A horrific unwarranted raid threw poet Devi S. Laskar’s life out of kilter. For a year after that Devi turned to art and photography to heal, picked up the threads of the story she wanted to narrate and wrote her arresting debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Here she tells Archana Pai Kulkarni why there can be no change without candid conversation.
You have endured a horrifying home raid in 2010. Your debut novel builds upon this brush with racist police officers. What does it mean to have to reckon with such trespass? Many of your personal belongings were confiscated during the raid, including an unfinished novel, and never returned. How did it affect you as a person, and impact your writing? How long after the incident could you manage to gain composure and begin writing your novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues?
If I hadn’t turned to art for solace and healing, I don’t think I would have been able to write this book.
For the first year after the raid at my home, I was busy helping the family and didn’t write. In 2011, I wanted to start writing again and I found that I couldn’t, I was still too upset. My good friend in Atlanta suggested I watch the film, “Julie & Julia” which is based on the real-life story of Julie Powell who cooked a recipe out of chef Julia Childs’ famous cookbook every day for a year. I am an artist and photographer, and she said that if I took a photo or made a piece of art every day and publicly posted it with a caption or a title, then eventually my words would return. She was correct. I started my #artaday project on June 23, 2011 and I maintain it to this day. The poems returned after a year or so. Once my poems returned, I was able to focus on longer works, and I was able to re-imagine and restart this book in 2014 (this book first started in 2004 as a short story; I lost most of my work, including this story, during the raid in 2010—most of our family’s belongings have not yet been returned though the legal matter was dismissed against my husband in late 2016). It took two years to complete this book. If I hadn’t turned to art for solace and healing, I don’t think I would have been able to write this book. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is out in the world, I have returned to the novel I lost in 2010 – it’s called Shadow Gardens and it’s an ethnic retelling of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.
Do you feel discomfort living in a country where beneath the veneer of equality and tolerance simmers the menace of discrimination that renders certain people vulnerable? What gave you the courage to write about it?
There can be no change without candid conversation – I hope that my novel sparks conversations.
I grew up in a college town and as the child of an academic. Many of the people I grew up with were open-minded, but some were not. I think travelling helped form my outlook. I had the great fortune of travelling the world when I was young – India to see family, and Europe because of my parent’s job. I was able to see how others lived and how others perceived America – and I was able to compare my life not only with those who lived under different circumstances around the world, but also with the people who lived under the privilege of the dominant white culture here in America. I often felt it was unfair and unjust the way people were treated because of their skin colour or religious beliefs and I have always wanted to write about these topics. There can be no change without candid conversation – I hope that my novel sparks conversations.
Your novel begins with “Mother”, a second-generation American, daughter of Bengali immigrants, who has been shot resisting a raid, lying bleeding on the concrete, when her life flashes past in her mind. How difficult was it to portray a wounded person going through a retrospective of her life in the face of death?
Everyone goes through something hard in their lives, and in that difficult moment, everyone thinks of what’s most important to them.
When I first wrote this story, it was 5,000 words long and it was a family story. I am a former reporter and I was very concerned with accuracy: date, time, place etc. By the time I returned to this story, I didn’t have too many pieces of it in my possession and I had to rethink the whole thing. The raid became the contextual glue for the entire book, and I jettisoned the “accuracy” in order to gain the truth of the stories, and give Mother a voice.
It is a literary conceit to have a “life flashing before your eyes” narrative – but it is also somewhat true that when a weapon is pointed at you, you do consider very quickly what’s important. In my case, I thought of my family and old friends – and I wanted to give that feeling to my Mother character. Everyone goes through something hard in their lives, and in that difficult moment, everyone thinks of what’s most important to them.
How did the unusual structure of the novel come about, especially some chapters which have a single line or very short segments. Brevity is the strength of your book. How did you develop this succinct form of writing?
Together all of the chapters form the novel, but often you see individual chapters anthologized in poetry books.
Thank you. I’m a poet and a former reporter so I’m always looking at ways to compress the material and keep it concise. The book I hold as the gold standard of novels is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. She is a poet who also writes longer works. What’s interesting to me about The House on Mango Street is how she packed in so much in these small spaces. Together all of the chapters form the novel, but often you see individual chapters anthologized in poetry books. The other book I drew inspiration and “permission” from was Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which discusses racism in a poetic way.
The characters in your novel are unnamed. Why did you choose to not name them and refer to them variously, like ‘Real Thing’ and ‘Mother’ as you choose to call your protagonist?
There is no point in giving them names, no one acknowledges them as Americans, and no one would remember their names anyway.
Two reasons. One: In my Bengali family, we never called anyone by their given names. Everyone had a title and we have continued to use these titles, which depict relationship and ordinal rank, to this day. I wanted to pay homage to that. Second: In America, this fictional family is invisible. There is no point in giving them names, no one acknowledges them as Americans, and no one would remember their names anyway.
Mother is married to a white man, referred to by her as “My hero”, and who is conspicuous by his absence. Mother and the daughters keep their agony—the racism, the bullying, the questioning—from him. What compelled the characters to spare the one person who could have made a difference?
Mother and daughters had to have one innocent person in their family, the person for whom they were making the sacrifices. They chose “the hero” because he was the primary breadwinner and because he was white. No matter what they said, he would never fully understand their predicament. It was better for him to remain innocent, and be able to go out in the world than for him to know their troubles and try to fix it. Also, the hero does come back and “fix” things throughout the book, and that is why the ending is ambiguous – and the reader isn’t sure if her hero will make it back in time.
Mother and daughters had to have one innocent person in their family, the person for whom they were making the sacrifices.
You have juxtaposed Mother’s mapping of her own life with a tour of the evolution of the Barbie Doll—the Real Thing with brown skin and a body which invites unkind remarks versus the reed-thin, white-skinned unreal doll. In a flashback, Real Thing remembers that every time she or her Baby Sister cried, their mother pointed to a doll and said: “See? She’s a tough cookie. We never hear her cry.” By featuring dolls throughout, did you want to dwell upon how ‘doll-like’ women are trained to be - uncomplaining, stoic, and mute?
Yes, exactly. Women are not treated equally in America. I wanted to call attention to that fact. Also, Barbie dolls are the iconic American toy, and they set an impossible standard of beauty which no one can attain. And in America, there is “The Model Minority Myth” which propagates this idea that Asians are supposed to be quiet and work hard and not speak up for themselves.
Mother’s pet dog Greta’s unconditional love is the perfect foil for the unkindness of the human world. She stands up for Mother when strange men bang on her door, is a companion to her on her walks, a reassuring presence, a stand-in of sorts for the hero who is almost always absent. How did you make her such a prominent character?
Much of this book is not real – that is, much of this book is a composite of experiences and people.
Much of this book is not real – that is, much of this book is a composite of experiences and people. But Greta was real. We rescued her many years ago, and she was my faithful shadow. As long as she was alive, I never worried about my family being harmed in any way. I wanted to pay homage to her.
“What does it mean truly, to be invisible?” your protagonist muses over. It seems that the world, despite its bid to be tolerant and all-embracing, is still infested by this deliberate obliteration of human beings on the basis of their skin colour, ethnicity, caste, and gender. Did you want to portray that such sustained erasure leads to a physical protest, like it happens with the protagonist? That muteness can only lead to a build-up and perhaps a violent meltdown?
Yes, I thought it was appropriate for my Mother character to experience this kind of violent reaction. There can be no change if there is only silence and acquiescence. I wanted Mother to think about what was important and act accordingly.
I wanted Mother to think about what was important and act accordingly.
Reds and blues dot the human landscape, our very existence. There are splashes of these two colours on a chalk-blue receipt with red blood-like ink, in the blue eyes of the protagonist’s hero, in the red wound on her daughter’s forehead. Red is anger, passion, blood, love. Blue is coldness, or the sky. What do these colours mean to you?
It’s a jumble of beliefs. In America, the police and emergency responders have red and blue flashing lights. They are supposed to protect everyone, but that is not always the case. In America, The Blues are an art form, a form of music. In India, especially in Bengal, the brides wear red, it is a symbol of fertility; and the statues of the gods and goddesses are blue. I was trying to create a snapshot of everything Mother remembered, and I chose to have these two colours as threads to pull through.
You are a photographer, and flowers and nature are some of the subjects that your lens has captured. How has being a visual artist impacted your writing?
As I mentioned before, without the photography, I would not have the novel. It is only because I was able to take photographs and write the titles and captions that my words returned – and I was able to write again.
It is only because I was able to take photographs and write the titles and captions that my words returned – and I was able to write again.
Being a poet, when you began writing your novel, did you have to retrain the way you expressed yourself? Considering the language of prose is far more straightforward, did you have to work towards writing it in a controlled way, and yet keep it lyrical?
I am a poet and I used to be a reporter, I was forever being told to keep things concise. So even as I first wrote this story in 2004, I kept it short and tried to get everyone’s voices in. Once I returned to this novel in 2014, I held up Cisneros’ and Rankine’s books as my models and refused to budge on the structure.
What is your writing process? Among the autobiographical elements in your novel, is the protagonist’s habit of jotting down things like her daughters’ conversations your own? Do you also practise forgiveness, a powerful coping mechanism?
For poetry, I can and do write anywhere. I can be sitting at a café or in carpool and I can write a poem. For the longer works, I have to write at my desk in the mornings. I have to sit in front of the computer. And my journalism days have come back to haunt me – you can take a girl out of the newsroom but you can’t take a newsroom out of the girl. I’m lucky that I’m in a writing group – we have deadlines and those deadlines have helped me finish the work.
I’m lucky that I’m in a writing group – we have deadlines and those deadlines have helped me finish the work.
What advice would you give aspiring women writers whose voices need to be heard loud and clear?
Two answers. 1. Don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t write or don’t have anything worthwhile to say. Simply tune them out. If you want to write and need permission, then you have mine. 2. Create a writing habit. This means working every day, even if it’s for ten to fifteen minutes. If you’re just starting out, get a cheap notebook and pen. Then set the timer on your watch or your phone and write for 10 minutes each day. Write down whatever comes in to your head; just keep the pen moving. When the timer sounds, shut the notebook and continue with your day. If you do this every day for a month, your notebook will be full. After you take a week off, come back to the notebook with a highlighter pen. Read your work aloud to yourself, and whatever sounds good to you, highlight with the pen. When you’re finished you will have a created a personal book of writing prompts, story beginnings, poems. And you’ll be on your way!