An Interview with Sonora Jha
by Sujata Garimella on May 18, 2013
Sonora Jha was born in India, where she had a successful career as a journalist in Mumbai and Bangalore before moving to Singapore and then the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Political Communication. She is now a professor of journalism and the Chair of the Department of Communication at Seattle University. Her first novel, Foreign, has sprung from her work as a journalist, an academic, and a creative writer. Sonora lives in Seattle.
Her debut book Foreign is a fictionalized account of the farmers’ suicides in contemporary India. It is set in Seattle and in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, with the two worlds tumbling together in a web of suicide, politics and betrayal.
In an exclusive interview with India Book Store, Sonora shares her trajectory from a journalist in India to a book author and professor of journalism in Seattle.
How long have you been writing?
Jha: I think I started liking to write a long time ago. My mother has a three-line essay I wrote in first grade in Dehra Dun, a town in India. It went like this – 'I have a horse. His name is Ned. Ned is a good horse.' I wish I could write such simple and attractive prose today. Brilliant stuff, that. But, seriously, I started wanting a career in writing when I was 18 and wrote a little essay that got published in The Times of India. I then went and studied journalism, got a job as a journalist, and wrote a whole lot of news and features in my career. As an academic researcher, I wrote and published social scientific research. I didn't think seriously of creative writing until recently, when I realized I had this story of the death of Indian farmers to tell in the most compelling way possible.
Seeing that writing attracted you from your early life, what made you choose Commerce for graduation?
Jha: I was 15 years old when I had to decide whether to get a bachelor’s degree in Arts, Commerce, or Science. This was the mid-80s. Commerce was seen to be the next big thing for India. All my friends were doing it. So, I signed up, too. One shouldn’t have to make such choices at 15! I didn’t really have the interest or aptitude for Commerce and I didn’t do well in my classes. But, no education is wasted. And, in my final year of my degree in Business Management, I landed up in a class called, quite simply, “English.” I couldn’t wait to attend that class. That’s how I knew that I wanted to write for a career.
Tell us something about your early career with as a journalist?
Jha: I started out with The Afternoon Despatch & Courier in Bombay and then went to The Times of India in Bangalore. I worked with the finest of Indian journalists and did stories on crime, social justice issues, education, investigative stories on the way people were being treated as the AIDS epidemic came to India, as well as on fashion, film, celebrity…everything. Somewhere down the line, I began to realize that while I was writing extensively on urban India, I knew little about rural India and wouldn’t feel comfortable as an Indian journalist without knowing about how the majority of its people lived. I quit my job at the Times and joined Actionaid India, a London-based development funding agency, so I could travel to rural development projects across the poorest parts of the country and write stories for a journal I edited, as well as for the national press. Then, the Times of India called me back to join them as Chief of Metropolitan Bureau and a special correspondent in Bangalore, which I did, with a new sensibility and renewed passion for making a difference.
Which are the articles/stories that you are most proud of in your career as a journalist?
Jha: There are stories that stand out because of the attention they received, and achievements that stand out because of their scale – such as helping triple the circulation of The Times of India in Bangalore in just one year because of civic, local, community-based journalism. But, the story that will stay with me as my biggest achievement personally is one I did for The Afternoon Despatch & Courier, in my first year as a reporter. I wrote about the low adoption rates of girl children and described the scene at an orphanage filled with girls because the boys had been chosen and taken. Readers wrote to the paper to say that it changed their thinking. And then, I got a hand-written letter in the mail from a couple that said that they had gone and adopted a baby girl because of my article. I remember standing my office in the middle of a busy day with tears flowing down my cheeks. To me, nothing can be a bigger impact than moving one human being to do one right thing.
You had already done your post-graduation in journalism in India. What made you move to Seattle and do a course in journalism again?
Jha: After 10 years in journalism in India and then in Singapore (where I went because my then husband got an excellent job), I had a number of questions about press freedoms and democracy. Some friends who were professors in America suggested I go for a Ph.D. in Political Communication (a combination of journalism and political science) at Louisiana State University, which had set up a Ph.D. program especially for mid-career journalists from across the world. I also had some personal reasons to move out of Singapore. So, I went. I always say that it was very unlikely that I would have left India to go to the United States. But I was not unhappy to leave Singapore to go to the U.S.
You have lived in three countries: India, Singapore and the US. What do you feel are the similarities and differences in the three countries?
Jha: In India, we have a free press and democracy and yet a staggering number of people go to bed hungry. In Singapore, you have no press freedom and a lot of state control, but few go to bed hungry. In the United States, you have it all…everything that is needed for human beings to live fulfilling lives…and yet, income disparity and the rates of poverty are disturbing, to say the least. What’s the best system of government and press? I’m still wading through that question. Personally, although my heart is rooted in India, I have found the United States – especially Seattle – to be the best home for me, as a single mother, a writer, and a professor.
The main protagonist in Foreign Katya Misra is an expat Indian, an academic and lives in Seattle. How much of this character is based on yourself?
Jha: The structure of that character is based on my structure. But none of the things that happen to her have happened to me. I was not an unwed mother, my child didn’t run away from home, I did not have problems of collegiality at the University where I teach, and I am not engaged to an American cop. I also do not think like her. I don’t have a disregard for India the way Katya does.
One of the reviews of Foreign says: Sonora Jha's heroine is American in India, Indian in America; single and a mother; in love but stubbornly independent; human and female — in other words, she is always foreign. Do you feel that you are “foreign” everywhere? Is there any place you feel rooted in?
Jha: Ah. I could write a whole book on this. Maybe I will. A student of mine, Lauren Padgett, who travelled with me to India, asked me, “Do you feel foreign here?” I said, “No, not really. I fell like I belong here as well as in the U.S.” But as I thought about it later, I realized that it is in the places and moments of being ‘foreign,’ that I discover the best things. I developed that into a lecture I was invited to give: ‘How to Stay Foreign in a Familiar World.’ I feel that ‘belonging,’ in some ways, limits our experiences. Staying foreign, staying uncertain, is far more enriching than the citizenship of certainty.
You went to Yatvatmal for research about the farmers’ suicides. Did you meet any individual/family on whom you based your story?
Jha: I met a number of families and combined their stories to build the stories of my characters. There was no individual family that I focused on.
Having written a book on the farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha, have you been following their stories?
Jha: Yes, I have. I started to write the book five years ago and I kept up with the news and made changes to my story as the situation grew dire. I stay in a state of disbelief and despair that things are only getting worse and the country – or world – is not seeing this as a form of genocide.
Most of Maharashtra is in the grip of a very serious famine situation – have you thought of revisiting Yavatmal?
Jha: Maharashtra is having the worst drought in four decades. I often think of the places I visited. I have thought of revisiting, but I feel that my job now is to tell the story and make sure that people read it and read other, similar stories about the crisis and then feel compelled to collectively do something about it. March in the streets the way they have marched for the victims of rape? That outrage has energized the country to demand policy changes. We can bring the same outrage to farmers’ suicides, too.
You have years of experience writing features and news stories. The suicides were both, news and features. Did you ever think of writing the stories as non-fiction instead of fiction? What made you choose the medium of fiction to tell this story?
Jha: When the farmers in Vidarbha were telling me their stories, there was something lyrical and folksy about their narration. It was just a strange sense that started to grow in me, that the way I told the story should reflect the way it was being told to me. I also started to feel that I wanted their story to have a larger reading audience, to get out into the whole world of readers. Combine this with the fact that I had always harboured a desire to write a novel, and there I was, coming back to Seattle and signing up to learn how to write fiction so I could tell the story in the most compelling way possible.
Do you see yourself ever returning to journalism or NGO work in India from academics in the States?
Jha: I never saw myself doing any of what I am doing today. If you had told me when I was 25 that I would one day be in the U.S., teaching journalism, I would have said, “No, thanks.” But I love it. So, anyway, although I don’t see myself doing that right now, who knows what happens next?
You had a session “How to stay foreign in a familiar world?”. The questions you addressed in that were: What are the big and small global questions we ask as we encounter "foreign" experiences in our lives? For instance, what does "happiness" mean in Seattle and what does it mean in Mumbai? How can we stand in solidarity with the people of the world? — A unique perspective on what home and happiness is for those of us making a life in places both foreign and familiar. Would you answer the same questions here?
Jha: Like I said earlier, I could write a whole book on these questions (and, actually, I AM writing that book). But at the heart of these questions is the fact that human beings in India, despite their poverty, are able to find a deep connection with happiness in the ways I feel many people in Seattle can’t, with all their wealth and opportunity. So, what does this say for human development? I feel that the drive for ‘happiness’ in a narrowly-defined way has gotten in the way of the drive for human dignity. I suspect that none of us can truly be ‘happy’ as long as other humans on the planet have basic health, food, and dignity. Somewhere, their lack will come and create a lack in our own lives. Our ‘home,’ then, is tidy when we have tidied up the imbalances across the globe. It’s not that hard to do, you know.
For more on Dr. Sonora Jha's thoughts on the intersections of press, politics, and the Internet, here are some of her scholarly, social scientific research publications. You can also reach out to her through her website –www.sonorajha.com
EXPLORING INTERNET INFLUENCE ON THE COVERAGE OF SOCIAL PROTEST: CONTENT ANALYSIS COMPARING PROTEST COVERAGE IN 1967 AND 1999
J&MC Quarterly/ Vol. 84, No. 1, Spring 2007
Why they wouldn't cite from sites: A study of journalists' perceptions of social movement web sites and the impact on their coverage of social protest
Journalism/ Vol. 9, No. 6, December 2008
The Electronic Journal of Communication/Vol. 18, No. 1, November 2008
Who got to Talk about it: Sourcing and Attribution in Broadcast News Coverage of the First 24 Hours of the 9/11 Tragedy
Seattle Journal for Social Justice/Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 2005
Previous post: Review: The Homing Pigeons by Sid Bahri