Telling It Subversively: Sonora Jha in conversation with Sharma Shields
Seattle writer Sonora Jha’s latest novel, The Laughter, is from start to finish a masterpiece of subversion. The novel expertly toys with readers’ assumptions, veers from the hilarious to the harrowing, and satirizes the power structures of academia and more. The Laughter’s narrator, Oliver Harding, plays on the familiar trope of the aging white professo narrating his lust for a younger woman—think Philip Roth’s patronizing The Dying Animal. In this case, the younger woman is a Pakistani law professor named Ruhaba Khan. Khan’s teenaged nephew, Adil, has recently arrived from France after being unfairly accused of domestic terrorism, and Oliver fraternizes with Adil as he pursues Ruhaba, to disastrous effect. The epistolary form of the novel—Oliver’s careful explanation of events leading up to a severe act of violence—is a swan dive into Oliver’s entitled worldview. It’s an expert feat of propulsive first-person narration in which Jha shows us how urgent it is to de-center the white male perspective.
In a glowing New York Times book review, Rafael Frumkin writes, “Why, in our era of increased consciousness around issues of race, xenophobia and misogyny, do we need another book from the point of view of a sex-obsessed straight white man? Because The Laughter is not just any book from such a perspective—it’s a no-holds-barred comic achievement that lambastes the power structures keeping men like Oliver skulking the halls of academe.”
I was overjoyed to converse over email with Jha about The Laughter. Here is our exchange.
– Sharma Shields
Just to start out, I want to tell you how much I love this novel—it grips the reader from start to finish, and it infuriates us with the radical truths it exposes about academia and more, about who is safe in our world and who isn’t. It’s also made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve engaged with a truly successful unreliable narrator. Can you talk about how you chose to embrace writing The Laughter from this narrator’s perspective?
Thank you for loving my novel. I don’t know if I embraced writing from Oliver’s perspective as much as he seized my consciousness and took over the storytelling. He was supposed to be one of three perspectives (alongside Ruhaba’s and Adil’s). When I started to write in his voice, I couldn’t stop. I thought his voice would dry up eventually, but I wrote 20,000 words in a matter of days. That’s when I realized he was going to narrate the whole story and I would have to tell it subversively, from under his skin, so to speak. Then, I started to enjoy it… a little.
What was it like for you to inhabit this white male voice—so controlling, so entitled—for a sustained period? I’m imagining you having to take long walks or scalding hot showers following the writing of certain chapters just to cleanse yourself of his calculating way of being. But it occurs to me that this voice is likely threaded into all of us, the voice of those in power, made all the more menacing and penetrating for those harmed continuously by racism, bigotry, homophobia, rampant hatred and white fragility. That you can tap into and control this voice strikes me as both subversive and powerful.
You are right. His voice is threaded into all of us. In my case, it’s the voice of the colonizers of my country, whose literature I had to read and read and read until it was my tongue and was “the right literary voice” in my imagination. His thoughts, though, are what I encountered in this country, America. His humor, his “harmless” quips, his own training that tells him he is to weigh in on everything, that his opinion matters and must be given on everything and everyone, was something I wanted to tap into on the page. Honestly, it started to frighten me a little, that I could speak so easily in his voice and trespass almost effortlessly into his imagination. I began to wonder if I thought those things. That’s when I needed those showers. But yes, the subversive act of letting him say things that demonstrated both a canny self-awareness and a complete lack of it became a sort of duel between Oliver and me on the page while also bringing the reader into a sort of silent dance with me beyond Oliver’s gaze.
When I think of unreliable narrators, I think of the Western-civilization-literature-canon standards, Notes From Underground, Lolita, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, even Wuthering Heights with its layered narration. Lolita in particular is brought up again and again in discussions of The Laughter, and Humbert Humbert is even mentioned in your pages. How did you both play with these tropes of unreliable narrators and subvert them?
That’s exactly what I wanted to do—take those tropes and twist and subvert them. The idea was to let the narrator speak like those earlier narrators, unaware that his audience, his readers, have shifted. Oliver Harding believes he is talking to people just like him, but is he? And, if and when he is, my intention is to sow doubt. I want a reader to question their expectation of the plot and the character arc. Why do we want so badly for Oliver to be redeemed? My job in this story was to stay focused in my commitment to Oliver’s gaze on people (especially women) like me without caricaturing him, so I had to embark on a sort of self-erasure as a subject while maintaining some power as a parallel storyteller.
I’ve been elated with the presence of Northwest writers penning some of my favorite fiction of late—I’m thinking of Omar El Akkad and What Strange Paradise, Kim Fu and Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, Chelsea Martin and Tell Me I’m an Artist, Beth Piatote and The Beadworkers. Some of these books are set in the Northwest and some are set entirely elsewhere, and I love the range of location and subject matter. Seattle is a presence in your book here, as is the beautiful natural world surrounding it (where harrowing scenes unfold). What I appreciate about The Laughter is that it does not hit the reader over the head with this regional presence—it can be read universally, too, as occurring anywhere. How did you strike this balance between setting a book firmly in Seattle and also giving it a sense of universality? How did Seattle, itself, influence your writing?
I have lived in Seattle for 20 years now, and I haven’t read very many books set here, so I was aching to set a novel here. The self-congratulatory liberal politics of Seattle is almost as dazzling as its physical beauty, isn’t it? So rich for literature. And then, campus America is a unique setting itself. Most campus novels have been set on the east coast. Time to change that. But my interest in this novel started in France, with the news reports of banning burkinis for women on French beaches in 2016. So, I went there on a writing residency and interviewed French Muslim families and was disturbed by the rising Islamophobia they were experiencing. While I was there for a month, Trump was elected here, with his promise of a “Muslim ban.” My head was swimming with a new reckoning with the rise of the right in so many parts of the world, including my homeland, India. Seattle felt like a nice, quiet, unsuspicious little place in which to nestle this story that also takes us to France and Pakistan a bit.
There’s a great narrative choice here to give readers glimpses of Ruhaba Khan’s direct voice only through her emails. What drove this successful experimentation with form?
Honestly, I resisted this narrative choice for at least three drafts of this book. I wanted to silence Ruhaba entirely. I got some feedback from early readers about how much they ached to hear just a little of her voice. So, I decided on her voice in email, which lends itself to such an impersonal, abrupt, unreliable tone and yet one that we, as people steeped in email every day, have learned to read between the lines. For Ruhaba, as a busy academic, email is also a quirky form of journaling and a confessional. I realized it helped me give her a life beyond Oliver’s gaze and narrative while also truncating anything more invasive. Ruhaba’s emails are expressed on her own terms.
Adil is such a complex and wonderful foil to Dr. Oliver Harding. You have a body of work with How to Raise a Feminist Son and The Laughter that shows us different and healthier ways to approach masculinity, tenderness, and the support of boys and women. How was it creating Adil? As a reader I felt his vulnerability and strength both and worried for him inexorably as I read.
Adil is my favorite character in the story. I have just returned yesterday from another trip to France, my first since that time in 2016. The country is right now swept up in protests over the brutal police killing of a 17-year-old French Muslim boy, Nahel M. It’s all so heartbreakingly close to the story of The Laughter, with the nature of men who want to conscript boys into the violence within which they operate or else erase them. I went back and forth between writing The Laughter and How to Raise a Feminist Son, and the question of what happens to boys’ tenderness was a subject of deep research for me as a feminist scholar and a storyteller, not to mention as a mother. The research and reality both break my heart. And yes, there’s a bit of my son in Adil. In fact, when my son the first draft of The Laughter, he said that Adil didn’t represent something “pure” or “innocent,” but simply what should be “normal.” Adil’s responses to women and other vulnerable beings around him are normal human responses, but we are so immersed in toxicities that we take that normalcy to be something special.
This novel can be described as a campus novel and so much more, and I find it conversing brilliantly with other complex school/campus novels such as Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, R.O Kwon’s The Incendiaries, and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. Did anything surprise you as you expanded on academia as a setting? Has the writing of this book altered the way you maneuver through academia in your waking life?
I was surprised that I had such a stark understanding of structural injustices within academia. As an academic and administrator and as a woman of color in academia (which is still very white and patriarchal), I have witnessed and experienced so many things that one just sweeps under the carpet in order to just go on with the day. All that dust came storming out onto the page. I also did a lot of reading into academia in general (the story is set on a Seattle campus but it could happen on any campus). Books like Complaint! By Sara Ahmed were so helpful. As to how the writing of this book has changed my navigation of my academic work life, I sense a lightening of a load. So many of my colleagues and friends from across the country (and even in Indian academia) have loved the book and have told me they feel seen and heard and that reading Oliver was both triggering and cathartic. My university has generally been quite supportive, and my colleagues have organized readings on campus. So, I’d say I feel heartened about revealing a few systemic truths and am glad to have taken that risk.
Some of what we readers see as Ruhaba’s initial trust of Oliver is based on his rejection of performative liberalism—she trusts him maybe because he seems to be, at least at first, more straightforward in his unwillingness to align with the disingenuous and pandering nature of the Hillary Clinton campaign and more. I’m thinking of the scene where he rolls his eyes after a colleague describes a Muslim woman on TV as “that beautiful creature” and after Clinton talks about American Muslims, and how Ruhaba lights up at Oliver’s deliberate sign of annoyance at this, delighted that someone else is calling bullshit. Can you talk about your choice of designing this scene and setting it during this particular historical moment? It feels so vital how you show dehumanization unfolding on all sides, and all the more gutting that Oliver understands this and uses it to his advantage (shit, he’s seriously scary).
Ha! Yes, I keep looking over my shoulder, expecting Oliver to say “Hello” and let me have it. About setting the book on the eve of that election—it was such a revealing time, wasn’t it? I remember a few white women friends being so angry with me for being critical of Hillary. As an international journalist, I was dumbstruck and disoriented by this devotion, by the impeccable narratives Americans want about their leaders. I believe this is what got us into trouble. But I digress. That moment of reckoning for America, when those who are on the left-of-center were so sure of a victory and were so stunned at the rise of the right, as if people of color here hadn’t been warning of it all along, lent itself well to my story in which I wanted to explore and explode this myth of perfect villainy and the noble “other” who is worthy of rescue. Ruhaba wants to have nothing to do with the neoliberal, hawkish idea of assimilating into America by being “the eyes and ears” on other Muslims. Oliver has just enough of the sophistication of an academic and the contemptuousness of a misanthrope to read the situation and know to deploy an eyeroll. He recruits his intellect to serve his lust.
Can you talk about Oliver’s dog, Edgar, and what inspired his role in the novel? As a dog lover I appreciated this more innocuous presence. He also holds a firm role as a vital plot device and as a possible avenue to hone our sympathies with both Adil and Oliver.
I love my dog. When I am walking my dog, I bump into others walking their dogs, and we all have a common language and common sense of ease and cheer and love around each other. I have no idea how these people vote, and I don’t wonder what they think of me. I just want to know what they named their dog. Placing Oliver and Adil into a similar dynamic was a way to route their different masculinities into a shared tenderness and a shared moment of peril.
I noted with much interest Oliver’s fraught relationship with his grown daughter and ex-wife, and felt how these intimate relationships defined the patterns of a true narcissist. Did you study narcissism as you wrote Oliver’s character or did these narcissistic traits occur organically on the page as he and his relationships evolved?
I didn’t study narcissism, but one could say I have been a reluctant student of it for some parts of my life. Yes, Oliver’s narcissistic traits evolved as I wrote. Each subsequent draft of the book presented an opportunity to layer revelations of his narcissism.
I’m always interested in the ways writers fold research into their fictional manuscripts. What was the research process like for this book?
Each book starts with research for me, which is sort of an occupational hazard given that I am an academic and a journalist. I read up a lot on the burkini bans on French Muslim women. Then I went to France and spoke with some journalists and some Muslim families. Back here in Seattle, I spoke to Muslim women in academia about their experience with the white gaze. I also dove into research on Islamophobia and the experiences of Muslims in America (I was raised Hindu, so it was important for me to get all this right and to represent rather than appropriate someone’s story). Finally, I steeped myself in Oliver’s world and his voice by reading a lot of books written by and in the voice of white American men… this just when the rest of the world was finally beginning to read more writers of color!
What scene was the most fun to write? What was the most arduous?
The most fun scene to write was the one where the students have announced their protest and Oliver and his colleagues are meeting in the dean’s office to strategize. I allowed myself to go a little over the top with the satire there. The most arduous scene was the penultimate scene, the one with the horrific incident on which the whole book is centered. In fact, this was the first scene I wrote, on my airplane headed to France in November 2016, a few days before Trump was elected. I had to get it out of the way and also then construct the rest of the narrative around it.
I’ve found the editorial process, for me, differs sharply book to book. How would you describe the editorial process for this book compared to your other published works?
You’re absolutely right, and if I had ever studied creative writing or literature, I could have saved myself the agony of not knowing this when I started writing fiction and memoir. With my first novel, Foreign, I had no idea what I was doing, so I was glad to have the editorial guidance of Meru Gokhale at Random House India. I learned that a book gets better and better in revision with every subsequent draft. With my memoir—How to Raise a Feminist Son—I learned that I had to keep cracking my heart open and that I had to have a good therapist to manage all that comes up while writing personal stories. Again, I had a great editor in Hannah Elnan at Sasquatch Books, who asked me probing questions. With The Laughter, I struck gold with my agent, Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts, who loved the book and yet pushed me to do a couple more drafts until I’d nailed it and deepened both the politics and the voice. My editor Rakesh Satyal asked me a key question with a chapter that I then decided to take out of the book completely. The question was, “What were you wanting this chapter to do for the story?” My answer was, “Uh, nothing.” And now I tell my writing students to ask themselves that question of every scene and chapter. So, I’d say all these editorial processes are giving me some bits of that MFA education I never got. One thing that’s been a constant with each book—I discover the heartbeat of the story in revision. It’s like I let the fledgling book tell me what it wants to be when it grows up.
Can you discuss the works of literature that played a part in shaping The Laughter?
Gosh, so many books I’d read by white male authors before I even knew I wanted to be a writer played a part in shaping The Laughter. But specifically, when I started to write the book, these works of literature were inspirations—Disgrace by J M Cotetzee, Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, Orkney by Amy Sackville, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, Stoner by John Williams, The Sea the Sea by Iris Murdoch….
What’s books are you reading right now? What book do you find yourself pressing into other people’s hands as much as possible? (For me, this literally is The Laughter right now!)
I just finished reading Trust, by Hernan Diaz. What a pathbreaking work of fiction. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi was just before that; unforgettable. And I am currently reading Communion by bell hooks, which has some ideas I’d like to draw into the book I have just started to write. The book I have been pressing into people’s hands is Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, which you mentioned earlier. What I wouldn’t give to have an imagination and spare, stunning prose like Kim’s.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.