Sonora Jha knows a lot about media.
Raised in Mumbai, India, she was chief of the metropolitan bureau for the Times of India before moving to the Pacific Northwest. In her many years in Seattle, Jha has solidified her presence in the area’s writing community, as a professor of journalism at Seattle University and a teacher of fiction and essay writing at Hugo House and Hedgebrook. Her essays, op-eds and fiction have been widely published (including in The Seattle Times).
But in her newest book, “How to Raise a Feminist Son” (out April 6 via Sasquatch Books), Jha goes to the movies.
The book opens with, and returns to throughout, a tradition Jha and her son have of watching and analyzing movies. Films are a passion for both of them, but they are also a gateway, a tool to explore essential questions around feminism. Media literacy, Jha stresses, is one important way to instill feminist values in children.
But what does it mean to be a true intersectional feminist, and how can parents raise kids, especially cisgender boys, to be feminists, while toxic masculinity and patriarchy would like to claim them? This is the journey Jha embarked upon as she raised her son in Seattle.
Her book is part memoir of this experience, and part how-to guide, including reflection prompts at the end of each chapter. The book explores race, gender, pop culture and power dynamics, and consistently acknowledges the imperfections inherent in pursuing ideals. By weaving moving, personal stories about her own life and her son’s life together with research and interviews, Jha encourages readers to embrace the difficulties and the joys simultaneously.
Ahead of her Town Hall event with fellow Seattle writer and feminist Ijeoma Oluo, Jha spoke with The Seattle Times over Zoom about representation, the consequences of toxic masculinity and creating joy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When and how did you know you wanted to write about raising a feminist son?
All my life has been writing about feminism or feminist life. Raising a feminist son is connected to the deepening of a feminist life. I was working on a mother-son memoir because that seemed to be a strong thread in my life — I’d keep writing in response to things that were going on in our world. I kept writing about masculinity, toxic masculinity, sexism, trying to explore some of the silence and shame around women, and violence of men, and dating culture and rape culture. Those things would get the most response from people, especially women, and South Asian women in diaspora. I would hear from so many people saying, “Thank you for saying this because we don’t have enough of this in the culture.” So I realized there was a hunger for this; to talk about boys, to talk about men, to say, “Look, this is a really important part of feminism.” I decided that’s what I was going to lean into.
Can you talk about the importance of art and pop culture in feminist education, and of media literacy in feminist practice?
I definitely had a feminist lens to what I brought into the classroom. More and more students wrote papers on body dysmorphia, eating disorders, the impact of violence in their culture, and masculinity. It’s so rich when you start to open up, and students were dying to talk about these things. Especially advertising; initially that was the most visible thing. I think the gatekeeping function of the old traditional media has dimmed, even though it hasn’t been dismantled. For example, with the Atlanta shootings, we’re getting so many more perspectives from Asian American and Asian women writing and contextualizing it in a colonialist history and in white supremacy, and how the Asian woman’s body has always been sexualized under these structures. We wouldn’t have those perspectives with the old New York Times white guy writing about these issues with a sense of authority. On the other hand, we also have a lot of hate speech and a lot of trolling of women online, death threats, rape threats.
As for movies or pop culture as education, it’s mostly from recognizing how problematic it is. From thinking about representation, thinking about exclusion, thinking about who gets to exclude or represent. I think we need more movies like “Black Panther,” just … representing in every way while being amazing movies. And Chloé Zhao’s movie “Nomadland,” with older women represented. Then “Minari,” which was labeled a foreign film. If you’re going to see “Minari” as a foreign film, you’re going to have xenophobia also in real life that leads to things like the murders in Atlanta. That is why it’s important to recognize, this is America. I know this is a very complex thing, but I feel like if we are not seeing the whole depth and breadth of America represented on-screen with women especially, you’re not going to see them as human beings. You’re going to see them as sexualized objects.
What about feminist parenting is joyful for you?
The joy of conversation, the joy of being open and thinking about ideas, and the joy of being able to have your boy be sentimental around you. To be able to speak to all of his humanity, to be able to talk about art, to talk about how he was moved, to talk about girls maybe. That pure joy of conversation, that peering into their lives … the richness that comes from that is the joy. The joy of being able to hug and not be abandoned by your own child because society tells them they shouldn’t be a mama’s boy. If he tries to give me a sideways hug, I say, “No, a soul-satisfying hug.” And so I get a soul-satisfying hug, which is like a full body hug. To develop that language around it, that’s the greatest joy.
What are you looking forward to for your event at Town Hall with Ijeoma Oluo?
Definitely as mothers of color with kids of color, we have a shared experience. And as journalists, we have a shared experience. So I’m hoping that we have a conversation that goes across all those dimensions. To talk about feminism and place it in those intersections with race, class across cultures, and things like xenophobia. Also just our love for our kids, our love for our boys … those are the things I’m really excited [about]. I think we’re going to have a really rich conversation.