Devi Laskar’s ‘Atlas’ spins a tale of racial injustice
By Lou Fancher
Bay Area-based author Devi Laskar, 52, has stood at the lethal end of a law enforcement officer’s gun aimed at her heart. As the American-born daughter of Bengali immigrants growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she saw repairmen who noticed an Indian shrine in their home leaving behind bible study pamphlets along with the bill. Even today, as an adult with a hyphenated cultural background, she often gets misguided “your English is so good” compliments from strangers.
Most tragically, In 2010, state agents raided the Atlanta home Laskar shared with her husband, Georgia Institute of Technology electrical engineer Dr. Joy Laskar, and their three young daughters. Her husband was falsely accused of misusing university funds. After years of court battles, he was exonerated in 2016— but a laptop with the author’s unfinished novel and other precious family items remain in the grasp of prosecutors.
These events, among others, form the foundation for Laskar’s riveting debut novel, “The Atlas of Reds and Blues” (Counterpoint, $25, 272 pages). The racist bias that pours and singes like liquid fire in her novel, she suggests in a phone interview, arises simply because a person’s skin is, like hers, the rich color of cream-laced coffee or somehow falls in a spectrum of other-than-peach tones.
“Yes, it’s hard to talk about racism in America,” she says, “but if I can get one conversation started, even in the context of this book, then readers apply it to life, I’ve done my job.”
Laskar has a master’s of fine arts degree from Columbia University and a master’s in South Asian studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The former journalist has turned her focus to work as a novelist, poet and photographer. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, “Gas & Food, No Lodging” and “Anastasia Maps.”
“Atlas” tells the gripping story of a second-generation American immigrant and woman of color who in the workplace, home and society finds herself ensnared in racist, abusive circumstances. Told through the perspective of the unnamed protagonist The Mother, the narrative has timelines that fragment: Memories that stretch over decades and generations of prejudicial wounding are juxtaposed with the visceral, physical reality of lying in the driveway of The Mother’s upscale neighborhood home bleeding from a gunshot wound. Barbie dolls, grandmothers, rescue dogs, overzealous police, cruelty, humor, interracial marriage and more arrive in the novel’s tumultuous, can’t-put-it-down pacing and impeccably vivid prose.
“I’m thinking about justice these days,” says Laskar. “Beyond what happened to my family, I’m upset by the news. It’s crystalized into awful stuff. I know what it’s like to be treated unfairly.”
After their home was raided, the two sentences Laskar heard most often were, “You must have done something wrong,” and “You should have known better.” Even the large Indian community in which they lived and their university colleagues shunned, judged and kept them at arm’s length. “I think about how we’re a nation of immigrants—all except Native Americans who were here to begin with—and that this is our strength; religious and ethnic tolerance, celebrating our diversity. That’s being turned upside down in the Trump era.”
The energy of her thoughts percolated to boiling and caused Laskar to reconstruct the novel she was six weeks from finishing when her laptop was confiscated. Piecing together bits from emails and her writing-group archives and retelling the short story originally begun in 2004, Laskar found freedom in reimagining the work. “As a younger writer, I was wed to my words. In 2014 and now, I don’t have to worry about that. I found I can just make new words.”
Even so, it took a self-assigned daily photography project to reawaken her literary urges. “A year after the raid, I needed an outlet. It was impossible to write, with three little girls and my husband already out in California, waiting for us. What could I do to claim myself, even if only five minutes every day? I started June 2011, doing photography, and kept myself honest by posting every day. I titled the work, which got me back to writing. It helped me heal. I was able to start writing poems and then pick up the longer stories.”
Laskar developed a reverence for language gleaned from her early reading— Anthony Lake’s “Pleasury of Witticisms and Word Play,” the “mesmerizing word choice” in Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient,” “The Secret History” by Donna Tart and other books. She has dispensd with daily attempts to “wake up, rush to my desk and write morning pages.” Instead, she succumbs to her natural, night-owl default, doing a “data dump” before going to bed.
Laskar writes her stories, only afterwards designating them as a novel, short story or poem. Atlas is a hybrid, constructed in paarts like a pantoum, (a Malay verse form whose a-b-a-b rhyme repetition mirrors its end to its beginning). Ultimately, she seeks universal truths and connections through diversity of thought. “I read and write so I don’t feel alone. By opening our reading lives to something beyond our zone, strangers and I, all of us, become connected,” she says.