Interview by Lara Lillibridge
I spoke with Sejal Shah while we were both on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, debuted June 2, 2020, with the University of Georgia Press.
About the book:
In the linked essays that make up her debut collection, This Is One Way to Dance, Sejal Shah explores culture, language, family, and place. Throughout the collection, Shah reflects on what it means to make oneself visible and legible through writing in a country that struggles with race and maps her life as an American, South Asian American, writer of color, and feminist. This Is One Way to Dance draws on Shah’s ongoing interests in ethnicity and place: the geographic and cultural distances between people, both real and imagined. Her memoir in essays emerges as Shah wrestles with her experiences growing up and living in western New York, an area of stark racial and economic segregation, as the daughter of Gujarati immigrants from India and Kenya. These essays also trace her movement over twenty years from student to teacher and meditate on her travels and life in New England, New York City, and the Midwest, as she considers what it means to be of a place or from a place, to be foreign or familiar. (UGP.org )
LL: What is it like to be a debut author right now in this crazy time?
SS: I think seeing other authors cope with it helps. It’s very strange to go from the solitary work of writing to getting ready for a virtual launch. The last few weeks have felt more like what my life did growing up, which was spending a lot of time at home.
I was to present at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston, and then present this weekend at the annual conference of the Association of Asian American Studies in DC, all of which canceled.
I didn’t travel that much in the last few years in order to finish the book. The publication and release would have kicked off a return to more travel and readings. So, it’s a little sad to have been looking forward to seeing people, gathering, celebrating, but to instead be on the computer and phone planning virtual events. It’s frustrating, but also a moment of pause. It’s an opportunity to consider why books and art matter: how they help us bridge the fundamental loneliness of being human. And books were how I traveled as a child and young adult–this moment makes me appreciate what books give us: other worlds and perspective.
LL: Were you planning on having a large event?
SS: I was planning two events; one was to be a party at the India Community Center. I wanted it to be festive in the way that a wedding is, to have some dancing and food. I was collaborating with a local artist named Kirin Makker who teaches at Hobart Williams Smith on an installation based on the creative process behind making the book. Now, we are considering how we might do that virtually or in the future. I’ve postponed the party and am working with Writers & Books, our local literary center, to reconceive a virtual hometown launch later this summer.
My first official launch will now be a virtual event on Tuesday, June 2, hosted by Brookline Booksmith, a bookstore I loved visiting when I lived in the Boston area.
LL: Is part of you OK with fewer in-person events?
SS: I actually enjoy in-person events, but they are exhausting. I think the moment that we’re in reminds me that books are a way to travel.
LL: I actually had a note on that. When you lived in Iowa, with the Black Earth Arts Dance Company, you wrote about a woman reading one of your poems:
“She inhabited those words, and I believed in them again; I believed in words and movement and how they can, briefly, elevate a moment from the past and deliver it to us again.”
That has really been resonating with me as we’ve been staying home. Words are the way we can transcend our walls. What words or books are you finding solace in?
SS: I recently finished Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House. They are very short chapters, and her writing is just beautiful. I went through a stage in childhood when I was obsessed with fairy tales and folk tales from various cultures, so I loved that underpinning in her book.
I also loved Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which is all about Asian American identity. I think it’s so timely about the place of Asian Americans in the US and the kind of racism we face that is often dismissed and discounted.
LL: Our culture is so black/white. You wrote about being invisible, and not really belonging to either group. I think books like yours are so important in showing that the world is multi-dimensional.
SS: So often Asian American identity is about being viewed as the model minority or white-adjacent, until something like 9/11 happens. I was thinking recently about Vincent Chin, who was a Chinese American man killed in Detroit by a group of white men who were angry about the Japanese auto industry decimating jobs in the US. Of course, there’s been a disturbing and predictable uptick in violence against Asian Americans since the coronavirus.
One thing about growing up in Rochester, New York, is that it is so segregated here. It was an important experience for me to live in New York City where there are more people of color, and more people mixing even just on subways and on the street. In Rochester, everyone is in their cars and there is not enough public transit. Combine that with red lining, white flight—it was very segregated. I grew up in a suburb with nationally-ranked schools, and a mile away teachers were getting shot and concentrated areas of poverty.
LL: You have this line in the essay, “Skin,”
“That you are a brown girl here, never just a girl.”
That to me was such a poignant, concise way to express that feeling of otherness—to always be seen through that lens.
SS: I had a good friend in elementary school who was also South Asian, but there were two middle schools in our district and we were funneled to different schools. I was the only Indian girl in my grade for much of middle school. I hated that experience. I thought, at least for my parents: they grew up with people who were like them. Even for my mother who grew up in East Africa, she was very traditional, and she had very particular ideas of what was Indian and what wasn’t, which was reinforced by being in a school with only other Indians. This was difficult for me because it wasn’t the world I had to navigate.
I think my brother and I dealt with it differently; since he was six grades ahead of me, we were never in school at the same time. He’s still very close to his high school best friends, who were all Jewish, and many of mine were as well. I did appreciate growing up in a town that had a visible ethnic and religious minority that actually felt like the cultural majority. I didn’t experience Judaism as a minority until I went to college in Massachusetts. Something that gave me another lens on this was marrying someone who was South Asian American, who grew up two miles away from me in another suburb, and who had a very different experience of race.
I recently went to a five-college symposium celebrating twenty years of Asian American Studies in Western Massachusetts. I was part of starting that program, and they had some of us come back for the symposium. After being in places like New Jersey and New Haven and the Bay area and New York City, Brooklyn, where to be South Asian was to be part of the regular landscape, to stick out so much in Amherst was hard back then.
I think it’s important to remember the time period when I was in graduate school, and how there was a pressure to write a certain kind of story. The God of Small Things had just come out and then The Interpreter of Maladies. There was this feeling that if you write a certain kind of book, that is what would lead to publication and success. When I started grad school I’d been to India once. I didn’t have a lot to say about India per se, but I had a lot to say about growing up South Asian American. And I was also very interested in what makes Western New York culturally different from New England.
I had a therapist several years ago who said something to me about Asians all being so smart and that the stereotypes are positive and wasn’t that great. The problem with model minority stereotypes is that they don’t allow for the complexity of individual experience. I had ADHD but was not diagnosed until I was an adult. Where is there room in the model minority stereotype to be anything other than “model”? There isn’t. If you cannot see that a person is depressed how can you assess or treat their mental health or their neurodivergence?
LL: I grew up as the example of a lesbian family, and I think there is pressure in being the only one.
SS: I did feel that pressure. We were one of just a handful of families, being expected to have a cultural history ready to pull out, to represent. Each experience is very different, but we’re all lumped in together. I don’t think we do a great job of teaching about the rest of the world.
LL: You wrote about seeing Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala and finally seeing someone who looked like you on the screen.
SS: I was talking to my husband about the psychological impact of years of watching TV: Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Friends and there’s never anyone like you for so many years. It can’t only be about representation, though. The new Mindy Kaling Netflix show, Never Have I Ever, has felt problematic, without considering representation with a critical lens.
LL: I think representation in pop culture is one way cultures can change. And to go back to publishing, our industry, I think publishers are opening a bit more as readers demand diversity—not enough, certainly, but some. And I think that is how we are going to move forward as a culture.
SS: I don’t think it’s an accident that both editors I worked with were African American. Having more editors of color, reviewers of color, agents of color helps as well.
LL: the other thing that I thought was a major theme in your book was about being what I call a “woman of marriageable age.” You wrote about the pressures of that, and then you do fall in love, and you do get married. You wrote, “I did not want getting married to be the greatest achievement of my life.”
Then, in regards to picking out a wedding ring, you wrote,
“I didn’t want the fact of my being married to be the most noticeable thing about me.”
I thought that so much of both of those things—cultural identity and marriage—are a reconciliation between the traditional and your more progressive, modern self. You have a lot about being a woman and how you define yourself as married or unmarried.
SS: In the manuscript I sent to University of Georgia Press, which then went through anonymous peer review in the way that university presses have, there was a reader who wanted more about my wedding. And my first impulse was no—I’m sick of Americans wanting me to tell them about the Great Indian Wedding they went to. I was tagged on Facebook once by someone who said they were going to an Indian wedding, and they didn’t know what to wear. And someone responded, “Wow, I’m so jealous. That’s a bucket list event for me.” And I thought, is it on your list to have an Indian friend? Because that would help if you want to go to an Indian wedding.
LL: Cultural tourism.
SS: Yeah, I did struggle with that in all the Jane Austen novels, Shakespearean plays, even rom-coms, you have a wedding at the end of it—that’s the happy ending. While I did hope I’d find a partner and assumed I’d get married, because in both the suburb where I grew up and in Indian culture everyone was pretty much married with kids. That’s what I assumed the trajectory was.
I wanted to be a writer, a teacher, a librarian. I decided being a college professor would allow me to do the things I wanted to do. And I am grateful I got that life, and to be able to live in New York, where there were many of us who didn’t fit into or want the traditional mold and get married and have kids and a house at a certain age. So when it did happen that I did meet my partner, it suddenly felt like I was having this more traditional life. I had a one-year position teaching at a private school and that’s where I met my husband.
I had not planned on staying in Rochester. I think there’s a great community here, but it’s further from other communities I want to stay a part of. I have an essay that is not in the book about how my mother-in-law and my mother didn’t go to college, and how their lives revolved around their families.
When I moved back here, I moved back in with my parents and grandmother. I had needed to leave home to be the person I wanted to be, but I felt drawn back here, too. It felt complicated to me, to keep the person I had become while being back in my hometown.
LL: You wrote an essay entitled, “The World is Full of Paper,” in 2013, about your teacher, and how much you learned from his teaching methods. Then five years later you added a postscript based on how your thoughts had changed, you wrote that his method did hurt you and that you don’t teach that way with your own students.
It was the first time I saw someone leave an essay intact and then show us how they’ve changed. It’s a different sort of honesty—to evolve on the page. Do you have any thoughts on why you made that decision?
SS: Those were exactly the kinds of choices I struggled with during the revision process—who am I in 2018 or 2019, do I agree with what I have written? I don’t know if you read the notes in the back of the book, but the essay began as my eulogy at a memorial service for Shahid in 2002, which was about celebrating his life and what I loved and missed about him.
I realized later I wanted to write an essay about Shahid, but I wrote my eulogy at the last minute and didn’t save it. I didn’t find the printout until ten years later when unpacking a box in my parents’ basement. In 2013, I expanded my eulogy and published the essay on the anniversary of Shahid’s passing.
For the book, I wanted to preserve the essence of the essay and my original remarks and decided that a postscript made sense to show how my thinking about what it means to be a teacher had changed since I wrote the essay. I’m now closer in age to Shahid when he passed.
LL: We can have conflicting emotions at any moment, and I think as writers, that’s what we’re trying to get at. But a memorial service is not exactly the place for that.
SS: Right, and the essayist I grew into, and how I was shaped by my teachers, even the one I experienced harassment with—he was still a teacher I learned from. [ed. note: Shah is not referring to Shahid here. She has written about the sexual harassment she dealt with from her fiction professor (Famous Male Novelist) in graduate school and is referring to that, but this essay is not in the book.] I struggled with that postscript. In the end, I didn’t want to have just the memorial service version. When you have a memoir that is collected essays, the notes can show the reader how you hope the book will be read.
LL: it’s movement—you no longer inhabit the same space.
SS: The publishing process [at a university press] is stretched out time-wise, two years. If I were looking at that essay now, I might do something different.
LL: The first thing you ever published was a poem, and you were also the recipient of a fellowship in fiction from the NY Foundation for the Arts, so you write in all three genres. Do you approach the same themes from different angles in each genre, like explore it as fully as possible, or does the moment, or inciting event pick the genre, so to speak?
I guess I’m asking how you choose which tool to use for a given piece. When or how do you decide the best vehicle to write in?
SS: I think the material eventually dictates form. I began as a poet, and I still have a private identity as a poet, because I’m not currently writing or publishing poems, but a lot of writers whose work I admire are poets and essayists. I think for me, it’s write first, and then figure out what it is later. The essay form allowed me to work closely with language and sound and voice in a way that felt intuitive and familiar to me as someone who had grown up studying and writing poetry.
I put fiction aside while I was working on this book, but I love what stories can do, particularly stories that work with some autobiographical material. There’s a freedom in fiction to not be constrained by what actually happened. You can composite, allowing your memory to go where it goes. I’m not one to take liberties in nonfiction, while knowing that memory is faulty and malleable, to at least try to work within that to find truth. Originally, the manuscript I sent out was half fiction and half nonfiction, and it was a finalist at The Ohio State University/ The Journal Award, which is “non/fiction”: it can be fiction, nonfiction, or a combination of both.
Valerie Boyd, an editor at University of Georgia Press read that I had a manuscript that had been a finalist and asked if my manuscript was available to submit to Crux, which is a nonfiction series. I loved Georgia as a press, so I was very excited, I’d long admired the books in the Crux series.
A few of the essays in This is One Way to Dance started as short stories: specifically, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” and “Married,” which were both originally short stories in my MFA thesis. Those felt like I was trying to write something about my particular experience even in fiction. I later extended and revised them into essays for the collection.
LL: I love hybrid work, but it can be hard to place.
SS: After I submitted my manuscript I read How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman. I thought it was brilliant how in the note to reader in the beginning she gives a rationale that works for combining fiction and nonfiction in one book. I struggled with that when I sent my [hybrid] manuscript out. I didn’t designate which was which—and editors assumed the fiction was nonfiction. In the end, I felt like it made sense to separate the stories from the essays.
LL: Your writing is so lyrical.
SS: Thank you, I take that as a compliment. I cut something out of the introduction that I wish I kept, which is the influence of the modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance on me. Garth Fagan was part of the Black Arts Movement. His aesthetic and Fagan technique foregrounds Black cultural references but also draws from ballet, various modern dance techniques, Afro-Caribbean dance, without explaining everything. Studying with him in a majority person of color community—the community classes and the company itself was very important to me. He showed me another way to be an artist.
LL: For me, there were several people who gave me the vision that you can be yourself and not fit the mold and still find your place in the world.
SS: Exactly! It was tacit permission. And so there was a time when I did try to fit into other people’s aesthetics. And while it was frustrating to me that it took so long for me to write a book, it also felt like I wrote a book that is really in my voice.
LL: What are you working on now, or what are you planning on working on when life returns to some form of normalcy?
SS: I published an essay in the Kenyon Review about living with a major mood disorder and my experience with mental health and academia both as a graduate student and as a professor called “Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability and Neurodiversity.” It got a lot of attention, and people indicated that they wanted to read more about the subject. I think there’s a need for that now. I grew up somehow absorbing that it was better to perform health than to be well. There was a lot of stigma around mental health.
LL: I always like to end on a fun question. Do you have a secret superpower?
SS: I don’t know if it’s a secret power, but I can talk to anyone. I enjoy hearing people’s stories. Everyone has a perspective that is unique.
Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will debut June 2, 2020, with the University of Georgia Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
About the author:
Sejal Shah’s stories and essays have appeared in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, the Kenyon Review Online, Literary Hub, Longreads, and The Rumpus. The recipient of a 2018 NYFA fellowship in fiction, Sejal recently completed a story collection and is working on a memoir about mental health and academia. She is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Rochester, New York. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.