By Samar Khoury
Sonora Jha started writing when she was a child. She used to write short stories by hand, turn them into books and hand them out to her friends. Jha hasn’t stopped writing since.
Now, 46-year-old Jha is a journalism professor at Seattle University, where she has spearheaded efforts to educate students about entrepreneurial journalism and social media, and serves as the faculty adviser for the campus newspaper, The Spectator.
Jha has been a working journalist for years but prides herself most in her transition to teaching. “The move to teaching has been very exciting,” she said.
On a typical day, she starts by reading the newspaper, then heads off to the university and prepares for her classes. She tweaks her syllabi, completes the day’s lectures and grades her students’ work. “As a professor, you don’t stop working,” she said. “There are no fixed hours except for the hours I’m writing.”
In addition to being a full-time professor, Jha writes guest op-eds regularly for outlets like The New York Times, The Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly.
To get her out of the office, Jha often sets up dates with other writers at coffee shops. She spends a lot of time there, especially when she is working on an assignment such as an op-ed for The New York Times. Currently, she’s working on a book, as well as a research paper, on the resurgence of feminism in India.
Like many accomplished journalists, Jha managed to land a book deal, but her approach was on the non-traditional side. She took a real-life issue that she has followed closely and put a fictional spin on it. Random House India published the work in 2013. Her book, Foreign, is a novel based on farmer suicides in India, a topic that she has written about for The New York Times. Even though Jha’s book is a fictional account, it at least brings light to an issue that many Americans might not be aware of.
“It pulls together everything that I am about as a writer, and it tells a story I really care passionately about,” she said. The path to fiction, though, had its bumps. “It’s tough because as a journalist, you don’t make stuff up from thin air,” she said.
Although Jha has had a variety of journalistic experiences, she is constantly learning. To keep up with the evolving journalism field, she keeps in touch with journalist peers and makes sure to actively read up on recent news. She also invites guest speakers to her classes and learns from them just as much as her students do, sometimes. “I’m not afraid of change; I’m actually excited about it. I’m more excited about the things I don’t know than the things I do know,” she said.
When there’s time left over in Jha’s schedule, she’ll do things like yoga to clear her head from the constant news cycle and even contribute to activist causes she cares about. She also spends a lot of time with her 19-year-old son, who is the inspiration for her memoir in progress, which focuses on raising a son outside patriarchy in India.
Jha grew up in India, and since she was a child, has held a passion for feminism and human interest stories. She had polio as a child, and she said that her painful experiences gave her a special kind of empathy for humanity and suffering throughout the world. “That gave me a connection with other people’s stories and what humans face behind social and political issues,” she said.
Jha’s interest in these stories is what led her to pursue her postgraduate degree in social communications media in Mumbai, where she got an internship and then a job as a reporter for The Afternoon Despatch & Courier in 1989. She got her feet wet by reporting on crime, social justice and politics.
She soon moved to Bangalore and joined The Times of India. She worked her way up to serve as the chief of the metro bureau for The Times of India from 1995 to 1997 and contributed to tripling the circulation of the paper within one year. “I was getting the newspaper to do civic journalism without knowing it was called civic journalism,” she said.
In 2000, Jha decided she wanted to take a risk by moving to a different country. That’s when she moved to Louisiana to pursue her Ph.D. in Political Communication before eventually moving to Seattle in 2003. “I think that was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said.
Jha feels like she has a good relationship with her students and does everything she can to provide them with exceptional knowledge in the journalism field. She even set up a study abroad program in which students can study journalism in India. “Students end up becoming friends, and it’s exciting to see them go out and do good journalism,” she said.
Whether Jha’s writing or teaching, she thinks she’s maintained success in the journalism field by never being complacent. “I knew there were other pieces I didn’t know enough about,” she said. “Even though I grew really quickly in the profession, I wasn’t complacent. I think that really worked because it’s not about achieving, it’s about ‘Are you feeling that you’ve had enough?’”