‘Circa’ author Devi S. Laskar talks writing, healing and growing up in an immigrant community – Orange County Register

Heera, the young adult protagonist of Devi S. Laskar’s “Circa,” often seems haunted as she watches one person after another in her life die or disappear. The facts of the novel are not autobiographical, but the story was born out of Laskar’s suffering and loss of her including a close friend who died of leukemia.

In 2010, her world was turned upside down when her husband Joy Laskar — a successful Georgia Tech professor and the driving force behind several technology startups — was fired by the university. Worse, they accused him of improprieties and had him arrested; during the authorities’ raid of their home, Laskar’s computer, containing family photos and all of her writing, was taken.

Joy Laskar’s case was dismissed by a federal court before a trial and he is now suing university officials for malicious prosecution. Devi Laskar, who says her husband was “racially targeted,” never back got her computer from her, losing her early drafts of this novel.

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In the book, Heera, as the child of immigrants, also feels trapped by her family’s past and the weight of the immigrant community’s traditions and expectations. “You reside in America but it is the India of your ma and baba’s past where you live day by day,” Laskar writes, capturing the home life of so many first-generation Americans.

Heera’s mother doesn’t express love for her daughter, saying that providing food and clothing is enough, and hHer parents are callous after Heera experiences a tragedy. They force her to turn away from the one non-Indian friend to whom she is close. Heera rebels where she can, but she must continually learn how to navigate a new path to find her own life.

Laskar spoke recently by video about writing in the second person, keeping the book under 200 pages and coping with loss. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What was it like starting over after having your computer taken in the raid?

I didn’t try to write for almost a year. When I sat down to write in 2011, I couldn’t do it. I was still too upset. A friend, who knew I was a photographer, said, “If you take a picture every day and caption it and title it and throw some words at it, I bet your words will come back.”

I started on June 23, 2011, and I do it to this day. Within a year, my poems came back. Two years later, my prose came back and I sat down and wrote [her acclaimed first novel] “The Atlas of Reds and Blues.” Then I sat down to write this one. I don’t believe in catharsis; nothing I ever do will make me feel better about that time, but I do feel an enormous sense of relief that I could write at all and was able to write this book.

Q. Why write “Circa” in the second person?

I have a very good friend, Julie Otsuka, who wrote a book, “The Buddha in the Attic,” that is first-person plural and I loved how she did “we.” I tried it and it didn’t work. But I tried “you” and it worked — it’s reflective and it draws in the reader so they become part of the experience.

Q. You pack a lot of book into less than 200 pages. Did you cut things out or do you write short?

I was a reporter for a long time and I’ve been a poet, so I’ve spent a great deal of time being told to keep it short. It’s finally sunk in, and that’s just how I write now.

Q. Can emotional wounds fully heal or do they just scar over?

Things heal with time. When I started this book, my friend Susan was alive but ill. When she died, I couldn’t face the story and put it away. I wanted to write a story that wasn’t directly about Susan, I couldn’t do that justice. I wanted to make a myth. Then years later when my computer was taken and I had to start over I went back and I just kept the main character and her friend de ella and jettisoned everything else. The story I want to communicate is that you can miss someone and there are different ways people disappear, but you can work through your grief and come out the other side.

It feels topical now because even if we don’t know someone who passed away during the pandemic, we know someone who knows someone who did. I wanted to tell a story that was hopeful about there being a way to get through the loss.

Q. In the book, her family and the immigrant community often do more to hurt Heera than nurture her. Are her parents de ella and community cold or just misguided and blinded by tradition?

In an immigrant community, especially back in the 1980s when the book is set, everyone clung quite tightly to the idea that this is our little community and this is all we’ve got here; America is big and they’re not from here so the cultural norms are strange and they’re afraid.

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