Meet Sonora Jha whose book Foreign has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013.

What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013 mean to you?

I was stunned when I heard the news. Look, I am a journalism professor. I had no idea how to write fiction. I had no idea if anyone would find Foreign to be a compelling read. To be shortlisted for such a prestigious award…it feels unreal. And it feels glorious. I think I’ll write some more.

A little about Foreign, the germination of the idea and its execution?

The seeds were sown years ago when I was a journalist in India, writing stories from places where people lived in crushing poverty, like rural Orissa. Even years later, after my Ph.D. and as a professor in America, those places and people would flash into my mind. Those stories had gripped my imagination deeper than any other and they came back to me when I read more and more about farmer suicides in India. I went to Vidarbha to do an academic study on why these stories were not reaching the world or even causing huge outrage in India. After I decided to write it as fiction, I steeped myself in the pursuit of that craft. I took classes, I struggled, I threw out whole drafts, started again, failed, and finally had something worth publishing.

Why fiction? Do you think this issue called for this medium?

Yes, I do. While I was in Vidarbha, I began to realise that I couldn’t just contribute to the same silence by writing a non-fiction, academic book or a paper that would look great on my academic resume but no one outside the usual circles would read. If I wanted to contribute to the collective compassion and outrage that such an issue deserves, I had to tell the story in a way that would make a person lying on a beach somewhere or flying the international skies sit up and wonder where we went wrong and how we turn things around.

You used an interesting term in one of your interviews: compassion fatigue. Could you elaborate?

In the journalistic world, ‘compassion fatigue’ refers to the lessening of caring and compassion for human suffering over a period of time. When the media projects a story of disaster or suffering without focusing on the background and the context, readers and viewers begin to feel overwhelmed, guilty, or just ineffectual. They feel like the problem is too big and they get disconnected from caring or making changes. Their compassion is fatigued. Stories that provide context make us feel more inspired, more empowered.

What’s next?

I am writing some political and personal essays that I will develop into a memoir. I also have the beginnings of a second novel in my head.

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