Arts / Faith and Humanities

Social Justice through Literary Fiction

Written by Mike Thee

November 5, 2013

students reading at the fountain in the Quad

Sonora Jha stretches beyond her comfort zone to tell an untold story.

Working as a reporter in India in the 1990s, Sonora Jha was intrigued by the paucity of coverage the media was devoting to the hundreds of thousands of farmers who were committing suicide in the nation's rural areas. While the numbers of dead have climbed to hundreds of thousands the coverage, even now, hasn't reflected the urgency. 

Jha, of course, would leave her home country and eventually join Seattle University's faculty, but the farmers were never far from her mind. A few years ago, she decided it was time for their story to be told. Jha will read from her resulting book Foreign, and speak about the suicide epidemic among India's farmers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14 in Casey Commons.

Released this year to rave reviews, Foreign (Random House India) was five years in the making. With support from Mission and Ministry's Endowed Mission Fund, Jha visited several rural villages of India to speak with more than 50 relatives of farmers who had taken their own lives.

The research put her in touch with the economic factors and policies behind crisis. She also got a sense of why the suicides were receiving so little media attention. "Because of globalization and its effect on media, some of the more marginalized regional media had shut down and most of the newspapers [are now more] urban-focused."

Jha came away with more than enough information to write a book, but here's where the story about the story takes an unexpected turn.

While she originally set out to write an academic account of the crisis, the further she got into it, the more she realized that another mode of storytelling was needed. "The way the villagers were telling me the stories, it had a lyrical, sort of fable quality to it, and it started to feel like if I wanted to tell it in the same way I was receiving it, fiction was a better format." Jha also knew that as a fictionalized account the book would appeal to a broader audience, "so that people at the airport, for instance, would pick it up."

This was Jha's first foray into the world of fiction. Though a voracious reader of literary fiction, she had never written something in the genre. "It was really, really hard for me, because I was trained in journalistic writing and then academic writing, and those are very different from fiction. I actually had to learn how to write fiction."

She went back to school, taking a number of classes at the nearby Hugo House. For the tenured associate professor of communication, being "the fool in the classroom," was something she hadn't experienced in a while, but "It felt good to push myself," she says, adding, "It's taught me to be a better journalism professor."

Foreign is the first book of Indian fiction written in English about the farmer suicides. Just as Jha hoped, the novel has been striking a chord with a broad audience. "So many readers-perfect strangers-have been tweeting about it and writing to me, saying, 'This really moved me.'"

Critics are taking notice, too. The novel is one of six books short-listed for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award for 2013 and long-listed DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for 2013, two highly prestigious literary awards.

Jha is hoping the book will be published in the United States. But you don't have to wait for that to happen to get your copy. Just head to her Nov. 14 reading at which copies will be available for purchase (and signing). And if you can't make it to the event, Foreign is also available on Amazon.

You can read more about Foreign at Sonora Jha.