Sonora Jha’s “Foreign” shines light on farmer suicide in India

Sonora Jha, journalism professor at Seattle University, shines light on the issue of farmer suicides in India with her first novel, "Foreign." (Photo by Seth Halleran)

While Seattle has its reputation for suicides, across the globe in India, rain and gloom are hardly to blame for rising suicide rates.

Last year Sonora Jha, a journalism professor at Seattle University, released her debut novel, tackling the issue of Indian farmer suicides in a fictional context.

“Foreign” tells the story of Katya, an Indian mother living in Seattle and working in academia, much like Jha herself. Katya’s son, Khabir, loosely based on Jha’s own son, runs away to India, in search of the father that he never had, forcing Katya to follow him and thrusting her into the midst of a suicide epidemic.

Starting in the 90s, India liberalized its economy, allowing more foreign trade. Multinationals like Monsanto, the reviled chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, entered the Indian market, selling genetically modified seeds to Indian farmers. The promise was that seeds would produce higher yields, but the results were disastrous for many small farmers.

“These seeds need a lot of care and they need the infrastructure to be perfect,” Jha said. “And India doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure.”

Without the money necessary for expensive farming equipment and supplies, many farmers suffered crop failures and sank into debt.

“It’s like total desperation,” Jha said. “You’re ridden with debt because you’ve had to buy these expensive seeds and fertilizers, and your crop has failed so you didn’t get the money to pay for the loans with which you bought these things.“

In 2009 alone, 17,638 farmers committed suicide in India­ — that’s one suicide every 30 seconds 30 minutes.

Jha recently wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times challenging the methods for tracking suicide numbers in India, and connecting the farmer suicide epidemic with the new and popular “None of the Above” option on the ballots for India’s upcoming general election.

Though Katya’s character shares many background details with those of Jha herself, the similarities become fewer and farther between as the story progresses.

Katya’s face and a cotton flower on the cover of Jha’s book Foreign. (Photo Courtesy Sonora Jha)
Katya’s face and a cotton flower on the cover of Jha’s book Foreign. (Photo Courtesy Sonora Jha)

“I actually don’t like that character at all” Jha said. “She’s sort of impatient, she doesn’t like India, especially at the beginning of the novel. I actually love India.”

Jha grew up in the bustling Indian city of Mumbai, becoming a journalist at a young age. She began traveling around the age of 26 and spent three years working in Singapore before becoming increasingly frustrated with there lack of freedom of press.

She came to the United States shortly thereafter, earning her Ph.D. in Political Communication from Louisiana State University.

Jha was working in the United States as a journalist when she began reading about the rise of farmer suicides and, sensing the importance of the story, she returned to India in 2008 to do academic research on why Indian journalists weren’t covering the issue.

She says the stories of the farmers she met during her research were so unbelievable they sounded like fiction.

“I started to find that very interesting and started to get lured by the idea of writing it as fiction.” Jha said

Although “Foreign” was published in India, Jha says she wrote many parts of it to be particularly relevant to the U.S. reader, drawing comparisons between Seattle and India.

“I didn’t want suicide to seem like this exotic weird thing,” Jha said. “I found myself suddenly writing about a young boy who had committed suicide on the Aurora Bridge.”

Infamous as a frequent suicide site, the Aurora Bridge comes up early on in the story, as Katya is on her way to the airport.

“Random House India is always looking for strong, emotional fiction with a storyline and characters that can really draw readers into the plot.” said Caroline Newbury, VP of Marketing and Publicity at Random House India. “’Foreign’ had this in abundance.”

Jha clearly is extremely proud of her son, Sahir Nambiar, who she shares an Eastlake apartment with.

“He’s a really good young man.” Jha said. “Actually, half the books in this bookcase are his. He insists that I tell people that.”

“Do I insist that?” Sahir says in response. “Well, now that it’s on the record it’s probably more than half.”

Sonora and her son Sahir Jha’s share a literary collection ranging from Hindu religious texts to the latest book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. (Photo by Seth Halleran)
Sonora and her son Sahir Jha’s share a literary collection ranging from Hindu religious texts to the latest book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. (Photo by Seth Halleran)

“Am I glad I didn’t raise him in India? I can’t say,” she adds, as Sahir accidentally drops a book from the bookshelf onto the floor. “But if I had raised him in India, he would know to pick up that book and touch it to his forehead because we worship Saraswati [the Indian goddess of knowledge, music and arts].”

After Jha released “Foreign” she was giving talks on the book at the same time as Washington state’s GMO labeling initiative — I-522 — was breaking state records for campaign donations.

“I felt bad that it wasn’t passed, but I also feel like next time there will be more awareness and it will be written in a way that people won’t feel like they’re compromising,” Jha said.

Today, Jha is an Associate Professor in the Communication department at Seattle University and has plans to continue writing and teaching.

When asked about how the year following the release of “Foreign” has been, Jha briefly gets misty eyed, calling this year the greatest in her life yet.

“Foreign” was shortlisted for the Hindu Prize for Literature and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for 2013 and longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for 2013.

“It’s like a book shed,” Jha said. “I feel like there’s something good I’ve done in the world, and it’s out there, and it’s a thing of its own.”

Sonora Jha will be speaking at the Mercer Island Community Center this Thursday, April 27, for People for Progress in India’s annual fundraiser.

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6 Comments

  1. You just gave me a heart attack by writing “that’s one suicide every 30 seconds”. Its one every thirty minutes. Got to be very careful with sensitive data. Cheers!

  2. Happy to see such kind of article which main stream media mostly ignore to highlight because of its less news importance value.

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