“It’s important for me to transgress. It’s important for me to be subversive,” says novelist, essayist and professor Sonora Jha (How to Raise a Feminist Son) during a video call to her home in Seattle, Washington. “For those of us on the margins, I think having our agency and transgressing like crazy will better everything.”
The Laughter is subversive in its approach, form and content. As an authentic and nuanced character study, it demands that readers grapple with issues of race, sexuality, power, tradition and academia. It carefully and systematically explores how conflicts over privilege and control are enacted on our minds and bodies.
The story centers on Oliver Harding, a middle-aged white male English professor at a liberal arts college in Seattle. Oliver is a decorated academic whose personal and professional identity is wrapped up in the focus of his research, the early 20th-century British writer G.K. Chesterton. Divorced from his wife, his relationship with his daughter strained, Oliver turns his focus on Ruhaba Khan, a Muslim law professor at the university. Ruhaba is dealing with the reality of being a woman of color on a predominately white campus while building a relationship with Adil Alam, her nephew who recently emigrated from France after getting into some trouble.
Both Oliver and Ruhaba find themselves caught up in social upheaval on campus, as a multicultural student movement demanding progressive transformations draws ire of aging white faculty. This mixture of personal and political turmoil makes for a contemplative yet thrilling and ultimately devastating read.
While certainly a work of fiction, The Laughter pulls from Jha’s journalistic background, her experiences as a faculty member at Seattle University and her life as an American immigrant. (She grew up in Mumbai, India.) The seeds of the book were planted in 2016, after Jha learned that French towns were beginning to ban burkinis, swimwear that covers both the head and body to align with Muslim values. The bans appeared after a terrorist attack in Nice and reflected forced Muslim assimilation into French secular culture. This attempt to regulate Muslim identity prompted her to consider the visceral impact of both anti-Muslim conditioning and cultural marginalization in general, both central themes in The Laughter. “I definitely wanted to build a story around them. And I kept visualizing this image of this boy watching his mother being asked to take off her hijab,” she says.
Jha explains that Oliver is the type of man who obsessively fights for control, both in his personal life and in society at large. He’s seemingly at odds with himself, and due to his own personal failings, he lives a lonely life. Despite this, he exhibits an intense sense of entitlement and a need for authority over both Ruhaba and the on-campus protests.
Men like Oliver, says Jha, “are all around us. They’re in academia. They’re our friends. I have felt that sense of control [from them], especially the moments in which they feel like they are losing that control or handing it over to someone else. This happens even if they were encouraging you all along. I’ve had experiences where mentors of mine, when I finally came into my power, were like, ‘Wait, you’re supposed to be grateful. You’re supposed to take up just enough space as I give to you.’ . . . It’s almost like they will mentor you and give you just enough, but they want to still be in charge.”
A reader could wonder how Jha, a woman of Indian descent, was able to provide such a richly authentic first-person portrayal of a privileged middle-aged white man. She notes that she first attempted to write the novel in third person, but almost in an instinctive way, the first-person voice began to take over her writing. She believes that it emerged, forcefully, out of a lifetime of engaging with Western literature.
“This white male voice is so dominant in my imagination because this is who we read when I was growing up in India,” she says. “It was creepy that this voice already existed and is the literary voice in my imagination.” To further capture the voice, she immersed herself in the white male literary canon. “As the rest of the world was starting to read more women of color, I was reading the likes of John Updike and Saul Bellow,” she quips.
From Oliver’s perspective, we witness his insidious exoticization, shown most prominently through his sexual attraction to Ruhaba and his suspicions of Adil. Oliver fixes his sexual gaze on the parts of Ruhaba’s appearance that are nonwhite; he has both a figurative and literal fetish for her Indian-ness. At the same time, he responds to her nonphysical differences with confusion and disgust. Similarly, Oliver perceives Adil’s identity as a dangerous “otherness” that needs to be surveilled, tested and controlled.
Jha explains that this two-faced response is a common conflict that immigrants face in their interpersonal relationships. “You have to be exotic enough for me to fetishize you, but not so much that it’s a whole other thing that I have to deal with,” she says. “I will provide for you, and I will protect you from your own kind who are not good for you, but to be in my protection, you have to be a little bit more like me.”
Despite Oliver’s control over the narrative, Ruhaba emerges as a deeply complicated character full of internal conflicts. As a Muslim immigrant woman, she exhibits a seemingly naive hope about the possibilities of American life that’s at odds with the fetishizing, distrust and exclusion that is enacted upon her. She also wears a hijab despite her complicated feelings about her Muslim heritage.
“For immigrant women, I think there’s the excitement of coming to a place that promises all kinds of freedoms, but there’s also the pressure to conform to a certain sort of cultural performance, because we need community,” Jha says. “That’s the part of me that is maybe reflected in Ruhaba, that I exist on the fringes of every sense of community. We crave belonging and community, but we don’t want it to be prescribed for us. So Ruhaba’s relationship with the hijab is a way to control her own appearance and her own relationships with people, on campus or otherwise.”
Adil is also a beautifully crafted character who exhibits a level of complexity that we rarely see in depictions of young men of color. A teenage boy who is as sensitive as he is intelligent, Adil is willing to be open about his hopes and his fears. At the same time, his urge to protect is what upends his life on multiple occasions. In the spirit of How to Raise a Feminist Son, Jha uses Adil’s character to explore and challenge constructions of masculinity. “When can we tell our boys that you don’t have to connect with this toxic masculinity of protector and provider?” Jha asks. “I wanted Adil to have that tenderness, and even a refusal of that kind of masculinity.”
The college campus is very much a character in the novel as well. It is a force with its own nuances and actions, and competing groups of social actors seek to harness this energy to execute their own visions of the future. Political dialogue is often reduced to simply right versus left, but Jha’s depiction of campus life complicates this, showing how political conflicts are often rooted in issues of power and privilege. Innovative graduate students are attempting to transform the campus into a more inclusive and progressive space. Meanwhile, white middle-aged tenured professors, who once considered themselves progressive, are actively resisting this change. This results in a series of microaggressions and racist commentaries that undermine the college’s purported liberalism.
“I think what’s happening with white folks in academia is a sense of displacement, the worry that fun can be had without them, that there’s a lot of brilliance that is ‘not of my kind,’” Jha says. “BIPOC folks and other folks are redefining culture. So we keep hearing these white academics say, ‘We worked hard’ or ‘There are more restrictions for us’ or ‘We played by the rules,’ because any kind of displacement is going to cause discomfort, even in the life of the mind.”
Despite the rampant personal and political turmoil, The Laughter is not a nihilistic story, due to a throughline of hope from the student body. They channel a transformative energy. “I advise the newspaper on my campus, and the kids truly believe in something, and they truly care about change,” Jha says. The novel’s students display unapologetic ideological independence and an unflinching courage to stand up for themselves, which means sometimes standing against faculty and administration.
To BIPOC people working in academia and other white-dominated spaces, Jha offers a sharp final word of advice: “Find your own people and have your own agency, and let’s see what [we] do,” she says. “Decenter the white male narrative and the white imagination on our campuses, and it can only enrich things and make us more comfortable.”
Photos of Sonora Jha by Josiane Faubert.