When she was accepted to a California writers' workshop in 2004, author Devi Laskar wanted to dust off an old short story she had written about arranged marriage. However, a good friend from graduate school, who was also attending, insisted she write something new.
“So I wrote a family story about a woman and her kids and her dog,” Laskar explained. “I was torn between my love for The House on Mango Street — and my desire to emulate it — and my years of training as a reporter.”
Laskar said that she wrote short chapters and, true to her reporter background, “was very concerned about accuracy of facts” at that point. Attention to accuracy wouldn’t remain quite as important later in the process.
“The story was well received and I started to expand it,” she said. “In 2009, I set it aside to write a different novel as part of NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, in May 2010, I lost most of my work.” [More on that below.]
Laskar said that it wasn’t until four years later that she could begin again, to “re-think and re-imagine” the story that would eventually become The Atlas of Reds and Blues, her debut novel, out last February from Counterpoint.
“By the time I got back to [the story], I had to let go of the accuracy in order to get the truth of the Mother’s voice and narration,” she explained. Mother is the book's protagonist.
Like many writers, Laskar abhorred the process of writing the first draft.
“I suppose I’m not alone in that writing that terrible first draft is not that much fun,” she said. “When I write poetry, I can write pretty much anywhere and anytime. But with prose, I have to be consistent — and I wrote this novel at my desk every morning for two years.”
First and foremost, Laskar considers herself a poet. She published two collections of poetry, Anastasia Maps and Gas & Food, No Lodging, before venturing into fiction.
“I am a poet first, and poetry inspires me,” she said, listing Bluets by Maggie Nelson, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil, Leaving Yuba City by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Migritude by Shailja Patel, Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis and Bright Felon by Kazim Ali as her favorite go-to poetry books.
Unsurprisingly, Laskar loves to read.
“When I come across a terrific sentence, I’m thrilled,” she said. “And I’m also a former reporter, so good non-fiction is very inspiring.”
Laskar’s journalism background shines through in the short chapters and matter-of-fact style in which she writes, and her background in poetry makes appearances too — in both rich, poetic descriptions and bold stylistic decisions. For example, in The Atlas of Reds and Blues, chapters are denoted with an ampersand instead of a number or title.
“I wanted to create a sense of accumulation for the Mother to remember and the reader to think about,” she explained. “In poetry, it’s A and B, and C … Also in improv, you see the actor or comedian build rapport with the audience by agreeing with their comment, then adding the word ‘and’ and moving on to the next topic.”
Throughout the book, Laskar refers to her protagonist as both “Mother” and “The Real Thing.”
“I’m Bengali,” she explained. “In my family and in my community, we do not use our given names. When addressing each other, everyone has a relational title. I wanted to pay homage to that.”
Additionally she explained that, “in the world of this story, Mother and her family couldn’t have names because they are unacknowledged as Americans.
“No one would remember their names,” she said. “And no one would bother to learn their names.”
As for “The Real Thing,” Laskar says it’s an homage to a childhood nickname. " If you say my Bengali nickname very fast five times, it sounds a lot like ‘Real Thing.’ So I’m happy I got a chance to pay homage to the memory.”
Another "character" in the book —Barbie — also has origins in Laskar's childhood. “I’m the daughter of an academic and I had the pleasure and privilege of traveling the world with my parents when I was young,” she explained. “Everywhere I went in the 1970s, people would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ and I would answer, ‘America!'” and everyone’s response was similar: ‘You’re from America, land of the Barbie dolls and Coca-Cola.’ In their minds, every kid in America had 25 Barbie dolls and lived in homes where Coca-Cola came out of the kitchen faucet."
Laskar placed a pair of secondhand Barbies in her book, but also included factual bits about the doll.
“I wanted to talk about Barbie because it’s something that’s come up as I was growing up, and because I think this iconic American toy sends a bad message to girls all over the world,” Laskar said. “Barbie dolls are anatomically incorrect and they set an impossible standard of beauty. Also, the dolls are setting the tone that women are dolls, to be seen but silent, to be passive.”
Currently, Laskar is hard at work on a new novel, the earliest iteration of which she lost in a baseless raid of her home nine years ago.
“In 2010, my husband [was] targeted by his former employer in Georgia,” she said. “Nine years ago, the state [bureau of investigation] raided my house at gunpoint. Among the items seized was my laptop.” She lost most of her work, including a novel she was “on the cusp of finishing.”
“Although a state judge in Georgia dismissed all the baseless charges against my spouse in late 2016, most of our belongings have yet to be returned. So I’ve gone back to the novel I lost on the day of the raid, and I have started over. It’s called Shadow Gardens, and it’s an ethnic retelling of Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.”
The Atlas of Reds and Blues was released by Counterpoint Press in February 2019 and can be purchased wherever books are sold.
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.