Local author Sonora Jha made her name as a journalist in Mumbai and Bangalore before moving to the US, where she eventually became head of the communication department at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Foreign, was nominated for the Hindu Literary Prize last year; it was also long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and a finalist for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. Jha is quickly becoming a fixture in Seattle's reading scene. In the last three months, she headlined an event with her friend (and Seattle City Council member) Kshama Sawant during Lit Crawl and anchored an edition of the books-and-booze event series Lit Fix with Seattle City of Literature chair Ryan Boudinot. Her résumé is more impressive than many Seattle-area authors', but only one bookstore in town is selling Foreign. Even Amazon only carries a few copies of Foreign in stock at any given time, and only used editions are available for purchase, often for more than cover price. How can that possibly be?
Blame international copyright law. Foreign was published by Random House India last year; though Jha has confirmed that there's some talk about publishing the novel in the United States, the only person who can get his hands on it in bulk is Elliott Bay Book Company events coordinator Rick Simonson, who's using his international industry connections to have cartons of Foreign shipped to the store on a regular basis. (The exchange rate is highly favorable for Americans—Simonson told me the shipping costs more than the books.) The delay in international shipping means Simonson can't keep the book on Elliott Bay's shelves.
So is Foreign worth its weight in postage? Absolutely. Though it suffers from some debut-novel stiffness, particularly in its opening chapters, Foreign benefits from the propulsion of Jha's journalism background to overcome any awkward passages. This fiction is rooted firmly in truth. The protagonist of Foreign, Katya, is a Seattle academic whose son disappears during a trip to India. When she travels back to the nation of her birth to investigate his absence, she's forced to reenter the orbit of the boy's father and familiarize herself with the local farming community, which is suffering through a crisis of its own.
At readings, Jha has confirmed that Foreign began as a nonfiction account of a grave situation in India. Globalization has ruined the once-lucrative profession of cotton farming. As one character in the novel explains, the Indian government "gave in to the pressure of foreign powers and took away the tariffs that protected Indian cotton industries from foreign competition. The foreigners came and flooded the market. And then, when the local cotton yield was poor, the price of local cotton plummeted." The farmers felt trapped as their finances collapsed, and an epidemic began: Men began killing themselves so their families could survive on government benefits. "By 2010, more than 32,000 farmers had chosen death at their own hands in Vidarbha... And more than 200,000 in India." (These expository passages, by the way, are about as stiff as Foreign's language gets.)
Katya helps the community in Vidarbha protest this terrible new status quo. In so doing, she brushes against the same institutional sexism that convinced her to emigrate years before, and she realizes with not a little sadness that she is more of America than of India. In the farming community, they have a hard time believing there can be such a thing as "a village named Seattle" where "it rains nine months in a year... People celebrate when the sun comes out, just like we celebrate when the rain comes down. Can you imagine that, my brothers?"
Once Jha establishes the framework of her story and climbs deep into her book's activist heart, Foreign becomes a kind of thriller. You know Katya can't resolve the suicides or even fix the system that causes them, but as the character's conscience aligns with the debut novelist's confidence, Foreign gathers an irresistible momentum.