Producer, Educator & Writer
Seattle-based essayist and journalism professor Sonora Jha’s latest book, “How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity and the Making of My Family,” is both a memoir and clear set of instructions for raising an emotionally intelligent son, aimed at everyone involved in the raising of children — aunties and uncles included.
Jha’s first book, “Foreign,” published in 2013, is a novel with storyline that touches farmer suicides in India, as well as a mother-son relationship. But her latest book tackles topics some might see as too taboo or uncomfortable to talk to kids about, such as sex, and race, with a chapter on nursery rhymes and storytelling called “Has Mother Goose Ever Heard of Feminism?” and “Do I Really Have to Talk to Him About Sex?” Each chapter folds in Jha’s own experiences growing up in India, working as a journalist and becoming an academic in the U.S., and uses her first-hand accounts of polio, marriage, racism, divorce and everything in between.’I wanted my son to be able to cry … to express heartbreak and not feel like he has to hide it.’Sonora Jha, author of ‘How to Raise a Feminist Son’
Jha’s words are powerful. Even before she began writing her most recent book — a 2018 essay she wrote in a state of rage nearly three years ago prompted her mother to stop speaking to her. In conversation with KQED, she said her mother has yet to speak to her. The essay mentions Jha’s own Me Too experience and uncovers some of the violence within her family. She calls out incidences of violence in the home that go without consequences, which can lead to public violence as in the case of an 8-year-old girl named Asifa Bano. That essay garnered extensive attention and a BBC Asia interview that helped solidify her desire to continue sharing her story.
While Jha’s book looks at different family members, the central focus is her relationship with her son, Gibran, who is now an adult, and how she has intentionally raised him to be a feminist. “I wanted my son to be able to cry … to express heartbreak and not feel like he has to hide it,” she said.
Throughout the book, she weaves in her son’s perspectives, thoughts and growing feminist sensibilities, alongside interviews with researchers. “If boys are not able to talk about heartbreak, if they’re not able to cry when either they physically hurt or they see a moving piece of art … then we are just telling them to be less human,” Jha said. Educating boys, and all young people, with an eye toward emotional intelligence is good for boys themselves as well as the broader community. “These boys grow into men and they’re more emotionally available … And so they make better human beings, partners, parents and everything else,” Jha said.
The project of raising feminist boys is also an act of responding to toxic masculinity. For Jha, the effort to raise a feminist son has included telling her son her own Me Too stories at an age-appropriate time. “It’s only hard until it gets easier,” she said of sharing her experiences. “It’s going to be hard to talk about these things with our kids, and especially with our boys. But if we know that everyone else is doing it …f then it becomes easier,” she said. “These things are only hard because they’re forbidden.”
Jha has been writing her memoir in “fits and starts” for a while now. But she wanted to combine her feminist scholarship, as well as her lived experience as a mother. Some of the chapters started as political essays in response to controversies surrounding Aziz Ansari and Serena Williams, writing about different intersections of masculinity, motherhood and feminism. “There’s such a hunger in society to talk about boys and to talk about how we raise boys,” she said. “So much of my identity as a mother and as a scholar and writer is tied in with these questions.” Once she knew that was the heart of the book, it took about a year and a half to write. The final product is, as Rebecca Solnit describes it, “a beautiful hybrid of memoir, manifesto, instruction manual, and rumination.”
While the family details are some of the most heartbreaking and powerful storytelling nuggets, Jha admits that memoir is hard, and she has faced some occasional sleepless nights. Even though she has changed most people’s names in the book, “they know who they are.” But she sees this aspect of memoir as important — being able to recognize your own story in someone else’s. The book will also be published in India. That’s because for her, it’s even more important for South Asian women to tell their stories, both in the diaspora and in South Asia. “We need more personal stories, and we need more memoirs — because we really need to either be whistleblowers or say, ‘Hey, enough of the silence and the shame.’ ”
For Jha, who is now in her early 50s, trying to break the silence and shame is part of what calls her to write, and act in solidarity. “Let’s just explode some of these things about shame that keep us back,” she said.
Jha’s writing is the kind that is pleasant to read, and her way with words means that even the uncomfortable parts are brought together with care. The way she deftly interweaves her own story, alongside educational anecdotes and academic research reminds me of taking long road trips with my mother, in which no thought or discussion is off the table, and everything comes back to our relationships with one another, and society at large.SPONSORED
As Jha said, “Living a feminist life … is really about making feminist choices and knowing that those only leads to good things,” she said, “once you start to live a feminist life, things do get better for all of us, and for our families.”