long ago before we could record our stories, we passed them down by repeating them over and again. She was also a big believer of reading one’s work aloud – to hear if it sounds right. As I finished up my edits for Counterpoint, I read aloud every word of the novel to myself twice. Everything that didn’t sound right was either moved to a more appropriate part of the book or thrown out. I was very determined to make this Mother’s story, and everything that distracted me from her story was removed.

BLVR: Let’s come back to editing in a moment, because your novel moves so well across time periods without confusing the reader. Mother, along, with other main characters doesn’t have a name (her Middle Daughter and Eldest Daughter, for example). Why did you make that decision, as a writer?

DSL: A few reasons: 1) I’m Bengali and in my family and immediate community, no one uses each other’s given names when addressing each other. Everyone has relational titles, and I wanted to pay homage to that. 2) I think the lack of names made it a universal story. 3) There was no point in naming them. In the world of the story they are invisible and unacknowledged so I didn’t have to name them; no one in their world would remember their names.

BLVR: What role does silence play in your novel?

DSL: I think one of the points of this story is that Mother knows she can never demonstrate her rage, because this may cause her harm. And this proves to be the case the first and only time she does—the police shoot her. I feel as though her rage and exhaustion are apparent in the other incidents throughout the book and it is the accumulation of those two feelings that leads to the moment on the driveway where she slaps the policeman.

BLVR: I loved how your novel addresses not the arrival immigrant narrative, but the cultural and generational ripples of immigration that second and third generations are constantly working through. Were there specific novels or narratives you hoped Atlas would enter into dialogue with?

DSL: My hope is that people will read the book and start candid conversations about Mother and her family, and this will spark dialogue in real life. I think my book is at the intersection of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. And my Mother narrator is standing at a four-way stop of racism, misogyny, invisibility and being Other in America. It is hard to talk about racism without people feeling defensive and attacked.

BLVR: When Mother is stuck in traffic and she turns down the radio’s volume, her desire to tell her story becomes clear. “All that flows from her pen is a memory,” the narrator says. Mother goes on to write a kind of poem in her car. I keep going back to the theme of silence or invisibility and storytelling.

DSL: I wanted people to think about these things. The consequence of breaking her silence is violence. Mother knows that. Society expects her and her girls to be like Barbie, dolls that fit into a neat box, with blond hair and light skin. But she’s not that.

And it’s not just about silence, it’s invisibility too. Her neighbors choose not to see her, not to help her. When they do, it’s as Other. They build literal and social walls to keep her out of their lives.

BLVR: I have to admit, after finishing your novel, and letting the story sit with me, I was convinced it was written in the first person. But it’s not. It’s written in third person. I had to go back and double check. Your narrator puts us so close to Mother, we feel like we’re there with her. It’s her story, not the narrator’s. Narrator and Mother collapse into one.

DSL: In an earlier draft, the story was much longer, but Mother started to lose her voice, because it became bigger in scope about her family. There was also a more finite ending. But, in the final version of the novel, things come full circle. We start with Mother and end with her, though we’re not entirely sure what happens to her at the end. That’s on purpose. When I did the cutting I mentioned, everything fell into place, became more focused. It allowed me to show Mother’s experience. Nothing was extra. I think it allows readers to sit back and think for themselves, after they finish the story. They can move through Mother’s experience with no distraction, then realize it’s over, but they’re not sure if she survived or not.

BLVR: What changed for you, as the writing progressed for Atlas?

DSL: I became more stubborn. I had several people tell me this book was a novella or that it was too different than a traditional novel, that I should make it much longer or that I should make it more conventional. Once I heard the Mother narrator’s voice, I stopped listening to everyone else and concentrated on her.

BLVR: Did the readers explain why they responded like that?

DSL: The reader response was emotional, not negative. They didn’t think I should be writing about topics like racism and misogyny. I took a step back and thought, This is good, the story is provoking a visceral response. No response is worse. When someone emotionally engages, it tells me I’ve struck a chord, or the story has. I knew I was headed in the right direction.

BLVR: Which novelists have influenced you the most, leading up to your writing of Atlas?

DSL: There are several books that have inspired me to write over the years, such as Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever. For this novel, the two books that I have held up as the gold standard, as I mentioned earlier, are Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. My novel stands at the intersection of those books. I got to meet Sandra Cisneros once. She’s been an inspiration for so long. She’s also a poet who wrote a shorter novel, like me. She provided a kind of roadmap for me to emulate, in mixing forms, while doing my own thing.

BLVR: What recent titles or authors are you most excited about and why?

DSL: I’m thrilled to see more diverse books, and more diverse points of view these days. I’m thrilled that readers are starting to have more choices. I’ve been so excited to read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk and Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man. I’ve got Miriam Toews Women Talking and Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise at the top of my #TBR list.

BLVR: Why write a novel instead of poetry or an essay?

DSL: I think the story found its genre. This was a difficult story to write at times and I didn’t want to constrain myself by line breaks or by journalism. This is a fictional story though there are autobiographical moments – and I wanted to drop all of the scaffolding around my narrator’s story so she could speak the truth. It took on the form of a novel.

I was able to use the form of Aristotle’s Incline (which is the form screenwriters use when formulating a movie script) and marry it with traditional elements of a novel.

BLVR: How did you get through writing such a difficult story?

DSL: Believe it or not, I listen to up-tempo music to get me through. One of my favorites is acid jazz. It keeps me going and balances everything out.

BLVR: So many times in Atlas, I didn’t want to look, because I had sense of what was coming. A gritty, honest truth threads all story points together: racism, violence, innocence lost and the attempted protection of it. What were the hardest parts for you to write?

DSL: The poet Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” There were moments while I was writing this book where I was very angry and sad – and I wrote down my frustration. It was not cathartic, in the traditional sense: I wasn’t writing to feel better. I was writing so the Mother narrator could impart them to the reader.

In 2010, my husband was targeted by his former employer in Georgia, and the state police raided my house at gunpoint. I was not shot, but one of the agents did point his weapon at me. Among the items seized were our computers, including my laptop. I lost most of my work, including the bulk of this novel. It took four years before I could restart this novel. By this time, I had changed as a writer. And so when I had to re-imagine this book, I was compelled to include the raid as contextual glue and I also realized that the story had to begin and end on the day of the raid. The Mother narrator’s story could not extend past the incident at her house because then it ceases to be just her story.

BLVR: Did you leave anything out from your personal experience, or did writing provide a safe place from which to express yourself?

DSL: I left out 95 percent of my life in this book. I gave her just a few things of mine, as a place from which to begin. Grace Paley once said (I’m paraphrasing) that you aren’t supposed to write what you know, but what you don’t know about what you know. I tried to do just that in this book.

BLVR: Along those lines, a famous author once said, if you’re not ready to lose some friends or tick off family members, don’t get into book publishing. When did your close family and friends see Atlas and how did they react?

DSL: I sent Atlas to my immediate family, before it came out, letting them know they could red line it, tell me anything they wanted taken out. And you know what, I didn’t get a single edit. They each said the same thing—do it. I was surprised, but so grateful. The story was ready to go out into the real world.

BLVR: Wow, you’re brave. I can’t imagine sending a novel, such a personal work, out to others before it coming out. What about reader reception? What’s that been like?

DSL: I’m a fifty-two-year-old debut novelist. I had no expectations beyond my immediate family showing up to support me. I am so thrilled and grateful to see this reception for the novel. It has helped me gather courage to write more about racism and misogyny.

I had one angry reviewer on Amazon. That was something, I guess. But it happened the same week Joyce Carol Oates showed up to my reading in Berkeley. The owner of the story came up to me, minutes before I was supposed to go on, and let me know she was in town and sought me out. What an honor. She tweeted about the book later. So it all balances out.

BLVR: I’d say Joyce Carol Oates tips the scales quite a bit more than an angry reviewer. And you should use that quote for your paperback release!

DSL: [Laughing] I’ll tell Counterpoint.

BLVR: With that in mind, are you a planner and outliner, or do you sit down and just write?

DSL: You know, for Atlas, I didn’t outline it. But a screenwriter friend of mine told me about Aristotle’s Poetics. The Incline structure, as I mentioned earlier, served Mother’s story best. It allowed me to back the narrative into a simpler framework that revolved around her. I also think there’s a cinematic quality to the novel.

For my second novel, I’m outlining first. It’s called Shadow Gardens and it’s an ethnic re-telling of Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. Similar to the latter, it has three levels of narrative, so I have to plan upfront, to get it right.

I actually lost this novel the day of the raid in 2010. It took six and a half years to resolve the case, and we still haven’t gotten our things back from the raid.

BLVR: What?

DSL: Yes! I had emailed a few pieces of the book to a friend, so those parts were saved, but that was it. I started from there. Crab Orchard Review was kind enough to publish that excerpt in 2018. I’m hoping to finish the novel later this year.

I wasn’t ready to come back to the novel, until recently. The story is still the same, but I’ve changed as a writer and as a person. I’ve grown. Life changes, and so does your writing.

BLVR: What’s next for you, beyond writing the second novel?

DSL: Atlas is coming out in the UK. I’m really excited about that.

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