Sonora Jha, shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction for “Foreign”, says the appreciation for her debut book has empowered her as a writer
As a journalist working in India, Sonora Jha wrote ‘stories’ based on reality. As a communications professor at the University of Seattle, U.S., she has been writing research papers, again based on ground realities, about people, politics and the Internet.
Reality comes in use for India-born Jha yet again when she turns a writer with “Foreign”. In the last few months, Jha has been in news for draping reality in fiction in her debut novel, “Foreign”, shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize this year. It fictionalises an impoverished Vidarbha farmer caught in a “suicide epidemic” that has seized the “treacherously changing nation”, an unfortunate reality today. In a captivating language and style of storytelling, she brings to readers the crises that the farmer goes through, links it to a world far away from it and yet establishes a connection so strong.
In an email interview from Seattle, Sonora takes a few questions on writing “Foreign” and the world we live in. Excerpts:
What do you like about writing? How has your job in journalism shaped that interest in you?
As writers before me have said, I am most deeply in touch with myself when I write. Often, I know what I think about something only when I sit down to write about it. As a journalist, I learned to hone my sense of curiosity for the stories of other human beings. I learned that it was important to tell those stories. As a fiction writer, I learned that I could fall in slow and sensuous love with that process.
You apparently wrote “Foreign” in the cafes of Seattle. What attracted you to that space?
There’s something about having the noise and chatter of people around you, sort of like a reminder of the hundreds of stories around you as you tell your one story. There’s something about a hot cup of tea or coffee by the side of your writing. In Seattle, it’s beautiful to sit in a coffee shop and stare outside through a window, watch the rain come down, and tap away on your keyboard. Across the world, eavesdropping on the conversations in cafes makes for some of the best writing of dialogue.
How did you zero in on the story of an unknown Vidarbha farmer, his crises, and make him universal? Give a peek at your thought process then, of how you bricked the characters.
It started with research and with interviews. Then, more research. And then, when I had written down all that I had learned about the farmers’ lives from all the sources I could find, I would sit down and close my eyes and meditate on the deepest yet simplest parts of being human. I thought of what I wanted most in life and how I felt when I couldn't have it. I recalled my moments of profound despair and unbridled hope. I thought of my shame, my disgrace, my heartbreak (a writer must have a lot of that in her life before she can be ready to write). And then I translated the same feelings into the life and situations and facts of the farmer. It’s the same feeling, but the facades change.
Worldwide, one can sieve a prominent streak of restlessness in people. Street protests are more prominent, more vocal, also more violent. From your academic research, how would you look at technology, say the Internet, contributing to such a feature? Can it be called a dangerous tool in closed and repressed societies?
The Internet is powerful only if we recognise and use its power. For my Ph.D. thesis, I studied how social movements like the WTO protests used the Internet to spread the word. Even though I had been a journalist, it excited me that people no longer needed to go through a journalist to get their story out in the world. My problem is that despite having so much information available to us on the world wide web, we spend time posting pictures of the food we ate or watching kitten videos.
About it being a dangerous tool, I think there’s more danger in the propaganda that is made possible by a restrictive Press than the freedom made possible by the Internet. It is only dangerous if one thinks of progress as dangerous to those who have so far been in control.
What are you writing next? Now that “Foreign” has grabbed a lot of attention, is there any pressure on you to perform?
I feel the appreciation given to “Foreign” has only empowered me as a writer. It has given me permission, in a sense, to love creative writing with a fiercer passion. That’s a good kind of pressure. I am now working on a memoir about a particularly significant four weeks of my life in America and India. The book is personal but is also a profoundly political and satirical twist on patriarchy in contemporary India.