Seattle author Sonora Jha would like to make it clear, “for the record,” that her new campus-set novel “The Laughter,” out Feb. 14 from HarperCollins, is not about Seattle University, where she is a professor and associate dean. (She smiled, though, when she said it.)
“Academia is a rich, rich place for writing satire,” Jha said, in an interview at a Capitol Hill coffeehouse last month. (Sample sentence from her book: “Few events are as shorn of mirth as those in which well-dressed faculty attempt to party.”) From the long tradition of campus novels, she cited John Williams’ “Stoner,” Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” and Julia May Jonas’ recent “Vladimir” as favorites. But Jha said she wasn’t seeing anything in the genre that spoke to her specifically as a woman of color — other than the Netflix series “The Chair,” which “goes so far, but not far enough … There are so many people of color on campuses now, and we need to tell a story from their point of view.”
But something curious happened when she began to work on what would eventually become “The Laughter,” a story narrated by Oliver, an aging, self-satisfied academic who has developed an obsession with his new Pakistani Muslim colleague, Ruhaba. Initially, she had planned to write the novel from three alternating points of view: Oliver, Ruhaba, and Ruhaba’s young nephew Adil, who has arrived from France to stay with his aunt. It was 2016 when she began, during the presidential election, and she was intrigued by the idea of “the white gaze, the white imagination, this rumbling of a white man’s discontent and the backlash, and all of that.” She came up with Oliver’s voice, and thought she would soon add the other two.
“But Oliver’s voice just kept imposing itself, and I kept writing in his voice, and I thought, what is happening?” Jha remembered. “He just kept imposing. It was all going to be third person, but then I thought, oh my God, this man keeps interrupting me and it looks like he wants to tell the story. So I let him take over. I’m still getting to tell the story, but it’s going to be very obvious that he’s the narrator of this story.” So she allowed his narrative voice to dictate the entire novel, “knowing that he was not really going to take over.”
It wasn’t easy, she acknowledged, writing first person in the voice of someone whom she found off-putting, particularly the sexual fantasy element — “that was difficult to write.” But it felt important to do so. She studied first-person narrative in a number of novels, particularly inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending,” and Hanya Yanagihara’s “The People in the Trees.” After realizing that she was writing the character to expose his gaze, “then it was easier. I started to enjoy it, just being in his head.” The more she wrote in Oliver’s voice, “the more I came to realize how he sees me and other people, and it made me fiercely aware of white male supremacy.”
And while she was careful to give him humanity and vulnerabilities (he is, for example, quite attached to his dog, a trait Jha shares with Oliver), she wasn’t interested in giving him a standard redemption arc. “So much of literary fiction about these men, or even films, has been about that journey,” she said. “Some readers may find it unsatisfying. It was important to me to take these tropes and turn them on their head. I’m not writing about this man’s journey, and these people of color are his tools to his understanding and his change of heart.” More important to her was “what’s happening to the people that he’s around and that he has power over.”
“The Laughter,” which recently earned a coveted starred review from Kirkus Reviews, is Jha’s second novel (her first, “Foreign,” was published in India in 2013); she is also the author of the memoir/essay collection “How to Raise a Feminist Son.” Balancing writing and academic work comes naturally to her, she said. “The obsession with writing — it just feels so good, you know?” (How does she find the time? She lives alone, her son is grown and launched, and “I’m not obsessive about household care.”) She’s excited for her colleagues at Seattle University to read “The Laughter.” A few in the English department have read it, she said, and “felt very seen, very represented. I have to keep focused on that, I am writing for those that have not been represented in campus novels, or in literary fiction in general.”
Already at work on another novel, she continues to find inspiration all around her — particularly from her students. “My students in general inspire the heck out of me,” she said. “I’ve been teaching 20 years, so I’ve seen the millennials and I’ve seen Gen Z. I’m very excited about them. I stay very optimistic. Of course, some of them, the edges need a little rounding out, but they are very engaged and know things, and they’re very kind to each other. That kindness is the thing that really inspires me — the immediate empathy that they have for somebody else who seems a bit on the outside.”
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