Sonora Jha’s The Laughter is a wickedly funny and politically astute campus novel. Like her predecessors in the genre—David Lodge, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, Julie Schumacher she takes on the foibles and pettiness inherent in academic life. Unlike her predecessors who often center the experiences of white men, Jha focuses on a woman of color in the academy. Although the narrative voice is that of a pompous white male English professor, the novel exposes the dangers of his perspective as a self-righteous, predatory man whose whole narrative is a justification of an eventually revealed horrific event.
Set in Seattle just before the 2016 elections, the novel unfolds from the perspective of Oliver Harding, an English professor working on a never-to-be-finished biography of G.K.Chesterton. He is divorced and estranged from his former wife and daughter and is attracted to a new colleague, Ruhaba Khan, a Pakistani-American professor of law involved in carceral studies focused on the experiences of Black women in prison. Harding lusts after Ruhaba and his lascivious thoughts reflect his predatory impulses and his orientalism. Ruhaba’s fifteen-year-old nephew, Adil Alam, who has been raised in Toulouse,
France, arrives in Seattle to spend time with his aunt. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Adil’s experiences with Islamophobia in France and the constant surveillance there of young Muslim men, is a major factor motivating his arrival in Seattle. Harding befriends Adil at a party as a means of impressing and seducing his aunt. Harding employs the young man to walk his dog and takes him on hikes and manipulates him for information about his aunt and about life in France. Having encountered the FBI who stop by to check on Adil soon after he has met him, Harding is persuaded that the young man is a potential terrorist and is constantly questioning every move, every statement that Adil makes.
Even as Harding imagines that he is succeeding in seducing Ruhaba, their relationship as colleagues gets complicated by a campus protest where students are demanding curricular change. Harding and Ruhaba Khan find themselves on opposite sides of the debates and their attempt to bring the two sides together into finding middle ground at a Halloween party blows up due to blatant racism. Harding as the first-person narrator eventually discloses to the reader how events unfolded after the party.
Jha’s narrative is well-crafted and Oliver Harding is a complex character. He is deliciously cringeworthy as he discloses his deepest thoughts. At the same time, despite his Islamophobia and sexism, he manages to garner occasional sympathy from the reader—his self-justifications are seductive. We see Ruhaba Khan mostly through Harding’s eyes, but she comes into her own as a character despite Harding’s dominant point of view. She is no saint but Jha offers us a complex character who does not quite belong anywhere and whose daily life is fraught. Adil Alam is sensitively portrayed—Jha’s interest in masculinity and the struggles of young men of color, a topic she explored in her memoir How to Raise
a Feminist Son, help shape this compelling character.
Ultimately, this novel is one that overturns the genre assumptions of a campus novel. Campus novels are usually a gentle satire whose purpose is to entertain with self-deprecating humor. People of color are seldom present in campus novels and if they are, they are marginal characters. In intertwining campus politics with electoral politics, Islamophobia, and gun violence, Jha exposes academia as an institution that must change. As an academic herself (and she is my colleague at Seattle University), she fully understands how academia fails people of color and LGBTQ+ folks, and she is aware of its potential to lead social change. Darkly funny and occasionally grim, this novel asks academia to examine itself and to determine how it might serve a vastly diverse, politically engaged community.
Sonora Jha will be in conversation with Kim Fu at Elliott Bay Books on February 15 at 7:00 PM and with Nalini Iyer at Seattle University’s Campion Ballroom on March 7 at 6:00 PM.