From my grandmother's second-floor back porch in dusty Coimbatore, I could see the villagers squatting on the crest of the hill, their naked bums neatly lined in a row for the daily purge. At age seven, this was a mesmerizing sight. I gained a reputation for dreaminess, for nobody knew what I was really looking at, resting my head on my arms and staring off into the distance for hours at a time. Up north, at my father's mother's tenement flat in Mumbai, there were toilets to use, but these were located at the end of the open-air hallway, next to the wet, reeking terrace where the building's servants sloshed water on dal-spattered steel plates. The doors to the stalls were covered in a living carpet of brown and green. I avoided them as much as possible, resulting in daily stomach-aches, to be soothed with neem oil. To indulge me, I was sometimes allowed to shit on newspapers in the bedroom, which were then wrapped up and tossed out the window into the alley. People, I knew, slept in the alley. I had stumbled across a child down there, once. The bottom half of his leg was greyed and pimpled, bloated into a fat cylinder by filarial worms. His toenails stuck out from under the heavy folds and flaps, tiny shards.
As an American-born child, sent to stay with relatives in India every summer, all of this was shocking, and fascinating. Back at home, wads of gossamer-thin, perfumed paper tissue, imprinted with lacy designs, were used to cushion each tiny smear of snot as it swirled down the commode's shiny porcelain. Here, people cleared their nasal passages directly into a stinking gutter. All of this-the poverty, the disease, the disparity-must be related, I thought. For a seven-year-old, every mysterious thing in the world is secretly connected. Growing up meant figuring out how. - Sonia Shah, February 2006
Sonia Shah is an investigative journalist and critically acclaimed author whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, New Scientist, The Nation and elsewhere. Her 2006 drug industry exposé, The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World's Poorest Patients (New Press), has been hailed by Publishers Weekly as "a tautly argued study…a trenchant exposé…meticulously researched and packed with documentary evidence," and as "important [and] powerful" by The New England Journal of Medicine. The book, which international bestselling novelist and The Constant Gardener author John Le Carré called "an act of courage," has enjoyed wide international distribution, including French, Japanese, and Italian editions.
Her 2004 book, Crude: The Story of Oil (Seven Stories), was acclaimed as "brilliant" and "beautifully written" by The Guardian and "required reading" by The Nation, and has been widely translated, from Japanese, Greek, and Italian to Bahasa Indonesia. Her "raw and powerful" (Amazon.com) 1997 collection, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, still in print after 10 years, continues to be required reading at colleges and universities across the country.
Shah's writing, based on original reportage from around the world, from India and South Africa to Panama, Malawi, Cameroon, and Australia, has been featured on current affairs shows around the United States, as well as on the BBC and Australia's Radio National. A frequent keynote speaker at political conferences, Shah has lectured at universities and colleges across the country, including Columbia's Earth Institute, MIT, Harvard, Brown, Georgetown and elsewhere. Her writing on human rights, medicine, and politics have appeared in a range of magazines from Playboy, Salon, and Orion to The Progressive and Knight-Ridder. Her television appearances include A&E and the BBC, and she's consulted on many documentary film projects, from the ABC to Channel 4 in the UK. A former writing fellow of The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, Shah is currently writing a book on the history and politics of malaria for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Shah was born in 1969 in New York City to Indian immigrants. Growing up, she shuttled between the northeastern United States where her parents practiced medicine and Mumbai and Bangalore, India, where her extended working-class family lived, developing a life-long interest in inequality between and within societies. She holds a BA in journalism, philosophy, and neuroscience from Oberlin College, and lives with molecular ecologist Mark Bulmer and their two sons Zakir and Kush.