Reimagining the Whole Damn World: A Conversation with Sonora Jha
Feminism, like yoga, is a practice, and perfection is an illusion.
Novelist, critic, and essayist Sonora Jha and I met in the Seattle writing community. Once, we were invited to sit on a panel together on the topic of character. I was speaking about writing a real-life character in the form of biography, and Jha was speaking about writing the characters of her novel Foreign. I’d forgotten all about that particular panel until I sat down to write this introduction, but it’s interesting to think back on it, because Jha’s new book is an extended investigation— intellectual, political, psychological— of character. In How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family, she has created a feminist manifesto steeped in personal story that seeks to unwind and re-weave the way we make men. As the mother of a ten-year-old son, and as a feminist, it is a joy and an inspiration to read.
Who is Jha to be the expert on raising feminist boys? Well, she’s done it. “I had left my family, I had left two husbands, and I had left a country of a billion people so I could raise one good man,” she writes. “Raising a good, feminist man and then sending him out into the world has been my truest pilgrimage. From our respective desks in Seattle, we corresponded via email about our desire for more “ordinary, even-tempered, devoted men,” and what we all can do to raise them.
The Rumpus: What was the inciting incident that sparked the writing of this book, and what has changed for you over the course of your writing?
Sonora Jha: My son left for college and, as a sort of corollary and a contrast to an academic book I was co-editing, I started to write a memoir. I would also keep publishing personal-political essays in response to things that were happening around the globe with dating culture/rape culture, the rise of masculine swagger, and the resurgence of feminism, especially intersectional feminism after #MeToo took off. I’d reference conversations I’d had with my son. I would get overwhelming responses to these essays from people who’d say, “This was waiting to be said. We need to talk about this.” And I realized, Oh, I see. This is what my memoir wants to be. And then, the essays just rushed out of me.
What changed for me? I felt lighter with every completed essay, like I’d been dying to speak out this feminist life, even to explain to myself what I had been doing, making the staggeringly risky feminist choices I’d been making instead of playing it safe, and staying the course because I knew this was the way I knew to love my son. So, in a way, writing this book felt like a love letter to myself. Also, I did a lot of the writing and revisions during this past year of the pandemic. It felt like a good time to go deeper inward while also reimagining the whole damn world.
Rumpus: In the early pages of How to Raise a Feminist Son, you address some of the cultural norms and stories in both India and America—two countries with demonstrated caste systems (one more formal than the other) and long histories of misogyny—that you had to leave, disown, uproot, and reshape for yourself and your son. What are these two countries learning from each other about feminism?
Jha: That’s a great question. I believe what they are learning is that feminism has to be a big way forward. In both countries, we’ve had years of setbacks from the Trump and Modi regimes. We’ve seen hypermasculine, capitalist, militaristic, xenophobic swagger from both men, and I do believe Trump’s misogyny was worse than Modi’s. And then, we’ve seen solidarity among feminists there and here. The #MeToo movement in India mirrored the one here and really went even further and pushed for a societal reckoning. A recent landmark case in favor of a journalist, Priya Ramani, who was sued by her harasser M.J. Akbar (a powerful journalist and member of parliament) gave a lot of hope to women in India. There’s also a growing conversation about racism here and casteism there, and how they intersect with misogyny. I write about these connections in my book and am thrilled that it will be published in both my homes, the US and India (by Penguin Random House India).
Rumpus: In a chapter titled “What Would the Goddesses Do?” you cite the goddess Sita who “raised her boys not to seek glory… [t]o be ordinary men, not prone to rage or anger or hunger for kingdoms or the status of gods.” And the goddess Kali, who “does not lose herself in caring for her children… [who] keeps them grateful for her attention.” It seems as if we all just listened to these two goddesses, we’d be in good shape, no?
Jha: Yes! I also love Kali because she is not known to have had children of her own, but was worshipped as a divine protector, sort of subverting gender roles. Sita suffered and launched tiny, quiet revolutions while Kali was just having none of it. You don’t have to be a mother. You don’t have to raise men who conquer or protect. Could we just have more ordinary, even-tempered, devoted men, please?
Rumpus: The story of your father is both heartbreaking and remarkable. You write, “My father was a wife beater and a child abuser.” He also sent you to school, encouraged your career, and didn’t shame you when you divorced (in fact, he lauded you, saying “Marriage is for small people. You are too big for marriage.”) Much later, he apologizes. You write:
My father… apologized to me for the violence and abuse he inflicted on me, my siblings, and our mother for most of our lives lived with him… When I think of my father’s apology, I think of these things and I heal—he didn’t ask for my forgiveness (perhaps afraid I wouldn’t forgive him); he made the apology in front of his current wife, my loving stepmother; he made the apology in front of Gibran.
My own mother’s father was in the military, trained to kill by the Army shortly after he immigrated to America. He fought in active combat for nearly three years while his family was being murdered in concentration camps, and he probably had some PTSD that I imagine might explain the way he treated some members of his family. Given that our military industrial complex isn’t going anywhere, and that many young people come of age in this structure of training, what can be done—or what do you already see happening—to change the cycle of othering and oppression within that institution?
Jha: Thank you for sharing that story about your mother’s father. I wonder if militaries across the world would like to hear from us, the heartbroken children carrying some generational trauma. My father is retired and I don’t have a close-up view of the Indian Army anymore, but I do see nationalism and militarism on the rise in India. The US, of course, is a grotesque nuclear superpower currently involved in more wars across the world than the press bothers to cover (many of my students had no idea about the ongoing US involvement in the war in Yemen). Should we feel grateful for the strides made for gay and transgender people in the military? Sure, but we’re still feeding the military monster and women are still getting raped in the military. These are institutions that feel so unchangeable. I wonder if our feminist boys will change them. I fear they will change our feminist boys. I believe there are good men in every institution, but the culture of the military is antithetical to feminism.
Rumpus: Back to the notion of apology, I appreciate how you frame feminism as a practice, “like yoga.” It’s not about perfection—it’s about showing up. So, why is it still so hard for some men to “just fucking apologize”? I feel like I should know the answer to this question but I still do not!
Jha: It’s been more than ten years since my brother physically assaulted me at his wedding in front of wedding guests and in front of my mother. He still hasn’t apologized. He hasn’t been pushed to apologize. No one walked out of his wedding. No one walked away from his life except me and my sister. The consequences for men are minimal. I sometimes wonder, though. Isn’t the loss of his two loving sisters big enough for an apology? What have we told our men that keeps them from apologizing even in the face of the loss of love? I believe some of it is that we have told men that they need to be seen as right, powerful, smart, infallible, strong, noble… beyond mistakes. This plays out in laughable ways such as when they don’t want to ask for directions while driving somewhere. It plays out in tragic ways when they don’t want to apologize. I don’t want my son to lose love in his life. I want him to feel remorse and be unafraid to apologize without demanding forgiveness.
Rumpus: You tell the story of your son’s friend, Sean, whose family ended its arc of patriarchal oppression by empowering its women. “Not all the men in his family are in step with a feminist agenda,” Sean tells you. “It’s just that they’ve been rendered powerless to perpetuate any misogyny by the strong-willed and empowered women around them.” If you had had two children—a son and a daughter—whom would you have been more concerned about? To whom would you have devoted more energy?
Jha: What a great question. Let’s see. My parents worked hard to empower me, yes, even through the violence and the put-downs. What they didn’t do was teach my brother to control his rage, treat women with respect, or apologize for his wrongdoings. Across the world, we’re empowering girls and women, which is great, of course. We’re also telling them to cover their legs, not to stay out late, not to get drunk at parties or they’ll get raped. To answer your question—I know I would devote more energy to empowering my son to turn things around. I got a chance to do this kind of parenting when I had a step-daughter for a while (there’s an episode in the book about how I got my fourteen-year-old son to apologize to his little step-sister; the two of them still have a close, trusting relationship). The forces that keep our girls behind are more visible now. The ones that body-snatch our boys are insidious and invisible.
Rumpus: Intersectionality is addressed at many points in your book, framing Gibran’s growing up in a country with prescribed views of men, men of color, and immigrants (and children of immigrants). You write, “A child of color in America—especially boys as they turn to men and begin to be feared—must carry the burden of uprooting misogyny because it will lay bare the deeper rot.”
We’ve been focusing attention these past few years on supporting women of color, and rightly so. But this seems to me a strong argument for supporting men of color, for the very heavy dual burdens of self-preservation and feminist activism that they must face?
Jha: Yes, absolutely. We should all still be haunted by the story of Emmett Till. White women, the kind that voted for Trump in staggering numbers—as well as white feminists—must throw themselves into anti-racist work. You’re not “next in line” for the goodies, as we have seen from un-shattered glass ceiling after un-shattered glass ceiling. It’s all of us against white supremacist capitalistic male entitlement. These sound like tired phrases, but really, all I can tell you is that I have taught my son to look out for his white (and Black and brown) sisters and I really, really, really want you to look out for him, please.
Rumpus: Gibran’s friend Alec Hannaford breaks down America’s childcare problem in a sadly charming way: “(C)apitalist society sort of relies on the nuclear family,” he says, “and the nuclear family sort of relies on the unpaid labor of women, such as child-rearing.” And, earlier, you note: “America’s childcare issue is a feminist issue.” What can feminists do to move the childcare agenda in this country forward? And, more complicatedly, how can the feminist agenda push on the idea that women choosing to stay home and care for their children should be paid for their labor and maintain the same level of power and respect that they could hold anywhere else in the workforce?
Jha: Look at what the pandemic has laid bare! Our women are exhausted. One of my roles is as associate dean at my college. Women faculty wrote to me all of last year to say they haven’t been able to get any research done and can barely manage teaching and childcare. Recent studies have shown this to be true for academics—fewer papers submitted by women during the pandemic while men’s submissions are doing fine. Where are the men? Which room are they in during the pandemic? Can’t they see what they’re doing (or not doing)? I believe we need more strikes by women. Genuine, full-on, go-to-hell strikes. Let the world come to a standstill. And of course, we need men in power to take this up as a human rights issue (if calling it a “feminist issue” makes them feel this is a “women’s issue”).
Rumpus: Yes! I love the idea of full-on, go-to-hell strikes. We should strike at minimum for paid family leave for two or three years (not two or three months) as well as benefits and incentives for hiring parents returning to the workforce after parental leave, job sharing, and flexible hours. I also think we could use a major media campaign to create more visible examples of parents who “stopped working” to raise children and returned just as smart and powerful as when they left. We can’t all “lean in” with full house staffs—nor should we have to.
Jha: Absolutely. It’s unfortunate that we still have to explain this and to explain it in capitalist terms of productivity and power, right? I wish we’d factor in “well-being” as a measure of progress. We’d nurture kinder, more authentic, less exhausted, less reactive human beings (especially men), and perhaps that would mean fewer wars, less displacement of human beings and less destruction of the planet? It only sounds idealistic until it becomes normative.
Rumpus: It’s hard enough to structure a memoir of your own experience, but here you’ve included many other voices—your son’s friends, your own friends, other feminist parents trying to raise feminist kids, psychologists and educators and thought leaders—and you did it in a way that melded history with research, data with experience, that never left the beating heart of your personal story. How did you hold true to your voice and your experience while building this larger narrative?
Jha: I must admit I struggled with this part of the craft. The journalist and social scientist-academic in me tried to overwhelm the lyrical essayist and memoirist in me at many points. So, I started to meditate a little more and relaxed and invited the research and interviews into the story, like inviting trusted friends and relatives into my home. I imagined myself telling this whole thing like a story to a younger sister who might go along with my theories for a while, but then also demand to know what proof I have. You know? Like younger sisters do.
Photograph of Sonora Jha by Sonora Jha.