The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar

I discovered this debut novel after seeing an article on Electric Lit by author R.O. Kwon 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019. I recognised many, but a new name that jumped out at me was debut author Devi S. Laskar.

Kwon added the book to her list based on a recommendation by writer, editor and professor Kiese Laymon, who said he’d “never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages,” and that the book is “as narratively beautiful as it is brutal.”

If that wasn’t enough, Nayomi Munaweera, author of the excellent Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and What Lies Between Us said:

“Devi S .Laskar has written a beautiful, harrowing fever dream of a novel. This is a book that insists on no uncertain terms and despite horrific institutional and everyday racism that South Asian Americans are indeed Americans. This is a book I have been waiting a very long time for. A monumental achievement.”

Before telling you about the novel, I’ll just share that I found it masterful. I hadn’t meant to read it too quickly, but I was so entranced and captivated by it, by the voice, by the structure, by its fierce intelligence and grasp of so many aspects, that I couldn’t help myself but read it in two sittings. However, I recommend you take your time, as it deserves close reading.

I’ve since looked at it again and tried to analyse what the author has done, how this novel, that is also an essay, a social commentary, a dual narrative of one characters perspective, past and present, works. It’s a stunning piece of literature, thoroughly deserved of the praise mentioned above. I would love to see it make tonight’s shortlist for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019.

Review

The Atlas of Reds and Blues takes place over the course of a morning. In the opening line, a woman we will come to know as The Mother has just been shot in her driveway:

Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly.

A working mother whose husband is often away on business moves her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, discovering not much has changed since her childhood in a small Southern town.

She embodies a second generation American experience, viewed through vivid snippets of her working and family life, looking back, recounting memories that have lead to this moment. It is told by one character but in a dual narrative, (1) the semi-conscious present moment, a stream-of-consciousness awareness of what she sees, hears, smells, feels and wonders, lying there unmoving and (2) short chapters of the past, both recent as The Mother and further back as the Real Thing, daughter of Bengali immigrants. All the characters are referred to with labels such as Baby Sister, Middle Daughter, her hero, man of the hour, similar to Anna Burns’s Milkman.

The present moment narrative arrives in short staccato-like bursts, sometimes a sentence, maybe two, a snatch of dialogue, an unbidden memory, a flash of blue sky, a moment of lucidity. This a more lengthy example:

“She closes her eyes and a kaleidoscope appears, the blue of the sky giving way to the red pulse of pain near her stomach…The pain is less when she doesn’t give in to the light show. But the light show is hard to ignore: 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.”

It is a beautiful, bittersweet cornucopia of blues and reds, colours littered throughout the text alluding to a multitude of contrasts.

Though ostensibly a novel, on closer rereading, I wonder if it has elements of an essay, something I have a heightened awareness of at the moment, after attending a wonderful talk last week by writer Jennifer Delahunty entitled ‘The Art and Power of the Personal Essay, from Montaigne to Zadie Smith’.

Asked about the difference between the essay and an Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) she described the essay as posing a question the writer is able to explore without necessarily positing an opinion, the intention being to encourage engagement with the subject by the reader.

Our protagonist lying bleeding on her driveway, poses questions that the ensuing chapters serve to explore. She uses the symbol of the doll to illustrate the complexity of being non-white growing up in America and thus poses her question.

Like children, most dolls are made only to be seen, put on display. Real live dolls are taught to remain stoic, bear witness in silence, no matter how the consumer judges. The radio dispatcher squawks and a policeman’s voice describes her: Black hair. Brown skin. Gray sweatpants. Brown T-shirt. Flip-flops.

The dispatcher’s voice drawls.  “Is she Black?” A lawn mower sputters to life nearby and drowns out the policeman’s reply.

Third Monday of May 2010. When you put American clothes on a brown-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?

Fifty or so pages later, another reference:

The question can be stripped bare, a striped white line on the highway separating those stuck in traffic from those who are flying down the road: Has anything of significance changed in the last forty-three years?

There is a section entitled Inciting Incidents:

…in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no…

Fourteen potential inciting incidents follow, thought-provoking turning points in the Mother’s life, incidents that culminate over time, leading to resistance or acceptance. The first time they read as more experiences, the second time I read more closely looking for the incident, seeing the accumulation of “isms” she has encountered as a woman of colour in the workplace, a neighbour, wife, sister and mother to daughters in today’s America.

What does it mean truly, to be invisible? Her stillness, her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears. To pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness. Or her chameleon’s ability to blend in, a nondescript body in a dark blouse and black jeans leaning against the pay phone at the hospital waiting room, or standing outside the courtroom’s double doors or by the fire engine at the crime scene, yellow do not cross tape isolating one place from its larger context. To pretend the oak tree across the street’s steadfast patience, to pretend paralysis. To watch but pretend blindness. Never look anyone on the eye. Or maybe restraint. Knowing her lack of reaction is the only thing keeping her alive, over and again. Knowing the first time she hits back is the last time she’ll ever have the opportunity to do so.

Laskar is first and foremost a poet, so while it may have been described as harrowing, it also illuminates. Her captivating prose and lyrical repetition draw the reader in, creating a desire to unravel the mystery her many literary devices allude to, to step back from the pieces and see the whole. The book’s structure is inspired by one of her favorite poetry forms, the pantoum, a Malayan folk poem or verse form. In a pantoum, a phrase is repeated throughout, subtle changes in meaning occur due to different contexts.

 “This book is one giant pantoum because the beginning is the end, and she’s considering things over and over.” Devi S. Laskar

It was also partly inspired by a raid on her home, where a gun was pointed at her and she experienced her life flash in front of her eyes.

Almost impossible to review, it is a thought-provoking, unique novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about long after finishing it. Brilliant. Highly Recommended, likely to be one of my favourite reads of 2019.

Buy a Copy of The Atlas of Reds and Blues via Book Depository

N.B. Thank you kindly to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

In 2016 I read Nayomi Munaweera’s second novel What Lies Between Us and it was one of my Top Reads of 2016, a novel of a young woman trying to adjust to a new life in a new country, though still haunted by both the beauty and deeply buried tragedy of her past, her childhood in Sri Lanka.

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors similarly evokes the childhoods and family life of two families living in the same house. The house is owned by the matriarch Sylvia Sumethra and her husband The Judge, who are Sinhala people (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group originally from northern India, now native to and forming the majority (75%) of the population of Sri Lanka, mostly Buddhist) and upstairs they rent to an extended Tamil family (a culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, mostly Hindu).

It is a time when they live side by side in relative peace, although there are prejudices and intolerances at the adult level, attitudes that are initially not understood by children. Multiple generations of children will grow up and some of them will be capable of bridging those differences, until violence, heartache and tragedy taint them.

Sylvia’s daughter Visaka grows up in the house and develops a fearful crush on the son of the family upstairs, later when she is married and gives birth to one of our narrators, her daughter Yasodhara too will befriend Shiva, the next generation son of the same family living upstairs.

Her father Nishan is a twin, the lighter skinned one, his sister Mala, despaired of by her mother Beatrice when she was young, perceived as being unlikely to marry, to be rejected because of her skin tone, finds love without the interference of her family, something of a scandal.

There is silence and then the familiar smack of Beatrice Muriel’s palm against her forehead. “A love marriage,” she says. In her opinion, love marriages border on the indecent. They signify a breakdown of propriety, a giving in to the base instincts exhibited by the lower castes and foreigners. She believes marriages are too important to be relegated to the randomness of chance meetings and hormonal longings. They must be conducted with precision, calculated by experts, negotiated by a vast network of relations who will verify the usual things: no insanity in the family, evidence of wealth and fertility, the presence of benevolent stars.

An old photograph reminds Yasodara of the moment she was forced to recognise the age-old prejudices that infiltrate families, that perpetuated the myth that she and her friend Shiva were different.

We had been talking in our own shared language, that particular blur of Sinhala, Tamil and English much like what our mothers used in the early days, when suddenly my grandmother, her attention telescoped on us, pins him like an insect. Her iced voice, incredulous, “Are you teaching my granddaughter Tamil?” Her hand smashing hard across his cheek. He rips his hand from mine, turns to run. The camera in my father’s hand clicks shut.

When violence enters the town and the soldiers come knocking, their world turns upside down, and both families leave. Yasodara and her family will move to America and start over.

In Part Two we meet Saraswathi, the eldest daughter of a Tamil family in the northern war zone of Sri Lanka. Her family have already lost two brothers to war, and they live in fear of losing a third or worse, something terrible happening to the girls. Sara and her sister are still in school, she hopes to become a teacher, but there are white van abductions, despicable acts of violence and lynchings which put stress on the family. There is pressure to join the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for independence.

There are roofless, bombed-out houses with bullet-splattered walls and empty, eyeless rooms everywhere. I hate these houses, they look like dead bodies or like mad people, laughing through their openmouthed doorways. I want to know what this place looked like before, when all the houses were whole, when people lived in them and cared about them and grew vegetables in front of them, flowers even.

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Munaweera writes exquisitely of the island of Sri Lanka, in lyrical prose that takes the reader inside the family experiences, evoking all the senses, the aroma of the cuisine, the fear and excitement of young, forbidden love, the pain of heartbreak, the palpable tension as sisters walk to school, sometimes witnessing images that will stain their minds and revisit their dreams for years.

Through the forced changes political events put on the families, we become witness to the struggle to adapt, in some the nostalgia for the past will lead them back there, in others, it is as if it never was, they have banished nostalgia and reminiscing from their minds and will do all they can to keep it from their children, not realising that they too will grow up and question their parents origins and be curious to know that part of themselves that provokes questions by others, highlighting the obvious, gaping hole in their identity.

I knew it would be good, it is a prize winning novel and deservedly so, it is endearing, evocative and sensual, touching on both the best of humanity and it’s most despicable, unpalatable horrors and the effect that exposure to those horrors can have on the innocent.

Brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Buy one of Nayomi Munaweera’s Books at Book Depository

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I came across this title on the Goodreads List below, Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Colour which is an excellent source for finding out books that are due to be published soon that might be written by authors from different cultures and traditions than those we generally find on the bestseller tables in bookshops.

GR Cultural Reads 2016

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, at Number 2 on the list, stands out immediately with one of the most enticing covers I have seen for a long time and it lives up to that promise of an alluring appearance with a dark, mysterious reveal.

What Lies Between UsThe cover is an apt metaphor of the book, where water plays a significant role in multiple turning points in the novel and the image of a woman half-submerged, reminds me of that ability a person has of appearing to cope and be present on and above the surface, when beneath that calm exterior, below in the murky depths, unseen elements apply pressure, disturbing the tranquil image.

The prologue mentions the maternal instinct of a mother, to sacrifice for her young, describing the aptly named moon bear due to the white shape on its chest, an animal that is hunted for medicinal purposes and capable of going to extremes in order to protect its young.

Structured into five parts, the book is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator, and opens from within a cell. We understand the protagonist is a woman who for her crime often receives hate mail from mothers and marriage proposals from men. She mentions atrocities from the civil war in her home country, stories she says she was detached from, suffering that was not hers.

‘They think that maybe growing up in a war-torn land planted this splinter of rage within me, like a needle hidden in my bloodstream. They think that all those years later, it was this long embedded splinter of repressed trauma that pierced the muscle of my heart and made me do this thing.’

From here, she begins to narrate her story, her confession:

‘…in the beginning, when I was the child and not yet the mother…’

tropical gardenWe arrive in a hill city of Kandy in Sri Lanka where she recounts her solitary, yet idyllic childhood, among the scent of tropical gardens, a big old house, ‘sweeping emerald lawns leading down to the rushing river‘ overlooked by monsoon clouds.

Her father is a historian, her mother elegant, beautiful, prone to mood swings, making her feel awkward, tongue-tied and self-conscious, unlike when she is in the garden with Samson, or in the kitchen with Sita, domestic servants with whom she feels more like herself.

Lulled by lyrical descriptive prose into this dreamy, idyllic childhood, albeit with somewhat detached parents, there develops a feeling of something being not quite right, the child’s perspective clouds reality, something haunts her and the reader, a sense of unease.

Tragedy hits the family and the girl and her mother move to America to live with her cousin, Aunt and Uncle.

‘How can I leave this patch of earth that has been mine? Samson taught me once that the hydrangea blooms in a range of shades depending on the soil it sinks its roots into. From faintest pink to darkest night blue, the flower reflects the acidity of its patch of earth. How am I different? This person I am, will I be killed in the transition across the planet? What new person will emerge in that other soil?’

Having always looked towards her cousin as the epitome of modern, something she aspired to, it is a shock to learn of her upcoming arranged marriage, she agrees to be bridesmaid, despite strong feelings to the contrary, grateful that her mother, though troubled, knows better than to push her daughter in this direction.

‘I am grateful for this. Amma might throw plates, lock herself in the bathroom for hours, and cut her wrists. She might scream and yell, but this is something she could not do, this selling of a child to the highest bidder. For once we are united.’

She will fall into the way of life of those who surround her, reinventing herself, almost becoming like one who was born there, if not for that backwash of childhood, that sometimes pushes its way back into her life, threatening to sweep her out of domestic bliss like a freak wave, dumping her mercilessly on the foreshore. As strange memories resurface, her carefully created new world begins to fall apart at the edges as she frantically tries to keep all that is precious to her together.

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

What Lies Between Us is a powerful, accomplished novel of parts that could be stories in themselves. Munaweera’s deft, lyrical prose lulls and transports the reader into an idyllic childhood of sweet-smelling tropical scents and beauty, open vistas, an enchanted natural world, only to be pulled up short by signs of disturbance, until in an instant they become tragic.

Slowly mother and daughter adapt to the new way of life, except the past will never leave them, it haunts them, consciously and sub-consciously, destroying precious moments and threatening to derail their lives completely.

Like Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child it is a novel highlighting the effect of childhood on an adult, how the past continues to affect the present and can take everyone along with it. It blinds us, and like an invisible cloak with far-reaching tentacles, it can reach into every pocket of our lives, dampening and rotting the good.

Heartbreaking, compelling, so unfair, it is also a story representing the very real cost of ignoring mild disturbances of mental health, portraying how easily they can evolve and transform into horrific tragedy, when left untreated or ignored, not to mention how unforgiving and despicable humanity can be in dealing with those affected by it.

Highly Recommended.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. I’ve ordered a copy and plan to read it this year as well. She and her family left war-torn Sri Lanka when she was three years old and moved to Nigeria and eventually to America.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors