Literary Empathy & The Atlas of Reds and Blues

This week on the Debutante Ball is all about Devi’s debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues – so first things first, I want to say CONGRATULATIONS DEVI! You are the first among us to cross over into Published Author Land, so hopefully you can show us all how it’s done once the time comes for the rest of us.

The novel follows a character known only as “Mother” forward and backward through time, collecting poignant slivers of memory to piece together an image of her life. All the while, in the present, Mother is lying on her driveway bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. The poetic, intimate writing puts you so deep in the protagonist’s body and mind, you can’t help but feel all her pain and rage right along with her, interspersed with keen observations about the world and refreshing bursts of almost caustic humor (one of my favorite lines: “If she were in a hot yoga class, this would be the corpse pose. Except that her legs are not two straight lines, her toes are not pointed.”).

Mother is American, born and bred, but she continually encounters subtle prejudice and ugly outright racism from people who want her to “prove” her Americanness to them. This doesn’t define her whole existence by any means – she has a loving husband, three beautiful daughters, a beloved German Shepherd dog, professional ambitions as a journalist, a persistent desire to write books of her own one day – but the aggressions she experiences, both micro and macro, are inextricably woven into the fabric of her life. It’s staggering and infuriating, a death by a thousand cuts – and even more so because Mother is well aware of the price she’ll have to pay if she fights back (“Knowing her lack of reaction is the only thing keeping her alive, over and again. Knowing the first time she hits back is the last time she’ll ever have the opportunity to do so.”).

Devi’s work is the type of art we need now more than ever in the age of Trump: fiction that forces the reader to not just acknowledge, but experience, the pain and joy and complex humanity of people who are different from them in some ways but the same in so many others. This is an American novel in the truest sense of the word, because it shows us – in vivid, unforgettable detail – the truth of America today, rather than simple patriotic platitudes. As I was reading The Atlas of Reds and Blues, I kept thinking about how beautifully it proved the point of this recent study on how literary fiction improves empathy. Reading about someone else’s experiences will never be the same as living them, of course, but it’s an invaluable place to start.

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Layne Fargo

Layne Fargo is a thriller author with a background in theater and library science. She’s a Pitch Wars mentor, a member of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets.

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