Facts as Fiction

Author Sonora Jha on the tension between fiction and journalism. “I was able to use the skills I had as a journalist — deep questioning, listening, curiosity — and apply them in gathering pieces of the story.”

Like any American child, Sonora Jha was taught to notice a male figure in the moon. The only difference is Jha was growing up in Mumbai at the time.

“In fact,” she says, “there’s a poem in India — ‘The Moon is An Uncle.'”

Like her fellow writers presenting new fiction at this year’s Bedtime Stories Seattle, Jha takes her focus from the event’s theme, “The Man in the Moon.” Jha’s 2013 novel Foreign looked at the struggles of men in her home country, resorting to suicide as their farms declined, as viewed through the eyes of an expatriate Indian woman. A professor of journalism at Seattle University and a former Hugo House writer in residence, she’s also thought a great deal about how the tools of journalism can be applied in fiction, and vice versa.

Humanities Washington: Do you feel you were able to write about India more clearly after you moved away from it?

Sonora Jha: I think when I was a journalist and I was writing stories there, it was very important to be on the ground and be from there. But I think the distance allowed me to see different things, feel connected, and yet feel this kind of ephemeral understanding — to be able to see it almost as away in space. I do think it lent a quality to the fiction, because I was such a fact-driven person. I don’t know whether I would have written fiction had I continued to live in India.

I do think every journalist has a novel in them, and I’m glad that not every journalist writes that novel.

Do you feel like the tension between journalism and fiction improves or contributes to the writing?

I do feel a tension, but it took me a while to crack the beauty of that tension. I was able to use the skills I had as a journalist — deep questioning, listening, curiosity — and apply them in gathering pieces of the story. My first draft was full of that tension, because my first draft was written in a journalistic and almost academic manner. I had to break out of that, and a good editor was able to help me push past that. I was able to sort of build the story from thin air, after knowing all the facts and doing all the research. Once I was doing it, I was hooked.

You’ve worked as a journalist, and are now a teacher of journalism. Do you think every journalist has a novel in them?

I do think every journalist has a novel in them, and I’m glad that not every journalist writes that novel. I think often, as you said, there is a tension between those things, but also these days, the boundaries between those things are collapsing. We are seeing more this quintessential storyteller emerge, because of the different platforms and different forms and the different ways we are reading stories. Learning to write fiction, I feel I became a better journalist, and a better journalism professor as well. But there are some stories that demand to be written as fiction, and the story of the farmer suicides demands that.

Has the toolkit for journalists changed since you first learned it? What do you try to teach your students that journalists of your generation were never taught?

I do teach them the strong principals of journalism. I was just creating these modules for online learning, on news values and AP style that you just have to know. But as I look at all those old news values, the biggest conflicts used to come from up above — but now we are identifying conflicts that would not have been identified by the traditional gatekeepers. Now I teach them by saying, “These are the traditional values of journalism; now let’s see how we can turn them on their heads.” So that excites me, and social media excites me. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement — we wouldn’t have really known about the extent of shootings of black men by police officers; it wasn’t being covered as a story. But as it grew from smaller alternative media, the big media had to do that story.

A mother and son relationship figures heavily in your novel, and you’ve written and spoken at length about trying to raise your son as a feminist. What’s been your best strategy for doing so?

I think modeling a certain kind of womanhood to my son has been important, so living in a way where I’m self-actualizing, rather than self-sacrificing, has been an important thing. My conditioning and my upbringing has been to be sort of self-sacrificing, placing the boychild on a pedestal — but by resisting that, and questioning myself and going after my own dreams, I help make it important for my son to recognize that women have to do the same. Now my son is 24, and I think he respects that in women, and he sees his role as being supportive of that. Living out your own feminism is really important. And another thing has been teaching my son to apologize. I have felt that we often don’t teach men to do that, and how to feel things like gentleness and tenderness and vulnerability. Of course, I’m not the only influence — he’s got his peers and his media and everything else. But to the extent that I was important in his life, I’ve really tried to reinforce the idea that he should feel the whole spectrum of emotion.

Jha is reading an original short story as part of Bedtime Stories Seattle, Humanities Washington’s annual literary fundraiser, on Friday, October 11. Get tickets.

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