Picture this: You’re lying on your driveway with a gunshot wound eating through your stomach. Your keys are still in your hand. Instead of wondering if you’ll survive, you think about what choices you made to get there. You realize that outcomes are not based on one decision but many, over many years, that create a domino effect.
This is how we meet Mother in The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar (who survived a horrifying brush with racist police officers herself). She is a second-generation American, daughter of Bengali immigrants, living in the suburbs of Atlanta with a mostly absent husband and three young girls. As she lies bleeding on the concrete after a raid on her home, Mother pieces together a map of her past; all the decisions and experiences that brought her to this precise moment on the ground, listening to the policeman (who shot her) describing her appearance to a dispatcher, as if she’s not there.
“Black hair. Brown skin. Gray sweatpants. Brown T-shirt. Flip-flops. The dispatcher’s voice drawls. ‘Is she Black?’”
Ignored or mocked by her white neighbors, condescended to by everyone from store clerks to door-to-door salesmen to coworkers, she feels that by merely existing, she’s some kind of affront to people. So much so that they don’t even see her. They don’t want to see her.
“What does it mean truly, to be invisible?”
This debut novel is an experiment with time and space and memory, as Laskar weaves Mother’s past with the history of the Barbie doll. She explores what it’s like to be a woman of color in a country of white dolls, as her daughters play with the iconic toys she also played with as a child.
Mother’s mind shifts to her childhood as a non-Catholic in a mostly white Catholic school, to early adulthood as a journalist, and to her current life with her girls. For three generations, the women in her family have been derided because of skin color. No matter that they were born in the states and are American citizens. She is repeatedly asked where she is from, insult after insult suggesting she should go back where she came from. Which is where, if not here?
She compares these questions to gunfire. “How long have you lived here? rat-a-tat-tat. Your English is so good. When did you come over? rat-a-tat-tat. Who taught you? rat-a-tat-tat. Where? rat-a-tat-tat. Her heartbeats answering, rat-a-tat-tat. ‘I’m American.’”
The author’s fluid, succinct language in each short chapter becomes the border of an atlas, straining to connect to form a person. A place. A thing.
Laskar shows how women, and particularly women of color, not only have to manage motherhood, marriage, and ambition, but also must fight for respect on top of it all. Many scenes are based on her own experiences with unwarranted home raids and those questions of “origin,” beating on her front door and into her head. If nothing causes a person’s malicious behavior toward you other than something you’re born with, how long can you fight it?
But Mother is formidable. Her power doesn’t relent until she is finally physically stopped, muted, by a gunshot. Nevertheless, her mind roams on, tries to create meaning, even if there is no longer hope. Even if she will never have the Barbie dream-home life, or any life.
“When you put American clothes on a brown-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?”
The Atlas of Reds and Blues
By Devi S. Laskar
February 5, 2019
Devi S. Laskar holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Tin House, Crab Orchard Review, and The Raleigh Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and is an alumna of TheOpEdProject and VONA. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks and a novel.