Sonora Jha’s ‘The Laughter’ Thrills


Reading non-fiction is such an accessible way to absorb feminist thought. Every single concept and experience is neatly laid out in an easily understandable format—each page ripe with opportunity to find comfort in and discuss with beloved community, eventually creating a sense of camaraderie. Sonora Jha, tenured professor of journalism and associate dean of the college of arts and scientist, whose upcoming book, “The Laughter,” is fiction that has been masterfully laced with the same opportunities for comfort and discussion that non-fiction offers all while, somehow, having an insufferable Chesterton-obsessed white professor, Oliver Harding, as the narrator. 

The book tells the story of Ruhaba Khan, a Pakistani-Muslim law professor, and her nephew, Adil Alam, through Harding’s inaccurate social perceptions. Harding’s obsession with Khan becomes increasingly intense when Alam visits his aunt from France. As the reader learns more about Harding, students demand a more diverse curriculum, and the reader receives the occasional hint that something serious has happened to Alam. 

Harding’s inaccurate perceptions of the world around him are arguably one of the most integral parts of the book. They’re plentiful, and they’re precisely what makes the book accessible. Within the first pages of the story, Harding fetishizes Khan, mistaking her confusion at one of his comments for attraction to him. The lines “she was peering at me, as if noticing for the first time that I am a handsome man” and “she hadn’t quite ruined my fantasies with the untidy reality of her circumstances” are gut wrenching for any reader, especially given the professional nature of Khan’s conversation with Harding. In moments like these, Harding never realizes his ignorance, but the reader’s ability to pick up on it is rooted in a shared reality outside of the book. Implicitly or explicitly, readers have received or observed similar comments before. 

Like Harding’s sentiments, the characters in the book feel strikingly real. Occasionally, Harding will have an annoyingly redeeming quality. It’s revealed early on that he knits as a hobby but hides it away from his peers. He originally learned knitting to reconnect with his daughter. This doesn’t by any means make him a good person or excuse him of casual racism and horrendous treatment of women, especially as the reader delves into later chapters, but it does make him a tangible character that could exist outside the book.

Khan’s character complexity is a little more nuanced. Harding’s fascination with Khan and Alam’s story leads him to take it for himself by becoming a part of it. In his retelling of the story, where he is also a protagonist, Khan feels two-dimensional, a pawn for Harding’s desires and stolen story. Harding regularly cuts off Khan’s dialogue with thoughts unrelated to the words she’s saying or any indication that he sees her as an equally complex person, and many times those cutoffs are sexual in nature. Jha regularly re-humanizes her through snippets of emails Khan sends to herself at the beginning of some chapters. One email is addressed to a local bakery requesting a cake for a “Feminist living a delectable life alone,” bringing life to her character. The tidbits of information shared about Khan leave the reader craving a story properly told by its owner. 

Beyond the book’s major elements, Jha adds subtle details that all serve a purpose. The book is set in Seattle, so basic familiarity with Seattle’s neighborhoods, coffee culture and fashion helps communicate just how privileged Harding and side characters like the Provost are. Living in Queen Anne and writing a pledge for Amazon workers to sign are two of a couple different Seattle-specific references. That knowledge is not required to understand the book, but those references ground the characters in reality. 

The end of the story warrants a re-read. Every one of Harding’s inaccurate perceptions, every character interaction and every small detail leads to a major event at the end of the book. Despite the social commentary it makes through striking sentences that make the reader’s stomach churn, the sentences are universally understood because they are somehow connected to our collective understanding of reality.

The thriller is so thrilling because, at some level, the ending itself feels like it could belong to non-fiction. 

“The Laughter” will be released Feb. 14.. It is available for pre-order at a plethora of bookstores including Elliot Bay, a local independent bookstore that offers a Seattle U student discount.