by Joshua Loveday
When I first saw the title of Devi S. Laskar’s debut novel THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES, I thought it was a Trump-era novel, the reds and blues being Republican and Democratic majority areas on a map. Now, I’m not so sure, though the novel does explore the bias individuals—and society as a whole—have against women of color.
Based on a true event in Laskar’s life, in which the Georgia State Police simultaneously raided her home and her husband’s office—the legal matter was dismissed in 2016—the story opens with the narrator simply known as Mother lying in her driveway, bleeding after being shot by police. What follows is a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness review of her life—“. . . her mind the jumble and rattle of a projector running continuously, a moving picture made of stills . . . a kaleidoscope of time and place, an atlas of the past.” The quote at the beginning by Vandana Khanna from her book of poems THE TRAIN TO AGRA—“I could trace it like the geography of someone I had once been”—both describes the novel’s layout and the narrator’s struggle to define herself as an Indian-American caught between two cultures.
Names aren’t used in the novel for any of the main characters, only designations, forcing the reader to objectify them, just as society does. The Bengali-American narrator is alternately known as Mother or The Real Thing, depending on the decade in which the scene takes place. Her daughters are known simply as The Eldest Daughter, The Middle Daughter and The Youngest Daughter, while her white husband is alternately known as Father and her hero—intentionally uncapitalized to highlight its irony.
After moving to suburbia from Atlanta at her husband’s insistence, none of the neighbors answer the door when Mother knocks. “In this neighborhood the wives take baths (not showers), put on pumps, and apply mascara just to retrieve the morning paper.” The residents leave anonymous notes on Mother’s front door highlighting violations of the homeowners’ association, and one of the residents regularly walks his dog to defecate on their front lawn. They laugh and applaud as she bleeds on her driveway. “The applause ricochets down the cul-de-sac, and startles her. The neighbors’ claps, ostensibly in delight, sound like fireworks. . . . Their amusement echoes down the throat of the neighborhood.”
The systemic racism Mother has faced her entire life becomes incarnate in the form of a cop who pulls her over repeatedly for missing a yield sign that has been absent for years. “She does not argue that he had been stopping her regularly. . . . She recognizes him, but he never recognizes her.” But it’s the conversation between the dispatcher and the federal agent who shot her, interspersed throughout the book and punctuated with carefree laughter, that highlights the casual indifference of law enforcement to the consequences of their actions and the protection the system affords them, especially when the victim is a person of color. “‘Well, Hollis [the agent], at least you got to work on your hobby today.’. . . . ‘Which one?’. . . . ‘Both, I guess. You always do love to brandish your weapon while working on your tan.’”
The racism that has always been at the heart of what it means to be “American” is shown throughout Mother’s life. As a girl, when a classmate named Mary-Margaret Anne calls her black, she says, “‘I’m not Black.’ ‘Sure you are,’ she says, ‘You’re not white. . . . Nobody . . . like Eric [Mary Margaret’s white boyfriend] will ever ask you to go with him.’. . . . ‘Why not?’ ‘Because,’ Mary-Margaret Anne says, suddenly touching her skin . . . ‘This doesn’t rub off.’” This racism is also felt by The Middle Daughter who tells her Mother that “‘Annette said her mom won’t let her play with Black people outside of school.’” She is repeatedly bullied at school for the non-white color of her skin, even though her father is white, displaying racism’s pervasive entrenchment throughout the decades, despite the fact that the novel opens in 2010 and America has its first black president.
Racism isn’t the only discrimination Laskar tackles. Misogyny and sexism are on full display. The male night manager of a grocery store gives a very pregnant Mother prenatal advice, criticizing her purchases. She says, “‘It’s for my husband.’ ‘Are you kidding me? . . . . What kind of man allows his pregnant wife to go to the store in the middle of the night? . . . . ‘Are you sure you’re married?’ . . . . ‘Why?’ ‘Where’s your ring?’ His stare is almost a glare. ‘People will talk.’” And when Mother and Father are at the park with their three daughters, a woman asks, “‘Are you going to try for a son now?’ ‘No,’ he answers. . . . ‘You say that now, but don’t you want to play football with your son one day?’”
But nothing combines the overt, institutionalized racism and sexism like Laskar’s discussion of dolls, especially Barbie. The juxtaposition of white, blonde, thin, blue-eyed Barbie, who represents the idealized version of the American woman in the nation’s psyche, with the narrator, periodically appears throughout the novel. “In 1965, slumber party Barbie came with a weight scale permanently set at 110 pounds. . . . that would make Barbie a five-foot-nine woman who was 35 pounds underweight.” “In 1997, Mattel tried to cross-advertise Barbie with Nabisco’s Oreo cookies. The public pointed out that Oreo is a slur for African-Americans—and forced Mattel to recall this particular campaign. Oreo dolls are now a collectors’ item.” “By 2004, Barbie was still a white girl, but she had ‘companions’: siblings, a boyfriend, ‘friend’ dolls from as far away as India. African American Barbie dolls were available too, but at a higher price.”
The reader never finds out if Mother lives or dies at the end, but to speculate misses the point of the novel. The title—THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES—is summed up about two-thirds of the way through: “She closes her eyes and a kaleidoscope appears, the blue of the sky giving way to the red pulse of pain near her stomach. . . . every time she opens or closes her eyes, the blues and blood reds are reinvented; she is witnessing the continents shifting, the tectonic plates of years shifting and crashing into each other.” This metaphor exposes the shifting color of America and the violent resistance to this inevitable demographic change from a culture dominated by a homogenous ethnicity to an atlas of many colors.
Laskar’s debut novel is a quick read, but to do so would cause the reader to miss many of the subtle themes and metaphors interwoven into a powerful story. As usual, I read it twice and am sure I still missed some connections. I’m sure I’ll read it again.