Feature: The Sonora Jha Interview
`Tenderness and empathy are the pillars of feminism for boys`
Professor of journalism, writer, activist Sonora Jha `s latest book How to Raise a Feminist Son is a lived experience manifesto, a brave meld of the personal and the political. Every chapter parses the complexities of feminism, the weight of traditional tropes, gender binaries in films and literature, the Janus- faced social media, cultural criticism, and the like. To use Jha`s own term, in the overwhelm of life, the book shines a sharp and focused light on a vital project: how to raise a feminist child.
Jha tells Sheila Kumar how the process is not the easiest but so very worthwhile.
In a recent webinar tutorial, you discussed whether it is okay to make your child a character in your novel, or, as is the case with How to Raise a Feminist Son, the subject of your memoir. Tell us how you navigated a potential thicket of thorns regarding this.
Writers have drawn upon their families for generations when it comes to the people we write about, in fiction or non-fiction. In the case of How to Raise a Feminist Son, I wrote about events that are clearly from my point of view. I also have an author’s note stating the subjective nature of such a narrative. Most memoirists struggle with how best to do this. For me, it was important to ask for my son’s permission as an adult, and he readily gave it. In my novel, the 14-year-old boy character has some traits of my son, but the story isn’t from our life at all.
How did your son react to being the central peg of your manifesto? Was he able to see the larger point here, or was he embarrassed at having the spotlight trained on him?
Oh, he had all the emotions! But even before I started to write the book, I asked for his permission. He said I was allowed to write about his life up to the age of 18, and agreed to share his thoughts through interviews after that age. He definitely saw the larger point, the importance of this book as well as his mother’s desire to write it. He helped me with some of the research and he introduced me to his friends for interviews. He also told me he didn’t plan to read the book, so I shouldn’t censor myself … a mixed blessing, this. We agreed to change his name and keep him away from any publicity.
He also doesn’t like the `performative` way in which some men call themselves feminists even when they’re not, and he didn’t want to wear feminism as some sort of badge. That’s what you get when you raise a feminist son. He knows these stories are important to tell and he knows how to get out of the way in the sweetest, most supportive way possible.
Motherhood, masculinity and the making of my family, reads the tagline in the US edition of your book. And you have examined all three conditions with unflinching honesty. Was it hard to write this book?
Yes, it was hard to write, but it was also quite liberating. A big part of it was written in the early months of the pandemic, so I was able to stay with the discomfort and go deeper into taking risks and be brutally honest and vulnerable, because I realized how little time we all have and how badly the world needs to change.
Yes, it called for curation, because a memoir isn’t a chronological and complete narration of one’s life but is a story threaded with a theme. So, for instance, I don’t write all that much about the memorable years of my life as a young woman and journalist. I don’t write about the languorous moments of falling in love. I don’t write in detail about my life as a professor. I wrote about moments in my life that were resonant with the theme of raising a feminist son, which, incidentally, happen to also be the most formative, fabulous, delectable moments of my life.
What led to the writing of this book?
After my first novel was published, I started to write a memoir. I couldn’t quite wrestle down the theme of that memoir. Meanwhile, I would write OpEds and political/personal essays in response to cultural moments such as #MeToo and racism, and the rape of 8-year-old Asifa in Kathua in India. These articles would bring a deluge of messages from people across the world, and interviews from the BBC and PRI. I realized there was a hunger for these conversations, and I realized that my own enterprise of raising a feminist son connected with these narratives. I recognized that’s what my memoir had to be – a memoir and a manifesto.
You’ve made it very clear that raising a son, raising kids, to be feminist, is an ongoing process. Yet, does this instilling of the right values and principles get diluted as the kid grows, as their relationship with their mother changes in nature, as they assimilate much more external stuff than they did while younger, as the parent is no longer the primary gatekeeper?
Yes. Several chapters of my book focus on the other influences that swoop down on our kids or even inspire them beyond our own parental imagination. But here’s the thing — if we lay a good foundation of feminist values, our sons don’t have to outgrow the tenderness and empathy that are the pillars of feminism for boys. Once we give them a feminist lens, a feminist language, a feminist way of loving, they bring these to bear upon the other influences. So, they perhaps don’t enjoy the company of toxic male friends and have a way of distancing themselves from misogynistic tropes in video games, or, say, having the self-esteem to enjoy sexual relationships in which they have asked for enthusiastic consent from their partners.
In my case and in the case of others I know, our kids ended up bringing us outside influences that made us better feminists.
American feminism and Indian feminism must needs be two different creatures. Was it an involuntary move or a conscious decision to take up both strands in the raising of Gibran?
As I say in the book, some of the best feminists I know live in India. I drew upon their feminism, which was my formative feminism, quite consciously. And, over the years, he and I have reached back into Indian feminism, especially that of Dalit feminists, to talk about my Brahmin privilege and the entrenched caste oppression and how it gets in the way of unbridled Dalit joy. And then, in America, I had to consciously embrace intersectional American feminism because my boy was growing up here as a brown-skinned male and I was living on my own terms and thriving here as a single mother. I believe my child was all the richer for having both strands of feminism in our everyday consciousness.
The reimagining of masculinity that feminism calls for might be a tough ask in India, with its long history of misogyny, its entrenched ideas of male entitlement. What do you have to say to Indian mothers attempting to raise feminist sons?
Oh, let’s be clear, it’s a tough ask in the US, too. This country just can’t bring itself to elect a woman president or pay women equal to men, amongst other things. And yes, it’s a tough ask in India. I have something to say to Indian mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and pretty much everyone in India – male entitlement and misogyny has led to nothing but masculine swagger and devastation. If we let our boys and men be gentler, be more supportive of other genders, and indeed ask them to fight for more equity, we will emerge in a world where we can heal. On a personal level, our boys will be healthier, less prone to rage or depression or violence. Let’s try it.
There is much to unlearn before the new learning kicks in, and in today`s hyper-masculine times, the unlearning is both a complex and challenging process. Do you see significant change in this regard happening anytime in the near future, for the world, for India?
I believe we are capable of quantum leaps. I definitely tripped up with some of my own internalized misogyny. I talk in the book of all the un-learning I had to do. I also had to do a lot of re-imagining. I hadn’t imagined that a male relative of mine could be different from the violent men in my family or the emotionally-unhealed men of my adulthood or the tragically entitled men leading the world. And yet, my son and many young people I meet today are so different from those men. I see a gentleness and a solidarity that takes my breath away.
Let`s talk about the good feminist vs the bad. In this none-too-easy struggle to shift the markers, how much damage does the bad feminist inflict on the movement, on her fellow strugglers?
I often say that the patriarchy employs women to be its foot-soldiers and go to battle with other women. I have seen that in my own family, with deeply internalized misogyny even from modern, feminist-identifying women repeating the same abuse from generation to generation. But the seed and the superstructure are the patriarchy itself, especially Brahmanical male patriarchy in the Indian context. Savarna feminists, like White feminists in the US, must do a reckoning with their history. They must call out their men, especially. And then, it’s not too late to join the movement. Eventually, even bad feminism, with its missteps and its self-doubt and its everyday errors, is a healthier, happier way forward. Feminists of all genders know that this movement is more fun. We have better jokes, we have better songs.
I was struck by the term you use to indicate that Gibran was ready to go out and engage with the world. You write that he was `launched.` And I realised that most Indian men, sons of fiercely protective mothers, are never really launched, are they? Would you agree that this puts them at a disadvantage when it`s their turn to go out and engage with the world, engage with women?
Well, as with everything else, I like to take the best of both cultures and make a stronger one. I like the connectedness of the Indian family and I like the independence given to children in the American family. If the fiercely protective mother is using her superpowers to protect her son against toxic masculinity and empowering her son to empower other women/LGBTQ folk, then hail the Mata and jiyo mere laal!
An abridged version of this interview appeared in the Sunday Express magazine of 20 June 2021.