As you all know by now, it’s a very exciting week for us here at the ball because we are celebrating our first book release! We all had the chance to read Devi’s book many months ago, and I must say, I was not one bit surprised by all the attention it has been getting, the many amazing lists it’s been on, and the literary world’s general excitement about this debut. It is truly gorgeous, heartbreaking, and so utterly important.
As I read Devi’ s book, I found myself constantly struck by the harsh contrast between the staggering beauty of the writing and the ugly side of humanity so brilliantly displayed. The Atlas of Reds and Blues opens just as its narrator, a woman known only as Mother, lies bleeding on the concrete outside her home after police conducting a raid have shot her down. The reason for the raid is never explained, but it becomes clear as the story goes on that it’s a racially motivated attack upon an innocent family.
Devi Laskar has published two books of poetry prior to this one, and her vivid descriptions and precise language reminded me of poetry on every page. This is not a straightforward, linear exploration of the life of an Indian-American woman: her childhood, her marriage to a white man, and her roles as a journalist and mother to their three daughters. Rather, it jumps around in time and space, revisiting themes like racism, sisterhood, and even the evolution of Barbie. It moves as memory would, every section—some containing only one isolated line—rising at its proper time to the surface of the narrative as Mother’s mind meanders like a stream.
As a literary writer with a background in poetry myself, my favorite aspect of this work was the definitely this powerful, immersive writing. When Mother goes through a miscarriage in a public bathroom, the author describes her starkly as “wiping away the blood on her fingertips with brown paper towels.” The unfriendly neighbors watch her, “aviators reflecting as they stand guard over the clipped grass and pressure-washed concrete.” And as Mother lies bleeding, staring up at the sky, her pain is “expanding at the rate of the universe.” Holy moly. It’s the kind of writing that gives me goosebumps.
And yet, fabulous writing aside, what really kept me reading was Devi’s searing exploration of what it means to be a person of color in America today. Racism is found in the harassment of traffic cops, the coldness of neighbors, the rudeness of dry cleaners, and the cruelty of both school children and teachers. As the narrative jumps around in time, these incidents build in the reader’s chest until they pervade everything. In this atmosphere, even funny little details—like the white paper accidentally left on cheddar slices in a sandwich—become sinister. Dolls are never just dolls. They are the wrong color, or the wrong brand, their clothes and accessories inferior. Even the lightning that strikes Mother’s house during a storm no longer feels random. “Time was fluid in the list of past grievances.” While in context this refers to one character in particular, it resonates so deeply with the rest of the book.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues offers us no answers, only questions framed like windows around the author’s experience. For many obvious reasons, such as the safety net of my whiteness, this is a book I could never write. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I loved it so much.