‘Nothing will change if we remain silent’, Devi Laskar discusses her literary work – and the influence racism and misogyny played on it
Writer, artist, photographer, poet, former newspaper reporter, Devi Laskar indeed wears many hats and, with a pen as mighty as hers, one may well call her activist, too. Through her work, she aims to and succeeds in initiating change and improve the troubled race relations prevailing in this country. She first made waves with her debut novel, “The Atlas of Reds and Blues,” published in 2019. “There can be no change without candid conversation – I hope that my novel sparks conversations, about racism and misogyny,” says Laskar “Racism is a touchy subject and it’s hard to have a conversation without someone feeling attacked and getting defensive.
My hope is to write a book where everyone could stand next to the narrator and experience what it is like to be peppered with questions like, ‘Where are you from? But where are you originally from?’”
The book won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. It was selected by the Georgia Center for the Book “as a book all Georgians should read.” It was long-listed for the DSC Prize in South Asian literature and also for the Golden Poppy Awards presented by the California Independent Booksellers Alliance and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction. It was also named by The Washington Post as one of the best books of 2019. It also won praise in Time magazine, the Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, among others.
Laskar’s work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Finishing Line Press published two of her poetry chapbooks, “Gas & Food, No Lodging” and “Anastasia Maps.” Her second novel, “Circa 22,” is slated to appear in 2022. Laskar shares glimpses of it as she says, “Set in North Carolina, “Circa” is written in a composite style. I used to be a reporter. I did know some young Indian American ladies who just went missing, who ran away from home. It is ultimately uplifting, although I am not one for happy endings.”
Describing it as a labor of love, Laskar says the story started long time ago when she was in grad school in New York, and she is glad it is finally seeing light of day.
“WHEN YOU READ AND YOUR TONGUE TRIPS, IT’S AN INDICATION THAT IT’S
A BAD WORD CHOICE. ALSO, WHEN THE THOUGHTS ARE OUT OF ORDER, READING ALOUD HELPS TO REARRANGE CERTAIN PASSAGES”
“The bulk of the work is in flashback,” she says. “Rather than looking back, I preferred to stay in the present and just made the characters younger.” Circa, she reminds me, is a word used most often by historians and that is one of the reasons she is using it.
A native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Laskar holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, a master’s degree in South Asian studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, and a bachelor’s in English and journalism, from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I started off as a poet, composing my first poem at age 9,” she says. Laskar credits a wonderful teacher for encouraging her to write. She says she even mentioned Mrs. Heath in her debut novel and was able to get her to attend the award ceremony.
“RATHER THAN LOOKING BACK, I PREFERRED TO STAY IN THE PRESENT AND JUST MADE THE CHARACTERS YOUNGER”
Both her books were written years ago. Then she just put them aside to focus on an online writing workshop that she joined at nanowrimo.org. It was then, in 2010, that her life suffered a big jolt. Her home in suburban Atlanta where she lived with her husband and three daughters, was raided at gunpoint by the police following suspicions about her husband. Many of her belongings were taken away, including her laptop with all her written work, which included the novels on the verge of submission for publication. Laskar remains scarred by what she sees as racial profiling and prejudice. The charges against her husband were dismissed six years later but she is yet to get back her belongings.
After the incident, Las found herself unable to write. On the suggestion of a good friend, she pursued her love for photography, taking a picture every day and putting a caption to it. By 2012 her poetry came back by 2014, her prose. She then began reimagining the book that became “The Atlas of Reds and Blues.”
“I used tools that came out from school,” she says. Her teacher Lucille Clifton encouraged her to read aloud everything she wrote. “When you read and your tongue trips, it’s an indication that it’s a bad word choice. Also, when the thoughts are out of order, reading aloud helps to rearrange certain passages.” Laskar is quite clear that she does not write to feel better as “nothing will ever make me feel better. It is just a relief that I can write.”
Discrimination and biases against Asian Americans and police brutality are issues she strives to put the spotlight on, dismissing the “model minority” myth, whereby Asians are expected to excel at studies, become doctors, and then keep quiet and stay invisible. The lack of acceptance as Americans, even of those born and raised in this country, as she is, is hard to digest. She feels her daughters today face the same bullying that she did many years ago. “Nothing will change if we remain silent,” she says.
As the beacon of light, democracy, freedom and equality, a model for the rest of the world, the United States has a big responsibility, Laskar says. And she thinks it needs to mend.