Sonora Jha makes friends easily. Within a short time of being in her presence, you can understand why. She’s warm, self-assured and genuinely interested in learning more about whomever she meets. Those qualities will likely make one-on-one sessions with writers at Hugo House, a center for helping anyone who wants to write, an encouraging experience. Her role as writer-in-residence began in mid-September. While she’s not sure exactly what to expect, Jha does plan to expand the center’s reach in the community, involve more writers of color and reinforce the importance of having a mentor.
“If I hadn’t reached out to mentors and listened, I think I wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” Jha said. “I think writers, we veer from knowing that we’re onto something, this is something good, this is something that I want to do, to, ‘Oh my God I suck, this is terrible.’ I feel like both those feelings are valid and we need to hold onto both of those because that’s where good work happens.”
She brings a wealth of personal experience others can learn from, including living with the effects of having polio.
“I think that Sonora is someone who has a great deal of empathy,” Hugo House Executive Director Tree Swenson said. “And will be able to help people look at where they are with their writing and give advice on next steps.”
Because of Jha’s extensive writing experience — which includes having journalistic, academic and creative work published — Jha knows how to find that balance and strike gold. First and foremost she’s a journalist, having spent a decade working in her home country of India focusing on social justice and investigative journalism. After living in Singapore for three years with her then husband, she moved to the United States with her son Sahir. Jha received her doctorate in Political Communication from Louisiana State University. While in Louisiana, Jha was happy to be intellectually stimulated again and her son even developed a Southern accent. She was in awe of the beauty, culture and history of the Deep South but it also came with a reality she hadn’t expected to experience.
“It was an eye-opening time to get to understand what America really was,” Jha said. “I also saw deep racism and that just really shocked me. Yes, of course we know that exists in America but I think overseas we tend to idealize America a lot in this regard and we don’t hear about these things. We hear about how it’s wonderful. It’s seen as progress for an Indian to move to the U.S. and have this amazing life here.”
Jha said while she was treated as an “unknown exotic,” she witnessed hostile reactions to her close friend who is African-American.
“That hit me pretty hard and I realized I was choosing to raise my son in this country as a brown-skinned male and it was going to be difficult, but I chose to do that,” Jha said. “It was a better choice for me. That’s what my memoir is about.”
Jha’s agent is shopping around her memoir and she’s also in the process of getting her novel, “Foreign,” published in the U.S. The fictionalized story of real farmers in India killing themselves because of Monsanto seeds is available only in India, where it’s been nominated for literary awards.
In the fall of 2003, Jha and her son relocated to Seattle for a teaching position at Seattle University.
She’s on sabbatical, which allows her to devote time to Hugo House and continue creative writing. Jha has a novel in her head about race and culture wars in Seattle.
“Confluence of political correctness and politeness and actual race issues and how it’s all simmering under the surface,” Jha said. “In Seattle, people make assumptions. Someone asked me ‘I’m sure your husband works at Microsoft.’ I said, A, I don’t have a husband and, two, I work at Seattle U.”
Even with her credentials, Jha isn’t boastful about being selected for the Hugo House position. Swenson described Jha as a writer with great storytelling skills who created vivid and compelling characters in her book, “Foreign.”
“It’s so important to me that we read about the experience of many different kinds of people from many different places and that’s a way of developing empathy for people who’ve been though something other than one’s own story,” Swenson said. “Everybody is different.”
Jha has already accomplished a lot but she’s far from finished. Working with Hugo House is another way for her to inspire others.
“I want to feel like, one, I wrote a lot. I made a difference in people’s writing. I still feel like an outsider and I can imagine how someone else might feel who doesn’t have something published. I want to make a difference to that,” Jha said. “I feel like my best work is ahead of me, not behind me. That’s the part that excites me the most. Five years from now I hope I’ve made a dent in my best work.”