Many poems are compact empathy-creating devices. They recast individual experiences in the form of words and extrude meanings out to the rest of us.
The same qualities often apply when it comes to novels written by poets. Ocean Vuong, the TS Eliot Prize-winning Vietnamese-American poet, for example, throws a crystalline net of words over the narrator’s instincts of survival in his recent first novel,
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This is cast in the form of a letter to his mother. He writes: “What I am about to tell you, you will never know…I am writing to reach you – even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”
Condensed, illuminated experiences are also apparent in Devi S. Laskar’s debut novel,
The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Laskar is a poet, photographer and an artist, and it shows. Her narrative speaks of survival – or not – in America today. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is the story of a second-generation Bengali-American woman in the suburbs of Atlanta. The event that holds the structure together is based, Laskar has said, on an actual incident when armed law enforcement agents raided her family’s home at gunpoint. That case was dismissed, but in her novel, Laskar envisions a darker outcome. At the start, the central character, referred to as Mother, resists the agents who have barged in and is shot by one of them. She lies bleeding on the driveway as flashbacks from her life crowd into her brain.
This concept is similar to that of Elif Shafak’s Booker-shortlisted
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which delves into the mind and the past of a sex worker as she lies dying in a garbage bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. Laskar’s narrative, however, doesn’t rely as much on linearity, and is almost kaleidoscopic in its effects. The short vignettes through which the story is told instead bring to mind Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.
Dealing with racism, and the desire to speak up or to fit in, are the key themes of
The Atlas of Reds and Blues. There’s hardly any aspect of Mother’s public life that is not touched by it, whether it’s her work as a crime reporter or her relationship with neighbours. Her blond husband, ironically called “her hero” throughout, tries to be supportive but is often away, travelling on work. This leaves Mother alone to deal with their three children and her tenuous position at the local newspaper. As she says wearily to her daughter’s doctor, “Oh, I’m the family maid and chauffeur and concierge right now, but once upon a time I used to be a journalist.”
Mother’s old and ailing dog is a source of some comfort, and the unconditional love between them comes through in many moving passages. Memories also crowd in of childhood trips to Calcutta: butterflies in the Botanical Gardens, the taste of
sandesh, midnight folktales and kitchen superstitions. Such interactions and memories are undercut by vignettes to do with dolls: of unwanted brown ones and, more ironically, of the impossible proportions of the beloved Barbie.
Time and again, Mother faces old, familiar questions: “How long have y’all lived here? Do you even speak English? Oh, well. Your English is so good. Bless your heart, you must miss your people… Is it true that you worship cows? Is it painful to have that red dot on your women’s foreheads?” Concealed beneath these are other, darker jibes: “You should be grateful. Fifty years ago I could have had you arrested just by the way you’re looking at me right now… I know you think you don’t have to listen. But this is my country. You do. When are y’all heading back? Y’all best be getting back to where you came from, you hear? No need to overstay your welcome.”
Mother’s typical response to these and other belittlements is to stay quiet, and even instruct her daughters not to speak of them to their White father. We read of her invisibility, her stillness, “her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears.” Further, “to pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness…To watch but pretend blindness.” The accumulation of racist incidents, however, is too strong, and leads to her helpless act of defiance, and the fatal reaction to it.
In Tobias Wolff’s 1995 short story,
Bullet in the Brain, a jaded critic who’s been shot during a bank robbery recalls, just before he dies, the pleasure that language and words once provided. In The Atlas of Reds and Blues, the language is polished, poetic and packed with vivid descriptions of interior and exterior states. With its delineation of small moments and large consequences, it takes us to the despairing heart of Ocean Vuong’s words: “The truth is we can survive our lives, but not our skin.”
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Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.