The Gates of American Belonging: Devi S. Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues
It begins with a gunshot. The protagonist of Devi S. Laskar’s debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues, known to us simply as “Mother,” collapses onto her driveway as the police invade her home.
Almost immediately, the reader is taken on a flash tour of the thoughts and memories that flit through the wounded Mother’s brain, hyper-distilled vignettes that detour from and return to her bleeding body in “a kaleidoscope of time and place.” These snapshots stalk and retreat, prod and postulate, in search of the inciting incident that led Mother, after a lifetime of grievances, to stand up to the cops as they forced their way into her house, to deliver the refusal that is brutally answered with a bullet.
Mother is a woman characterized foremost by her alienness, her unbelonging in the predominantly white Georgia suburb where she has recently moved from Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. This is a place where unseen neighbors leave threatening notes duct-taped to the door. Coworkers ignore and belittle her. Police harass her. Shopkeepers and strangers regard her suspiciously. While her husband is away on a seemingly endless string of business trips, Mother is left alone to weather the mounting hostility of the neighborhood and the secret she is keeping: that one of her daughters is the target of racist violence at school. What begins as exclusion by Middle Daughter’s white peers soon escalates into something much more vicious. She’s dragged across the playground by her hair and, in a final incident, pushed so hard against the blacktop she is left with a concussion. At the hospital, the doctor won’t take Mother’s insistence to perform an MRI scan seriously until her white husband (referred to throughout the book as her “hero”) arrives on the scene. Later, when they decide to withdraw Middle Daughter from her school, her hero insists that they bow out quietly instead of making their reasons known because “it’s the gracious thing to do.” On the rare occasions he is at home, Mother’s husband is jet lagged, distracted, and painfully unaware of the weight she is holding. And so it falls on her to shield her children as best she can from the racism that is already shaping their lives. She is determined to be “the wall, the river, the buffer” between her daughters and the violent world they live in.
But Middle Daughter’s experiences aren’t new or surprising for Mother. In fact, they echo her own childhood as part of the only Indian-American family in a small North Carolina town. In one memory of sixth grade recess, in which Mother is referred to as “The Real Thing,” her white classmate Mary-Margaret Anne feels threatened by the protagonist’s brief exchange with her boyfriend and decides to put her in her place.
“Nobody,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, enunciating the first syllable at twice the length it normally requires, “like Eric will ever ask you to go with him.” The Real Thing pinches her palm as hard as she can and the ocean of tears at the eyelid shores recede. “Why not?”
“Because,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, suddenly touching her skin, creating a crater of shock, “this doesn’t rub off.”
Humiliations like these continue well into Mother’s adult life. The “white on white and peroxide blond” women of her cookie-cutter subdivision are pristine and perpetually disapproving. They don’t make direct eye contact with the overworked and unkempt Mother as she rushes between school drop-offs and pick-ups, work, and errands, but they do emerge to gawk as her home is invaded and quarantined with caution tape. Outside the neighborhood, the atmosphere isn’t much better. Mother is regularly pulled over by the same state trooper on the same stretch of road. Each time she rolls down her window to greet the man who despite their shared ritual does not seem to recognize her, she must choose her words strategically, careful not to reveal her frustration or else risk his retaliation.
Despite having spent her entire life in the US, Mother is never afforded the effortless access to Americanness that is the norm for her white neighbors. “Where did you come from? How long have you been here?” the cops want to know, a litany of accusations disguised as questions. Mother tries to explain that she is from the States, that she is a native English speaker, but in this moment of interrogation at the doorway of her home and the various others embedded in her flashbacks, she is held hostage by the unceasing perception that she is a foreigner and therefore, a threat.
Mother’s inquiry into the origins of her long-held rage does not have a tidy trajectory. Her quest is cyclical, examining the evidence from all available angles. The vignettes open with repeated phrases like “or,” “perhaps,” or “just maybe,” speculating on possibilities but never definitively landing on one specific source. The story is the seeking itself. It is the cataloging of insights in an effort to resolve something that escapes resolution. Each page is titled simply with an “&,” creating the sense that the sections are building off one another, forming a kind of list that grows in urgency as it grows in length, stacking and stacking relentlessly like the racist and sexist affronts Mother endures.
A reporter for a local newspaper, Mother is suspended from her job for insisting that she be allowed to investigate the burning crosses she’s noticed in the distance while driving. Her boss has warned her not to overstep, to be grateful for the small assignments she is given, including a puff piece on the fortieth anniversary of JFK’s death that consists of cold-calling strangers to ask them where they were when it happened. Her mother and mother-in-law criticize her parenting style and the weight she’s gaining. Her husband insists that she not make waves with the neighbors who file complaints about their broken garage door and let their dogs poop on her lawn. There is a code she is supposed to follow, a silence she is not meant to disrupt.
Laskar herself is both a journalist and a poet (she has two collections out from Finishing Line Press: Gas & Food, No Lodging and Anastasia Maps), and The Atlas of Reds and Blues marries the two forms in a uniquely compelling way. There is at once a detachment and deep intimacy in how she unfolds her character’s quest, a precision and mastery of language that isn’t afraid to linger in its own beauty paired with a powerful drive to find and tell the truth. Even the way Mother and her family are identified by nicknames seems to mimic a reporter’s shorthand as it might be scribbled on a notepad. And yet, in context, this device is more than just a marker of how Mother’s mind works. Its effect is ghostlike, creating a blurriness around the family that sets them apart from the rest of the characters, intensifying their isolation in the town.
As Mother lies in a pool of blood on the driveway, her observations—the hooting of an owl in the tree above her body, the mocking voices of the cops as they read her name from her ID into the static of their radios—have an eerie calm that stands in stark contrast to the mounting intensity of her recollections, the boiling over of her long-suppressed rage. In fleeting moments, Mother’s conscious mind resurfaces to observe her surroundings before diving back into memory.
The sun tussles with a cloud and the glare dims for a moment. Goosebumps crop up all over. Her ears clog as if she were flying in the vacuum seal of an airplane. If only she could yawn and relieve the pressure building. But she cannot move, she is lying on her back and the concrete is cold.
Laskar’s crisp and lyrical sentences seem to exist in a dreamspace that temporarily suspends the horror of Mother’s situation. And yet there is always a lingering sinister mood, a reminder that something is deeply wrong even if the narrator is somewhat detached from the telling. Just as effective is Laskar’s use of blank space, employed strategically to dictate the reader’s pace. Take for example the page dedicated to this single sentence:
And then the shot is fired.
This sentence isn’t complex, and we learn on the very first page that Mother is shot. But reading it gave me chills because of the blankness that follows, an entire page of silence that forces me to sit with what I have just read and let it sink in. It’s a culmination of the tension that has been steadily rising as we travel backward and forward in time inside Mother’s head, collecting fragments of the narrative. By the time that single sentence appears we’ve gained so much insight into Mother and her pain that we grasp the horror of that bullet for the first time.
I read this book the same week the Kavanaugh hearings took place. My notes for each sit side by side in my journal, as though begging to talk to one another. I remember anxiously watching the livestream from my laptop while my advance copy of The Atlas of Reds and Blues sat open on the coffee table. After Dr. Ford gave her testimony with painstaking composure, it was time for Kavanaugh to sit before the committee. Right away, he was combative, mocking. He rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. How dare they accuse him of abuse when it was obvious he was blameless! After all, he had been a star athlete and had even volunteered at a few soup kitchens. He’d studied hard and had plenty of friends, including women. In other words, he was not “that guy” and would not tolerate the allegation that he might be. Though it was so greatly contradicted by the snarl he wore on his face and the increasingly menacing tone of his voice, Kavanaugh wanted desperately for us to buy the image he was selling: that of a man worthy of the benefit of the doubt. Protected by the powers that be from any kind of honest reckoning with the harm he’d caused, that benefit is exactly what was bestowed upon him. Kavanaugh is now installed in the highest court in the country and it begs the question: who gets to claim the wholesome innocence of the All-American image? And who, despite living their entire lives in the US, deeply immersed in its systems and cultural practices, is denied that claim?
Unflinching and fueled by a seeking that forgoes simple resolution, The Atlas of Reds and Blues is a masterful hybrid of forms: it’s a poet-journalist’s journey to collect and interrogate evidence, to study the geography of a woman of color’s trauma, and to reckon with the legacy of violence that guards the gates of American belonging.