Devi S Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues opens with a brown woman bleeding out on her driveway in suburban America, shot by the police. In short, lyrical chapters, the course of the woman’s life is revisited in a montage of memories: growing up in a household of Bengali immigrants, her marriage to a loving husband whose race insulates him from the daily aggressions she and their children face, her experiences parenting children in a racist world.
The chapters search for clues to why the protagonist ended up confronting the police on that day, where that fatal act of resistance might have arisen from. Laskar spoke to Scroll.in about parenting, the growing political dissent in America, concision in writing, suburbia, and the experiences of first and second-generation immigrants. Excerpts from the interview:
I want to start with the location of the novel’s events: suburbia. Would you tell our readers in India a little bit about how suburbia is seen in the American imagination and how (if at all) that is different from the reality?
Good question. I can’t speak for all Americans, but for this hyphenated American’s characters, suburbia is viewed as an aspirational destination. A sign of success when one is enveloped in the homogenous neighbourhoods, with nicer homes, better schools, etc. Something the hero of the story wants for his family. I think the reality for Mother and the children is that suburbia is frightening. The family does not conform to the standards set by the dominant white culture and their differences are not accepted. Their isolation grows.
The Atlas reminded me of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in the number and breadth of incidents of racial aggression it chronicles. Will you tell us what you were drawing from when you wrote those?
I often describe my novel as a story at the intersection of Rankine’s Citizen and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Cisneros gave me permission to be brief and Rankine gave me permission to discuss racism. The novel is a story that is at a four-way stop of racism, misogyny, invisibility and being treated as the Other in America. Although this is a work of fiction, some of the stories described in the book are based on composite real-life events.
The novel isn’t solely about race or immigrant experiences. The other aspects of the protagonist’s life, such as her job in a newsroom, her children, her dog, and her marriage also take up narrative space. I was curious to understand how you chose the scope of her story, how you chose which aspects of her life to include.
The best way I can describe it is to talk about a kaleidoscope. It is a toy that has certain limits: there are a few colours and there is one place to look through to glimpse the design. But the magic happens when you turn the knob, and the colours are rearranged to form a different pattern. That was what I was trying for, a story that is seen from different angles. Mother is remembering, and there is a bit of word association in play as well as synesthesia. I am a former reporter, so I made a list of aspects I wanted to include, as if Mother were a real person.
Kiese Laymon’s blurb for The Atlas of Reds And Blues says, “…I’ve never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages.” What does brevity mean to you as a person and as a writer?
I am a poet and a former reporter. I’m always practising narrative compression and keeping things concise. I think in the case of my narrator, it was appropriate that she think of her life in fragments, that she remembers the most important moments – I don’t think it would have been as believable if she were musing for another 100 pages.
The police raid is based on a real-life event. I was not shot, but one of the policemen did point his weapon at me for a short time. It is a literary conceit to have a “life flashing before your eyes” narrative, but it is also true that when you are going through a very difficult moment, your mind races through time to remember what’s important. I wanted to give that feeling to the narrator so she could impart it to the reader.
In The Atlas, resistance is identified as dangerous, and it’s a constant see-saw between self-preservation and resistance for the protagonist with the former winning out more times than not. Are there ways in which to resist in the present-day without endangering one’s self?
I think one of the few positive aspects from the current political climate in America and elsewhere is that people are speaking up and speaking out. People are are breaking their silence and voicing their dissent. There can be no societal change without candid conversation – my hope is that this novel sparks conversation and debate that will lead to positive change.
The protagonist seeks her children’s permission to tell her husband about the racism they’re facing in school. Why do you think she keeps those secrets, why doesn’t she go against her children’s wishes and tell him right away?
A few reasons. Mother is as good as her word. She made a promise and she felt she couldn’t break it. Also, in Mother’s mind, as well as Middle Daughter’s mind, the hero needed to remain innocent – by not knowing the full extent of the problems, he is able to go out in the world and do his job and provide for the family. And her hero is white, he is part of the dominant culture, and he does not fully understand what his family faces.
During a phone call with her mother, the protagonist thinks that “she wants to tell her [her mother] that growing up in the shadow of maternal depression and homesickness for India made her neither confident nor accomplished in anything except reading books.” Would you talk a little about what you think the homesickness of first-generation immigrants meant for their children?
I can only imagine how heart-breaking it is for the first-generation immigrants: they are so isolated. And at the same time, they are also sandwiched between their own parents and their children, they are always looking toward the past. I was born and raised in the United States, and I was lucky enough to be able to visit India regularly and see my extended family. I saw how everyone’s hearts broke when it was our time to return to the USA. I think American-born children of immigrants realise their families operate under a shadow of sadness that is always present.
The protagonist is fearful of leaving her children even for a short time – she wants to be there to provide a “shield.” One of the dangers out there for her children is, of course, discriminatory and bullying behaviour by racists. Is that desire to stay put, to stay near the children, a common protective impulse amongst parents raising children of colour? Tell us a little about what you were thinking while writing that particular section.
Because the Mother character has experienced racism and bullying first-hand, she recognises what is happening to the children – and wants to be there to protect them. She realises the times have changed since she was a young girl, but the people haven’t changed much at all. I think Mother also realises that her hero doesn’t quite understand how she and the children are viewed by the dominant white culture and she feels an added responsibility toward the children. I wanted to raise the stakes in the story.