Ruth LeFaive | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,671 words)
“What does it mean truly, to be invisible?” Devi S. Laskar writes, “Her stillness, her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears. To pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness.”
Laskar’s compelling debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues is the story of a second-generation Bengali-American woman who, after remaining invisible, still and calm throughout a lifetime of racist interactions, is pushed over the edge during an unfounded raid on her home. In her refusal to acquiesce, the narrator, known as Mother, is shot by a police officer, and lies bleeding on her driveway. This is where we find her at the beginning of the book. What follows are vivid scenes from Mother’s life depicted in gleaming, lyrical prose — an exploration of persevering as a woman of color, a mother and wife, sister and daughter, as well as a writer, in contemporary America where she is time and again treated as inferior.
The novel builds upon a traumatic incident from Laskar’s own life when agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided her family’s home at gunpoint. Although the legal matter was eventually dismissed, many of her family’s personal belongings were confiscated and never returned. The book imagines a fundamental difference — what if she had refused to be docile and was shot?
Despite the spectrum of cruelties the main character endures, there is rich beauty in the world Laskar portrays. Her background as a journalist and poet shine through in the details and exquisite imagery. This is a book readers will want to revisit.
Laskar holds an MFA from Columbia University, and an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Tin House, Crab Orchard Review, The Raleigh Review, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of both TheOpEdProject and VONA, and the author of two poetry chapbooks from Finishing Line Press. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is her first novel.
We corresponded via email between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, where Laskar resides with her family. We discussed her process for developing the book, its themes of racism and invisibility, and she offered delightful glimpses of her childhood summers in India and her experiences as a graduate student of Lucille Clifton.
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Ruth LeFaive: The Atlas of Reds and Blues has been aptly called “kaleidoscopic.” It’s easy to see why with its non-linear structure of linked, beautifully lyrical, short segments. Can you talk about how this form for the book emerged?
Devi S. Laskar: Three things happened, many years apart. First, in graduate school, I read The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. That novel changed everything for me, it broadened my horizons of possibility. As a whole, her book is considered a novel, and yet each chapter can stand alone as a poem. As a poet, I am always searching for ways to compress my thoughts. As a former reporter, I’ve had a lot of practice trying to keep my thoughts succinct.
Second, I read other writers and poets who paved the way for unusual forms: Mary Robison with Why Did I Ever, Claudia Rankine with Citizen, Maggie Nelson with Bluets. As I read each of these authors, and so many others, I was learning more and more, and developing my own compression techniques. One of my favorite forms of poetry to write is pantoum. I love the repetition of lines in pantoums and how circular the pantoum is, the end is the beginning and everything in between is seen in new light.
Finally, some of this novel is autobiographical. It is true that my house was raided at gunpoint in 2010. I’ve experienced first hand that it is somewhat accurate that the important moments of your life really do flash before your eyes when there’s an assault rifle pointed at you. I will always remember that day, and I wanted to give my narrator that experience so I could describe how I felt that day, and so she could think about how she came to be in her untenable situation.
I am always trying to look at every situation in my work with both a telescope and a microscope.
You’ve written publicly about the raid and its aftermath in the past. I’m sorry that happened to you and your family. There seem to be a lot of similarities between your experiences and those of the book’s protagonist, referred to as “The Real Thing” in youth, and “Mother” in adulthood. There’s even a charming, rather meta passage, in which Mother is writing and her husband sends her a playful email saying, “The story you are writing is not approved by the people you are writing about.” It’s an endearing moment in an otherwise searing book. How did you navigate pulling from your own life?
I started writing this story back in 2004, and then I was relying heavily on my previous experiences as a reporter, trying to be factually accurate. By the time I returned to this story about a decade later, I had hard choices to make because of what had happened, how I’d lost most of my work [in the raid]. First I had to come to terms that I’d probably never see my laptop again. Once I got through that, I thought about it and decided that my narrator’s story was the contextual glue for my book. So I jettisoned a lot of the facts that I’d previously held dear. Also, I took a lot of similar “beats” or inflection points in the story and I made them composite, basing them on several people’s experiences, not just my own. I am not the narrator, but I did give her my dog and my kids (at a certain age), as a place to start.
Yes, Greta the dog! Your portrayal of her is so rich. Right from the start, she is a fully rounded character with her own compelling narrative arc. When I think about it, I feel like there’s a case to be made that Greta is the actual hero in the story, the way she’s Mother’s ally, which is interesting since the husband is referred to with the moniker, “my hero.” How did Greta’s prominence in the story come about?
For me Greta is the soul of the book. She is Mother’s shadow and companion. She sees and acknowledges Mother in a world where Mother is often invisible. I wanted to write about unconditional love and that’s how it played out.
It’s engaging the way it played out. I love that encapsulation of the writing process — you saying “that’s how it played out.” It sounds as if you encountered surprises along the way. Can you talk about some of them?
Well I am writing initially for an audience of two people — a trusted reader and myself. So I may have an idea of what I want to write and I may even have a rough list of scenes I think I should include, but ideas shift and change in the act of writing so I’m often surprised when I’m finished. For Atlas, I was surprised by the order of the chapters. I followed the advice my poetry teacher Lucille Clifton gave me in graduate school and read each chapter aloud. Whenever I stumbled I made a note of it. Often those sections were cut. And as I was hearing some chapters I would often get a better sense of placement and relocate them to new spots. I wanted to recreate the experience for the reader of a mind racing through time.
You absolutely succeeded in that regard. I particularly enjoy your use of imagery to link the chapters. There’s a lyrical momentum, while simultaneously the juxtaposition of the past and present adds impact and meaning.
Before we talk about some of the specific themes, I have to ask, what was it like studying with Lucille Clifton? Can you share any additional memories?
It was amazing. I am forever in her debt. She was an amazing poet and teacher and she was a good friend to me. She was plain-spoken and also had a great sense of humor. I loved her laugh. I will always remember her lectures and poetry prompts; I still use them to this day.
She was a big fan of Stanley Kunitz. In the fall of 1994, we had an assignment to go to SoHo and attend Professor Kunitz’s lecture. Then we had this wonderful assignment based on his talk to turn our confessions into myths. I remembered the assignment when I was working on this book, to take a part of real-life experience and turn it into “myth.”
What a fabulous assignment. Do you think it shaped aspects of The Atlas of Reds and Blues? If so (or not), how?
Yes, I feel like it shaped a lot of my work to date. It is now habit—I am always trying to look at every situation in my work with both a telescope and a microscope.
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Kiese Laymon has written of your novel, “In prose that moves between cushioning characters’ falls and ushering our understandings of characters’ utopias, Laskar creates a world where the consequences of American terror never stop reverberating.” I’ve found myself reading that line repeatedly as I think about the book. We could talk about that for hours and days, but I’d like to start by asking, how you would describe Mother’s idea of utopia?
Mother’s idea of utopia is fairly straightforward: she wants to be seen, as an equal. And in her life she repeatedly finds herself at the four-way stop of misogyny, racism, invisibility, “being other.” She longs for the day that she and her family are simply accepted as people, as Americans.
Yet instead — along with the myriad of aggressions she faces regularly — she’s peppered with questions about where she’s from and how long she’s been here. It’s powerful the way you portray her experiences without over-explaining. You let readers form their own conclusions. How did you exercise that control?
Racism is a touchy subject. It’s hard to have a conversation without people feeling attacked and getting defensive. My hope was to write a book where everyone could stand next to the narrator and experience what it’s like to be peppered with those kinds of questions. Once the reader knows what it feels like, there’s no need to explain.
I was expected to remain silent, keep my opinions to myself. Silence hasn’t worked. Positive change only comes after candid conversations, uncomfortable debate.
Can you talk about your decision to leave the main characters essentially unnamed?
Two things: one, in Bengali, everyone has a nickname that is different from the name used in public, and almost everyone has a title, like elder brother’s wife is “Boudi” (there are people in my family who address me this way). No one uses actual names. I wanted to pay homage to that custom. Two, Mother and her family are invisible in American society. In my mind, since they are unacknowledged, they should not have names.
One of the opening passages shows Mother shortly after she arrives at work in a newsroom where she’s a journalist. She goes virtually unseen by her co-workers. Even though we eventually learn that this scene is a dream of sorts, it sets up her invisibility for the rest of the book in a concrete way. Later her invisibility and restraint are portrayed as “the only thing keeping her alive, over and again.” Would you be willing to talk about how, in your own experiences, you’ve chosen visibility and activism, despite the risks?
I believe that silence is ineffective.
Asians are often cast in a “Model Minority Myth” light — we are expected to have good grades, great work ethic, become doctors and remain quiet. I’m also a former reporter and a woman; so I was expected to remain silent, keep my opinions to myself. Silence hasn’t worked. Positive change only comes after candid conversations, uncomfortable debate. I want to be a voice for change for strangers. I know what it feels like to be publicly mistreated, and I want to change things so other people don’t have to go through what my family endured.
Some of the tension in the book comes from Mother’s relationship with her own family. Her husband, aka her “hero,” — who is a white man — is frequently absent, leaving her to parent alone. Her daughters are coping with the challenges of girlhood compounded by racist classmates. One thing that comes up several times between Mother and her girls is their shared desire to withhold information from the father — they’re protective of him. The effect is a pervading lens of loneliness over Mother’s life. Was this your intention? Are there other implications of their protectiveness?
Yes, it was my intention to show Mother’s isolation and loneliness. And the other implication of the family’s protectiveness towards the hero: there had to be one person in that family who could continue to go out into the world with a positive outlook, one person in the family who could still be “innocent” of the ugliness — and everyone picked the hero.
By “everyone,” do you mean Mother and their three daughters?
Yes, Mother and the three daughters picked him.
Mother also uses stoicism as a coping mechanism with her own mother, who seems to have impossible expectations for Mother’s physical weight and parenting style. This is reinforced by the way dolls are featured throughout. Early on, when dolls are mentioned, they are objects on display, to be seen, never heard.
Before long, Mattel’s Barbie Doll becomes a recurring character — or at least a cultural figure. Mother’s white neighbors are compared to Barbie. Barbie’s evolving physique is described and revisited. Can you talk about how this element arose in the book?
Barbie dolls are iconic and quintessentially American. When I was growing up I had the great fortune of visiting India in the summers to see family and friends; I had the great privilege of traveling with my family. Everywhere I went, people would ask me ‘where do you live?’ and I would answer America and they would immediately mention Barbie dolls and Coca-Cola. Even boys and their dads knew about them, because everyone knows someone, a relative or classmate or friend, who has played with or pined for a Barbie. I wanted to play with the idea of Model Minority Myth, how the “good Asians” were the quiet ones, the ones who worked hard, listened to everything their elders said, and remained silent. Like dolls. So I wanted to play with the idea of dolls, of what dolls represent, of the impossible standard of beauty that Barbie dolls represent.
In addition to being a writer, you’re also a photographer. How did your work as a visual artist shape the book?
I wanted readers to be able to “see” the action unfold in their minds as they read the words.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?
I hope that people will read it and like it. I hope it will spark candid conversations about racism and misogyny.
What are you working on now?
I’ve returned to the novel that I was working on in 2010. It’s called Shadow Gardens and it’s an ethnic satirical retelling of Mrs. Dalloway with a generous helping of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours mixed in as well.
That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it. Is that one of the works-in-progress that was on your laptop which was confiscated in the raid?
Yes. I lost pretty much everything the day of the raid. In 2010, I was about six weeks away from finishing Shadow Gardens. It took a little more than a year to get back to some creative pursuit, and when I started again, I looked to photography and poetry. After I got the hang of it, of delving back into creative writing and creative arts, I returned to longer works. I chose Atlas first because of its structure and its brevity.
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Ruth LeFaive lives in Los Angeles where she is working on a collection of short stories. Her writing has appeared in Best Small Fictions 2018, Little Fiction, The Offing, and elsewhere.
Editor: Dana Snitzky