Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Tin House, Crab Orchard Review, and The Raleigh Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and is an alumna of TheOpEdProject and VONA. The author of two poetry chapbooks from Finishing Line Press, The Atlas of Reds and Blues is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta, a woman only known to readers as Mother is shot during an unexpected police raid on her home. On her driveway, bleeding from a gunshot wound, she looks back at all of the decisions she’s made (and those she didn’t) that culminated in this event. Tired of answering the same question all her life—Where are you really from?—the incident serves as a slow release for her frustration and serves as the backdrop for the stories that unfold in The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Using lyrical poetry, Atlas consists of stories from Mother’s childhood and from a life of labour and motherhood. Through the lens of a woman of color, Atlas grapples with the many complexities of being a second-generation American.
Manisha Anil Rita: The narrative style of The Atlas of Reds and Blues doesn’t follow a course that novels usually take, of prose and linear storytelling. Instead, it tells the story in episodes and flashes. Can you talk about how you laid down the sequences of the story?
Devi S. Laskar: I love talking about the writing process. I can tell you a little bit about my narrative style. So I started out as a poet. I wrote my first poem at the age of nine. And then I was a reporter for many years—a crime and government reporter. These days that’s the same thing. So I had a lot of experience over the years of people telling me to keep it short and to make it shorter. I hold The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros as the gold standard of books. She is a poet who wrote a novel, and if you read the House on Mango Street, all the little chapters together make a beautiful novel, but when you look at each of the individual pieces, most of them have been heavily anthologized in poetry anthologies, and I really wanted to write a book in that style. I found that the short chapters were appropriate for my narrator. She doesn’t really have 50 pages to muse on anything. She is going in and out. I thought that was an appropriate book to emulate. The other book I hold as a standard for writing about uncomfortable things is Citizen by Claudia Rankine. And you know she writes about racism and misogyny, and I also wanted to write about that. And I loved how she had a poet’s sensibility and made great use of the white space. And I wanted to do something like that. So I feel like my book is a marriage between those two books.
MAR: I’ve heard of The House on Mango Street…
DSL: Sure. You should read House on Mango Street. You will love it. So, how did I lay down the sequences of the story? I am in a long standing writing group. One of the people that I work with is a screenwriter and they use, screenwriters use, Aristotle’s Incline as a way to write scripts for movies. I thought that the structure was brilliant and also appropriate for my narrator. She is trying to make sense of what has happened to her, and she is looking back at her life. I used Aristotle’s Incline to break up the book into these seven parts and “Trouble Swallowing,” which is the opening sequence, the prologue. And so a couple of things about that decision. I studied poetry and fiction when I was in graduate school in New York, many years ago, and I had the great privilege and pleasure of working with Lucille Clifton for a couple of years, and she was a really wonderful teacher and a really good friend to me. One of the things Lucille talked about often was the power of oral tradition, and storytelling is an oral tradition. One of the things I did for The Atlas of Reds and Blues was that I read my work aloud to myself (twice), and in the course of doing that I realized a couple of things were out of order because the narrator wouldn’t have thought about this particular thing before the other thing happened. And so I changed the structure and the order a little bit, so that in my mind it was in keeping with how the narrator would think about the events in her life.
MAR: I grew up playing with dolls, and I found the little histories and details about Barbie included in the book intriguing. There is frequent mention of these dolls and the Euro-centric beauty standards they represent as a metaphor for an aesthetic standard in the book. Today, the term is often used to call someone fake, unaffected or unreal looking. Can you articulate the particular sentiment you were attempting in the book?
DSL: I do feel like Barbies represent a terrible standard of beauty, and they send a terrible message to little girls. I feel like they are anatomically incorrect—no matter what we do we are never going to look like that in real life—but also, they are dolls that encourage a certain standard of beauty. They’re also encouraging women to be doll-like and passive and silent. One of the things that I really wanted to talk about was the perception of the dolls and how other people perceive them, how women are compared to dolls, and that’s not right.
MAR: So, this is a slight tangent, but I want to move to Mother’s relationship with her husband whom we know as Hero. There are brief moments in the book—one of them at the Barbie museum in Japan—that they (Hero & Mother) spend together. It’s possibly one of the more positive moments in the book in terms of their relationship, since he is mostly absent from her life. Can you talk to me a little more about the dynamic of this couple, wherein the struggles aren’t distributed evenly?
DSL: I did a couple of things when I wrote this story. I started in 2004, and it was a short story about a family that was 5,000 words long. I had been accepted to a writer’s conference in California. Truth to be told, I was going to brush off an old story about arranged marriage, and I didn’t because a good friend of mine suggested I write something new. And I said to her, “Well, all I’m doing these days is taking care of the kids and the dog.” The story I wrote was pretty well-received. Then in 2009, I set it aside to do NaNoWriMo to write a different book. Fast-forward to 2010 when a series of unfortunate events unfolded. My husband was targeted by his former employer in Georgia, and the state police showed up at our house, nine years ago this month, and raided our house at gunpoint. I was not shot, but one of the policemen pointed his assault rifle at me. As you can imagine, that was a fairly traumatizing event. One of the things they did was they seized a lot of stuff, including my laptop. All of that was dismissed by a state judge back in 2016; it is now 2019, and we have not gotten our stuff back yet. So in 2011, the first year after the raid, I was busy with the family and not writing much. Later that year, when I sat down to write, I found that I could not. At a friend’s recommendation, I watched Julie and Julia, the film where the conceit is based on the true life story of Julie Powell who cooked every recipe out of Julia Childs’ cookbook. My friend, who knew I was also a photographer, encouraged me to title or caption photographs I took every day and post them as a way to find my words again—like Powell, who gave herself a year of cooking “with” Julia as a constraint in her own writing. She was right! About a year later, my poetry came back, and I was able to sit down and rewrite what became The Atlas of Reds and Blues. It was very different from the family story I started in 2004, but I did love the short chapters and decided to keep that structure. But now it had a different lens because I had changed as a writer and as a person. I took out everything that doesn’t come from the mother’s point of view, and, therefore, it may look like Hero is being given short stick or that it’s not positive. It is actually a positive relationship; he is just absent for work. He does come and fix things, which is also why the ending is a bit ambiguous. Because it’s unclear whether he will come back in time to fix the situation.
MAR: I’m sorry to hear about your experience. But that is a beautiful exercise, and you’ve woven in so much without using as many words or long prose.
DSL: Thank you! You know, this story is close to my heart, but it’s not me. I wanted to really write this piece with the idea of making my life a myth. One of the things that Lucille had us do very early on in her class was to attend a talk and a reading by the poet Stanley Kunitz, and then we had homework based on that reading. In an interview Kunitz did for PBS, he talks about making your stories confessional and making a story that’s not bogged down with facts but with truth. And so I really aimed for that by giving the narrator a few of my things like my journalism jobs, my dog Greta (who at one time was real), and my overarching look of my life—you know, with the husband and three kids, and a dog—but that’s not me. The rest of it is just not me. It is a composite of all these lives and experiences and people that I know all squished together. And I know that when I first started writing this piece back in 2004, I was very concerned about accuracy. I was really bent on the date and the time and the place and who said what and why. And when I came back to the story in 2014, I let all of that go. I was just really interested in the truth of the pieces, so I just let go of the dates and time and facts. And that helped the story takes its own shape and have its own life.
MAR: At first I thought Henry, from the Mother’s childhood, would go on to become Hero or someone else in the narrator’s present day life, but when he walks off the bus, that’s the last we hear of him. What did you intend his role to be in the narrative?
DSL: You know, I had actually written more about Henry, and I had to take everything out that went past the day of the raid. And I realized that when I was rewriting this book and reimaging it in 2013, the mother narrator could not leave the driveway. My intention for Henry was that they see each other again, but I had to remove all the pieces that came after the raid. So that part got cut.
MAR: So the time frame is essentially the span of the raid which is a couple of hours?
DSL: Right. The time frame is the morning of the raid. That’s the present. But I wouldn’t say it’s a couple of hours because she is shot and bleeding—maybe a little over half an hour. And then she looks over her life in that time as she is there on the driveway, waiting for the ambulance.
MAR: At the heart of the book sits the issue of racism and invisibility and this idea of laying low to avoid attracting trouble. By leaving the characters unnamed, do you hope that this story feels universal, racially?
DSL: There are a couple of reasons why I didn’t name them. The first reason is I am Bengali, and in my family and in my community, we don’t direct each other with our given names. We always use relational titles, and so I wanted to kind of pay homage to that. And the second reason is that in the world of the story, they are invisible. This is the family that is invisible. No one will remember their names, and no one will bother to learn their names. So there was no reason for me to give them names. Because no one in the world of their story would remember the narrator’s name. And I do think it has the unintended benefit of people being able to relate more because people can insert their own name into the story.
MAR: Mother’s relationship with her brown family is pretty troubled, and in some ways Mother’s family, her dog Greta, and Hero offer refuge from those traumas. Yet despite juggling two families, her own struggles of living in suburbia as a person of color are made visible only to the readers. Could you tell me about the ways in which her identity as a daughter of immigrant parents intersects with her identity as a first generation American mother?
DSL: I think I was trying to illustrate the “sandwich generation.” Eventually, we all become part of the “sandwich generation,” where we have parents still, and we have kids, and so I think I was trying to just juggle that a little bit in the book. And that’s pretty universal, no matter where you come from, you’re heart is in two places at once, which is you trying to raise your children and also take care of your parents. I feel like people would be able to relate to that idea: that it doesn’t really matter where you are from, all families are very much alike in that way.
And the other thing I wanted to say about that was when she was young, the Mother narrator was being mistreated at the Catholic school, and her parents didn’t necessarily intervene because they didn’t know what was going on. But in contrast, the Mother narrator sees what’s happening to her middle daughter at the new school. So she—she understands what’s happening. She is trying to help her, give her tips and teach her to play the stiff upper lip game. She also keeps her confidence. So there is a contrast between her relationship as the child of her parents and her relationship as the mother of this daughter who is going through something she also went through. She does get it.
I wanted to mention one other thing from an earlier question you had. When Jennifer Alton, my editor, and I started working together, each of the chapters used to have dates at the top like 1978 or 2006. And Jenny didn’t like that. She thought that was too easy for the reader. She really wanted the reader to work harder to try and figure out whether each of those chapters was happening in the past or present or both. So one of the things I did was to take all the dates out and reincorporate them into the body of the text. So I got to write 200 new sentences, but I think that made the book a lot stronger.
MAR: I’m reflecting on some of the things you said. Would you say the book is a political commentary or speaks to people of color and some of the threats to their safety while speaking out? By that, I mean that it shares an experience without blaming one specific person or problem.
DSL: Yes. So, it’s [pauses] all of those things. Here is the thing, though: the Mother narrator is grappling with things that a lot of people of color in this country grapple with every day. Misogyny and racism and being other and being invisible. People have said to me that I wrote a political novel, and I denied it at first. But then I thought about it and decided yes. Because I talk about racism and misogyny, that is now a political novel. Counterpoint has been a real support and cheerleader to me. They took a risk because a lot of people might not necessarily be excited about reading about racism and misogyny. In this current political climate, to speak out and make comments is being political because silence is sort of upholding the status quo.
MAR: I would like to end with another question about the narrative and process. Do you work from an outline and within a habitual writing practice, or do you write sporadically and make sense of it all in the editing and revision process?
DSL: I have changed as a writer over the years. I tend to work more from an outline, and it’s not necessarily that I’m following the outline, but at least I know there is an outline there. On days that I get stuck, I go back to the outline, but for this novel it was much more organic. I don’t think I actually did the outline until the book was finished. I knew that I had the outline of Aristotle’s Incline. And there were certain things I wanted to make sure I put in. One of the last things I did for Counterpoint before I turned this novel in for good was that I went back and made an outline of what was in each section and then compared that to my little list of things I wanted to make sure I included. That’s also when I was reading the book out loud to myself. And certain chapters got moved so that the flow was better. I don’t ever advise people to just sort of start without a plan, without any kind of list or outline because it’s too big. I think, even if you have just a little list or general skeletal structure, you have a much better chance of actually realizing the dream that prompted the book.
MAR: So, it’s a bit like storyboarding for a film…
DSL: Yes, exactly. It’s a little bit like storyboarding. I had a general idea, and then I kind of filled it in, and I would go back and see if that part fit. And it makes sense because I was using Aristotle’s Incline, and that’s what screenwriters use.