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Sonora Jha, Ph.D., is a novelist and an Associate Professor of Journalism at Seattle University. She was born in India, where she had a successful career as a journalist in Mumbai and Bangalore before moving to Singapore and then to the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Political Communication. Her academic research on the emerging intersections of the press, politics, and the Internet has been published in top-tier national and international scholarly journals. Her debut novel, Foreign, based on the farmer suicides in contemporary India and published by Random House India, comes out of her work as a journalist, an academic, and a creative writer.

Amrita Ghosh, Co-Editor Cerebration, talks to Sonora Jha about her debut novel and her work.


AG:Tell us what made you choose such a subject of farmer suicides for your debut novel? It tackles something that has been in news off and on, but rarely has been a focus in fiction.

SJ: My background is in journalism, so this story first intrigued me as a news story. As a researcher and scholar, I went to Vidarbha to do a study on why the story wasn't getting the kind of coverage you would expect for such a huge and impactful story, one of the biggest of our times. When I was talking to farming communities there, I began to feel that this story was best told for a larger audience, people who don't usually follow such stories. I decided I would take my research and write a novel.

AG: How do you think your journalistic background helped you in writing this book?

SJ: Journalism teaches you to ask strong questions. It teaches you to take copious notes and listen carefully to people, listen to what they are saying and what they are not saying. All this helped me.

AG: This next question has perhaps been a regular one—given some of the resemblances between Katya and you-- how much of you is in the protagonist, Katya Misra?

SJ: I think only the structure of Katya – as an Indian professor in the U.S., as a former journalist who covered stories in rural India, and as a single parent of a son…these things are similar to me. But none of the things that happened in her life have happened to me and a lot of her ideas about India in the beginning of the novel (she deplores her country) are not at all common to my ideas.

AG: In some ways, Katya Misra is a very interesting protagonist-- fiercely independent, sometimes also very flawed. As a reader, I wasn't sure that I liked her. What did you think of creating a flawed female protagonist in your first novel?

SJ: I really, really, really wanted to create a flawed female protagonist who was unlikable. My editor wasn't sure about this but I really pushed for it. Too much literary fiction across the world – and especially in India – has the tropes of the long-suffering, kind, brave female protagonist. Must we be 'good' to be of interest while male protagonists get to be 'nuanced' all over the place? I have always wanted to read more troubled and troubling women protagonists, so I realized I could contribute by writing one such.

AG: On another note, Gayatri bai also gradually emerges as the other female protagonist in the text-- was it difficult to narrate the stories of two women, from very different worlds, and pit them as protagonists in the text? (Especially because Katya seems to have a contempt for India.) Do you think your text bridges the gap between them and shows that possibilities exist between two "foreign" worlds?

SJ: It wasn't difficult as much as it was a balancing act. I didn't want to deify Gayatribai while reviling Katya. I have met women like Gayatribai, who are products of the rural, patriarchial environments that they have to endure and battle, which makes them flawed in their own ways (eg. Gayatribai's unquestioning regard for her husband, who seems to be making some poor choices for their family). But yes, my attempt was to provide the two women with moments of growth and love together, respect for each others' choices, and nudges toward choices other than those that their worlds may have offered them.

AG: The novel "Foreign" obviously caters to a very significant topic of farmer suicides and raises questions, starts a discourse which almost has been at best minimal. Yet, on the other hand, the book is also a poignant exploration of a mother-son relationship and discovery. How difficult was it for you two merge these two strands in the text?

SJ: It was difficult. The parts about the villages of Vidarbha came easily to me. That writing flowed out of me without a hiccup. Then, when I realized that I needed to provide a lens through which to look at the world, to complicate the narrative in the ways in which the world is complicated because of globalization, I brought in Katya and Kabir. Some parts of their story started to get in the way, so I had to scale them back in order to keep the farmers' story central. I hope I have done this with balance.

AG: Given your background and work in journalism and social research, do you think literature sometimes stands as more significant than journalism? Has journalism failed in some ways, where literature comes in?

SJ: I wouldn't say that journalism has failed, outright, but I do think that the pressures on journalism – corporatization, globalization, celebrity culture, competition from more attractive, visual media – have changed it in harmful ways. Thankfully, the novel is still a significant tool for storytelling, for capturing a reader's imagination, sowing seeds of empathy, and leaving them changed.

AG: Would you characterize your book as "literature of activism"-- would you say that it was one of the goals in writing this book?

SJ: Yes. I believe that journalism, social scientific research, and all storytelling have this in common – there is no such thing as objectivity. The choices we make about the stories we want to tell, the research we want to do, the formats and phrases and variables we choose, all show our biases and agendas. Yes, my agenda is change. Yes, my bias is social justice. Yes, my goal is the activist's goal. It always has been.

AG: The word "Foreign" comes back in the novel several times-- many of the characters, at home, natives and the diasporic characters understand, negotiate and discover the "foreign" in multiple layers and shades-- What was the importance of the concept of "foreign" in this book? Is it sometimes necessary to "be" "foreign" and part of "foreign" to see differently?

SJ: There's this lecture I give to my students on 'How to Be Foreign in a Familiar World,' in which I speak to them about the politics and pleasures of always being an outsider and of the perils of 'belonging.' Being 'foreign,' sensitizes you to being 'the other.' It enriches your life. I stay foreign in as many ways as I can. It protects me from complacency, from certainty, and from treasuring things that trap me.

AG: Gayatri Spivak's seminal work on "Can the subaltern speak" comes to mind with an issue like the farmer suicides in India. Do you think "we" can speak for them? What do you think about representing the subalterns in an issue like this? 

SJ: Thank you for this excellent question. I do not believe that 'we' can speak for 'them.' In fact, when journalists and readers at my book launches and interviews asked me what I believe are the solutions to the farmers' crisis, I said I was not the right person to pose that question to. For that, you must ask the farmer – the male farmer and the female farmer, who is often not considered a farmer even though she is working in the field. As a journalist, a novelist, a social science researcher, I am telling a story about these farmers, but I am not telling their story, which only they can tell. Still, it's important that 'we' tell stories about them, because we have access to publication, to people, to the English-speaking, decision-making world. We must also work, alongside, to dismantle our own access and construct access for the subaltern to tell their own story. Then, we must get out of the way. That's exactly what I have tried to do even with the protagonists in Foreign.

AG: This is a slightly digressive question, but your book has a striking cover-- tell us about the cover and its selection.

SJ: All credit to Random House India there. They asked me for suggestions for the cover, but they seem to have come up with a better one than I could have suggested. The 'Vintage' imprint – which publishes literary fiction, is known for its beautiful book covers. When they sent it to me, I loved it instantly and I was relieved because I had heard that a lot of authors feel that their book covers compromise their stories. I also realize that putting a female on the book cover often means that men don't read the book, but I haven't let that bother me. If men are making such unconscious choices, they're losing out.

AG: Who would you say are your literary influences?

SJ: This is such a hard one to answer. Everything I read as a child made me a human being who responded to stories. That was the biggest literary influence. All others – every single book or even comic I read – added drops to that ocean.

AG: Is there a sense of "home" for you? 

SJ: Not really. I struggle with this. This struggle yields good things in my life. I own my own home as a single woman in Seattle. I bought my first home as a single woman when I was a 21-year-old, in Mumbai. These are 'spaces' that we call our homes. But 'a sense of home' lies outside geographical boundaries of countries, citizenship or square feet. My sense of home is in my head, in my thoughts and ideas that I keep or I share with loved ones in whom I find a home. Home is in the hugs I give my son. I know it sounds somewhat pretentious, but it's the way I truly feel.

AG: What are you working on presently? 

SJ: I am writing a memoir about raising my son in Seattle and about the far-reaching influences of patriarchy from India. When he turns into a young man headed into the world for college, my central question is – have I taught him to love?

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