The House on Mango Street

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In Case I Didn’t Survive: The Millions Interviews Devi Laskar

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In 2010, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation raided the home of author Devi Laskar, after her husband was falsely accused by his former employer of misusing resources for his start-up. With a rifle pointed at her, Laskar watched as the officers confiscated personal files, tax documents, her children’s iPods, CDs of classical Indian dance music, and her laptop. All her writing—poetry, short stories, novels-in-progress—lived on that laptop.

In 2014, Laskar re-imagined one of the novels on the missing laptop, essentially rewriting it from memory, and in 2019, The Atlas of Red and Blues was published by Counterpoint Press. It went on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize, and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. In 2016, the charges against Laskar’s husband were dismissed, but the couple’s things, including Laskar’s laptop, were never returned. The unfinished works—like all things without an ending—haunted her.

With Circa, published by Mariner earlier this month, Laskar attempts to recreate and complete yet another unfinished novel from that lost laptop. Circa tells the story of Heera, an Indian-American teenage whose best friend, Marie, is killed by a drunk driver, an event that reframes Heera’s life. The losses are multiple: the novel is based on the death of Laskar’s own best friend. I spoke with Laskar about the resurrection and reimagining of Circa.
Nina Schuyler: I want to start with the raid, which incalculably disrupted your work. How did that experience change you as a writer? 

Devi Laskar: As you can imagine, from May 2010 to 2011, I didn’t write much. By the end of May 2011, I realized I couldn’t write at all because I was still so upset. My friend suggested that I watch the movie Julie & Julia, which is based on the true story of the writer Julie Powell, who in 2002 decided to make 524 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and blog about it. Because I’m a photographer, my friend suggested I take a picture every day, give it a title, and post it. So that’s what I did, and I still do it to this day. Thanks in part to doing this, slowly my writing returned. In 2012, I was able to write poetry again. In 2014, I got my prose back.

Once I started writing again, I first returned to a short story I’d written that had been lost on the seized laptop, “When the Dolls Leave the Dollhouse.” That unpublished story was a nod to the model minority myth that Asians are passive, doll-like, into STEM, good citizens. I’d originally thought it would be one of many stories, in the vein of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

But as I began to enter the work again, I found I’d changed as a person and as a writer. I still liked the main character, but the story felt too small, too focused on family. This time I was influenced by Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. I wanted my novel to explore racism and misogyny, what it meant to be Other in America. What resulted was The Atlas of Reds and Blues, which I finished in 2016, around the time the case against my husband was dismissed.
NS: You sold The Atlas of Reds and Blues to Counterpoint Press in 2018, and it came out in 2019. You next turned to reviving your novel Circa. How did the book change from its conception? 
DL: Like The Atlas of Reds and Blues, Circa was originally a family story, much quieter and more contained. It was not directly confronting anything controversial. But I wanted the novel to talk about patriarchy, how boys are treated differently than girls. There are three main characters, and the boy character has a lot of freedom compared to the girls. If it had been the male character who died in the story, then the two female characters, Marie and Heera, would have been able to grieve together. But because it was Marie who died, the grieving process for Heera was very different.
I’d originally written Circa in flashback, which is also how I wrote The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and I didn’t want to do that again. For Circa, I was inspired by The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and her use of first-person plural. Originally Circa was in first-person. Then I tried third. But after reading Otsuka’s book, I chose second-person. The second-person point of view does double duty. It’s reflective because it’s really first-person. It also closes the distance between the reader and the character, so the reader is right there in the room with the narrator, experiencing what the narrator experiences.
NS: Another important theme in the novel is disappearance. Heera’s best friend disappears through death. When Heera marries, her husband essentially disappears. Heera’s mother undergoes a kind of disappearance, too. How did this theme become important to you? 
DL: When the agent pointed his weapon at me, I automatically thought of my family and very close friends in case I didn’t survive. I still vividly remember the day of the raid. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, and I remember one of my editors at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin telling me, if you want to know why something is happening, you have to remain silent and watch and wait it out. During the raid, my editor’s voice came to me. I disappeared. I was very calm. I didn’t fight back. I became a reporter. 
This experience and the idea of disappearing also enter the book through the lack of consequence for the drunk driver. In the story, the man who kills Marie is drunk. He’s part of the patriarchy, part of the dominant culture, and it becomes important that he not lose face. In the end, there are no consequences for him.
NS: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?
DL: I had the good fortune of having Lucille Clifton as a professor in grad school. She told us to read our work out loud. I do that. When I finished writing it, I read Circa out loud twice. When you do this, two things happen: if your tongue trips or stumbles, you’ve found an improper word choice and an opportunity to make the sentence better. I also caught when things were out of place—things revealed too early, for instance.
I started out as a poet, then I became a newspaper reporter. I’ve had a lot of people in my life say, keep it short. I give myself constraints, like, Write this in 500 words. I also used to be much more factually based. When I originally wrote Circa, I tried hard to stay close to the facts about the loss of my best friend. But when I rewrote it, I let the facts go and focused on the story of friendship.
I’m quite rotten when writing the middle of a book, so I do a pendulum; I write the beginning, then I write what I think is the end. Then, based on the ending, I go back to the beginning and rewrite it. Back and forth until I get to the middle.

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