Magazine created by students of the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University.

“Breaking Our Silences” and “Calling Attention” to the Oppressive: Interview with Devi S. Laskar About Her Novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues

in Current Issue/Interviews
The cover of The Atlas of Reds and Blues published by Counterpoint. Photo courtesy of Counterpoint.

by Sandra Hrášková

“When you put American clothes on a browned-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?” (Laskar, location 108)

The Atlas of Reds and Blues is Devi S. Laskar’s debut novel through which she demonstrates numerous oppressive issues which minorities in the United States endure throughout their lives. The novel narrates the story of an American woman of Bengali ancestry as she tackles her mundane routine as a wife, a mother of three and a journalist. However, it is not the conventional routine one would imagine for it consists of gradually escalating encounters with unfairness, prejudice, discrimination, segregation and racism. The opening chapter depicts the woman lying and bleeding on her concrete driveway, the aftermath of being shot by police. As the blood is slowly leaving her body, she reminisces on her memories, both the good and the bad, and retrospectively reveals what caused this severe situation and what circumstances decisively provoked the cessation of the prejudice classifying her as invisible, powerless and unequal. 

“‘Because,’ Mary-Margaret Anne says, suddenly touching her skin, creating a crater of shock, ‘this doesn’t rub off.’” (Laskar, loc 725) The Atlas of Reds and Blues is a journey of ending the apologies, refinement and placidness after years of subdued life, withstanding the ever-present judgment of one’s skin color. The novel provides a terrific perspective on the portrayal of the extant injustice originating from the unpleasant history concerning races which America is affiliated with. Laskar is not afraid nor hesitant to directly confront the problems of injustice lurking within American society and she manages to actively mirror the flaws of America with its behaviour toward its own people of color. Devi S. Laskar’s constructive approach regarding these topics is also noticeable in her answers, with which she contributed to the interview below. 

You are a writer of both prose and poetry. Do you have a preference for either form when writing your literary works?

I identify as a poet first, but I’m trying hard these days not to place labels on my writing. I love telling stories, so I’m concerned about getting the story out first and then thinking of the most appropriate form. If I already know that I’m writing a poem, then I can write it anywhere – but if I already know that I’m writing a longer piece, then I have to sit at my desk. These days, I’m very drawn to works that have been described as hybrid – my favorite books in this mixed-genre are Bluets by Maggie Nelson and Bright Felon by Kazim Ali and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.


I think the biggest concern I have is compression, how to make the story shorter and have it pack more punch.


In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of prose and verse?

I think it depends on what you’re writing. I’m first trying to figure out the story I’m trying to tell. Then I worry about the form it should take. I am a former journalist and a poet, so I think the biggest concern I have is compression, how to make the story shorter and have it pack more punch.

Now, let us talk about your debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues. It is a book which openly speaks about racism, abuse of power, ignorance and negligence. You explain that is was inspired by the real life event of a raid on your own home. Do you perceive racism in America as ‘stagnant’ or do you see it disappearing?

I believe it’s neither stagnant nor disappearing. I believe that the current administration in the White House has given tacit permission to all the bigots in this country to display their hate openly. I think the number of hate groups in America is on the rise, and there are so many more reports these days of acts of violence against people of color, ethnic and religious minorities.

Do you think it is possible to fix or improve the issue of racism in today’s society?

Yes, I have a lot of hope. I think it requires an effort from every segment of society. I think it requires breaking our silences, and engaging in uncomfortable debate. The more candid conversations we have with people who disagree with us the better chance that things will change.


The literary canon needs to change so it reflects the changing population of America.


In your novel, you frequently present themes which greatly influence the characters’ consciousness and personality. While discussing racism, do you consider elements such as parenting and ethnicity to be determinants of the means by which people behave toward people of other ethnicities as their own? What factors do you think could conceivably teach acceptance and equality instead of prejudice and discrimination?

People fear what they do not understand. People fear what’s unfamiliar. When I was growing up in North Carolina, I could count on one hand the number of Indian families who lived near us. The dominant culture didn’t know about my community’s customs and culture and sometimes ridiculed us because we were different. Making an effort to learn about different customs and cultures is obviously a great place to start. I also think there needs to be diversity in books and films and TV shows. The literary canon needs to change so it reflects the changing population of America.

Speaking of parenting, the main female character of The Atlas of Reds and Blues,  is a mother, as you yourself are. Her level-headed and unpretentious parenting is very likeable and amusing, and I must imagine, also quite relatable to other mothers out there. When you were constructing the relationship and interactions between the main character and her daughters, were you inspired by any of your personal stories or memories which had happened when you were raising your own children?

Yes! This is not an autobiography – but I did give this fictional family some of my stories so I could begin writing about them from a place of familiarity and explore the unknown. Grace Paley said: you write from what you know but you write into what you don’t know.—I try to follow that.

This main female character of the novel is named simply as ‘Mother’. Quite a few of the other characters’ names are also simplified to signify their relationship to Mother such as ‘her hero’, ‘Real Thing’, ‘Baby Sister’, ‘Youngest Daughter, ‘Middle Daughter’, ‘Oldest Daughter’, ‘Grandmother’, and ‘Mother-in-Law’. How did this naming come about?

Two reasons: 1. I am Bengali, and in our family and in our community none of us call each other by our given names. Our names for each other are titles, and it’s always describing relationships. So I wanted to pay homage to that. 2. In America, this family is invisible and unacknowledged. I didn’t want to name them, because no one in their world would remember them.

Another intriguing aspect of the book is its title – The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Upon reading the opening quote by Vandana Khanna – “I could trace it like geography of someone I had once been,” and upon finishing the book I formulated my subjective interpretation of the title. In this interpretation, the ‘atlas’ represents Mother’s life and identity. She retrospectively retells her life of ‘reds’ and ‘blues’ as even her consciousness fluctuates between these two stages. Is this interpretation accurate? What did you envision behind the words ‘reds’ and ‘blues’?

The original title of this story was When The Dolls Leave the Dollhouse, as a nod to the model minority myth where Asians are seen as dolls, well-behaved and silent. After Counterpoint accepted the book, they did a comparative title search to make sure there were no books similarly titled. It turns out that one of the Kardashians had recently written a memoir with the word dollhouse in it. So I was asked to rethink the title. I noticed that my main character had synesthesia, and I had been using reds and blues throughout the story. I remembered I had written a poem in 2008 that had the phrase the atlas of reds and blues in it. I took many lines from that poem and put them to a vote with Counterpoint and my immediate family, and The Atlas of Reds and Blues was the unanimous choice.


I was never a fan of Barbie dolls, they are anatomically incorrect and they set an impossible standard of beauty – and their presence tells girls that society sees women as dolls, silent, something to play with, something to discard.


You interlace several potent metaphors, symbols and messages into your textual narration. One, a strongly stressed one, is a reference to Barbie dolls. Could you elaborate on the purpose and message behind this reference and what exactly it stands for in your novel?

I’m the daughter of an academic. So I had the great privilege of traveling with my family as I grew up. I’ve been to Europe and to India – and everywhere I went people asked me where are you from? And I would answer America. And their response, in the 1970s and early 1980s, was always the same: America, home of Barbie dolls and Coca-Cola. In their minds, everyone in America had a toy chest full of Barbies, and everyone could turn on their faucets and Coke would pour out. I was never a fan of Barbie dolls, they are anatomically incorrect and they set an impossible standard of beauty – and their presence tells girls that society sees women as dolls, silent, something to play with, something to discard. I wanted to call attention to those feelings.

If you had to sum up all the messages you are trying to convey to the readers of your book into one sentence, what would you say?

I wrote a book that focuses on racism, misogyny, invisibility and being treated as other in America.

The theme of our current magazine issue is METAMORPHOSES. I believe this theme is also applicable to The Atlas of Reds and Blues. I detected a few particular traces of metamorphosis in your novel, specifically traces of change, transformation and reconstruction. I find the gradual reconstruction of the Mother’s consciousness from her passive stand of opposition to active resistance to be among the most emphasized themes in your novel, as well as the leading example of metamorphosis. Could you briefly comment on the value which this reconstruction of consciousness brings to you novel?

Here is a woman who has remained silent and it has not served her well. She thinks back to all that she endured and all that her family is enduring and decides it’s time for a change. As she lay dying she thinks back, and during all of her accounting, she manages to recognize the beauty all around her. That is the metamorphoses.

Outside your novel’s frame of reference, what exactly does the word ‘metamorphosis’ mean to you ?

A profound and irreversible transformation, from caterpillar to butterfly

 


Author photograph of Devi S. Laskar.  Picture courtesy of Anjini Laskar.

About Devi S. Laskar

Having previously worked in the sphere of journalism, Devi S. Laskar is now a poet and novelist. She holds an MA in Fine Arts, an MA in South Asian Studies and a BA in journalism and English. She has been nominated for Best New Poets 2016, Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Finishing Line Press published her poetry chapbooks “Gas & Food, No Lodging” and “Anastasia Maps”  in 2017, and Counterpoint Press published her debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues in February 2019. Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, N.C. and how lives in California with her family(1).

 

 



Works Cited

Laskar, Devi S. The Atlas of Reds and Blues: a Novel. Fleet, 2019.

Laskar, Devi S. “Re: Email Interview with Devi S. Laskar.” Received By Sandra Hrášková, 10 April 2019. Email Interview.

“About Devi S. Laskar.” Devi S. Laskar, www.devislaskar.com/bio. Accessed 17 May 2019.

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