Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, forthcoming on June 1 from University of Georgia Press, is one of the most-anticipated memoirs of 2020. Growing up in Rochester, New York, Sejal’s work reflects on identity and her roots—as a Gujarati, and an American—while continuing to challenge stereotypes and expected roles of immigrants, children of immigrants, and of those who write.
Hers was a comfortable childhood among the Indian diaspora holding onto family gatherings, traditional roles of men, women, and children along with celebrations, festivals, and a sense of belonging to a community that’s quintessentially Indian and American. Yet within that world Shah has a startling awareness, a questioning of identity and of the sense of belonging. Her writing is sparse, direct, attesting to her literary grounding as a poet, and then is experimental, ruminative, and lyrical. She explores her identity as a South Asian, as an American, as a writer, and also explores her roots in Indian and Africa. She also eases us into a distinctly American TV series, Party of Five, then admits that she didn’t want to be anyone’s Passage to India.
Using subtle parallels, Shah invites us into her world of conflict, her world of questioning. While This Is One Way to Dance is a reflection of self, awareness, and identity, it also asks South Asian American writers the question of whether we are hyphenated authors, or is our identity just American. Shah’s spellbinding essays display an author extremely aware of what it means to belong—beyond race and immigration, beyond mental health—and to have compassion for self and others.
Shah and I spoke last month about humor, identity, writing, food, and more. It was a conversation that relied on multiple means of communication while practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rumpus: This Is One Way to Dance is a mesmerizing study of identity and what it means to be a South Asian woman in America, and how the journey your parents made to get there made you who you are today. You write in your introduction, “I wanted to explore the feelings of both invisibility… and hypervisibility… for Asian Americans in this country.” How has your perspective changed since the first essay you wrote in this collection, which is from 1999?
Sejal Shah: I was in my twenties when I wrote the earliest essays and now I’m in my forties. Bharati Mukherjee says in her novel, Jasmine: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I never thought I’d return to my hometown to stay—I imagined myself continuing outward as my parents and brother did, to make a life outside of where I grew up. But, it turns out that my story is a story of returning home.
My book is about race and belonging, and about growing up Indian in non-Indian spaces. It’s also about circuitous journeys and how to keep moving when your life doesn’t take the shape or direction you had hoped for. I wrote about surviving a toxic MFA program. While individual people and experiences were excellent, I also dealt with an outdated, racist workshop model. This was not unusual, but it was damaging and deeply demoralizing. While in and after graduate school, I was also dealing with depression which shows up in my work.
I saw that there really was an arc—about growing up at a remove from a major city and far from my families’ country of origin, but with a strong ethnic and racial/cultural identity. After writing nonfiction for over fifteen years, I could see my essays in conversation with each other, and I saw that a journey was laid out there: a wish to define home, its landscape, the liminal and often invisible or ambiguous space I and other Asian Americans and South Asian Americans occupy racially and ethnically in the US.
Rumpus: As you write in your essay “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me,” Bharati Mukherjee “…declared herself an American writer, rejecting any hyphen or descriptor such as Indian American or Bengali American or South Asian American or Asian American.” She emphasized that she is not to be considered a hyphenated writer, but an American one. How would you consider yourself now, versus when you started out:?
Shah: Our identities are not fixed points. They are constantly shifting. I am used to identity as conditional, changing depending on the context. I think of myself as a writer, first. Yes, an American writer, a woman; an Asian American writer, definitely a diasporic Gujarati writer, and also a western New York writer. My mother, reading the description of my book, stopped when she got to South Asian and said, You’re not South Asian—you’re Gujarati! I’m both. Descriptions are for other people.
Rumpus: How do you think your roots (from India, Africa, and New York) have influenced This Is One Way to Dance?
Shah: I think a lot of my hunger for home has been to understand my parents and what makes them who they are, and how they transmitted their culture and values to my brother and me. My parents grew up in different countries from each other and from my brother and me. We each have a different relationship to English and to India. If someone saw us they might say, Oh that’s an Indian family—but what does that mean? I wanted to write something specific about being Gujarati, which is different from being Bengali or Tamil or Kannadiga.
When I was growing up, Americans would ask if I spoke Hindi or Hindu. They had never heard of Gujarati. It frustrates me how little the US thinks it’s necessary to teach about the history and geography of other parts of the world. If I said I spoke Gujarati, I would also have to spell out the word, explain it’s not a dialect but its own language, maybe show where Gujarat is on a map of India, maybe reference Mississippi Masala. Particularities matter.
I grew up understanding that most people around me were not going to know about the history of South Asians in East Africa, Gujaratis in Kenya, where Ahmedabad was or what Gujarati is, or just how far western New York is from New York City. Basic facts about my life have always seemed to require explanation and elaboration. Art and books and history curriculum matter. Publishing a range of stories matters.
Rumpus: Let’s talk food. Almost every South Asian writer—myself included—goes down the rabbit hole of food, and the memories associated with what we ate. What does food represent to you now, and how is your identity intertwined with very obviously Gujarati foods like dhaaran dhaar, laadvaa, barfi, and khichdi?
Shah: Food represents family to me, and after weeks of pandemic cooking—pasta, chole, sweet potatoes, lentil soup, burritos, salmon—I miss my in-laws’ cooking (dosas, shrimp curry) and my mother’s cooking (sabudana ni khichdi, sweet potato shaak,). I miss my grandmother’s cooking, which was Gujarati, and also fusion, inventive. She could look at me, if I wasn’t feeling well, and make something to make me feel better. She was a magician. I don’t have that same relationship to food or making it, but I appreciate people, like Suketu, who do.
Rumpus: I also love how you actively use Indian, and in particular Gujarati, words without explanation. You have also mentioned Junot Díaz and his unapologetic use of Spanish terms and language within his work. Tell us how you’ve used this in your debut collection, and a bit about how you view language as a tool to explore belonging.
Shah: I struggled with the notion that I had to follow The Chicago Manual of Style, which is my press’s house style. My project editor agreed to follow my lead, but said the rule was to italicize non-English words as a courtesy to the reader. But who is the reader? Who did I write my book for? Once I explained why it was a political act for me not to italicize Gujarati words (they are not in italics for me, as a person who grew up bicultural) or to have a glossary at the back of the book, my editor understood and agreed. I also had meaningful conversations with other writers on social media to ask how they resolved this when publishing their books. I wanted to honor my experience and the experiences of immigrants who do have to look words up. Not everything needs to be translated.
In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong writes about having studied with poet Myung Mi Kim. Kim told Hong she didn’t have to “‘translate’ [her] experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience… Illegibility was a political act.” I agree. In some ways I would’ve liked my book to be more of a cipher, illegible in a meaningful way, but I also wanted to provide some notes on the text; I tried to balance these competing desires.
In the opening poem, my name is written in Gujarati script and I never intended to translate that, but ultimately I did in the notes at the end of text. I realized my own husband would not know that it’s my name, because he doesn’t read Gujarati. A book is a compromise of sorts; that was hard for me. I saw the notes as a place to include my thinking about the book and source material—they became their own final essay.
Rumpus: The essay “Street Scene” is gutting, and a mesmerizing reflection on Paris. You weave in the difficult topic of suicide, while acknowledging that it’s hard to grasp and why it needs to be talked about more. You write, “I know I should let her go. So this is time. I’m not ready yet.”
In “No One is Ordinary; Everyone Is Ordinary,” you talk about depression and the losses you’ve experienced because of it. “To say their names—this is one way to keep the people you love alive.” I feel that so much and in so many ways. Can you share with us how these essays came about, and why they needed to be part of This Is One Way to Dance?
Shah: These two essays are among the most important to me in the book. In many ways, my essays are a record of silence and swerves around what I couldn’t write or wasn’t sure how to write as much as they are a record of the words I did write. Language fractures in its attempt to be spoken. LeeAnne’s death on October 5, 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, knocked the life out of me and changed my experience of the world. I wanted to write about our friendship and how much she shaped my life.
“No One Is Ordinary” is the first time I published something explicitly about living with depression; I was in my forties before I did this. I struggled to write about these experiences that formed me, but felt enormous: LeeAnne’s suicide, depression and living with an invisible disability; marrying into a family that had experienced a sudden, traumatic death (Mahesh, my brother-in-law), as well as the 2014 murder of my friend and former classmate, the journalist James Wright Foley, by ISIS.
Those experiences felt enormous to me, but where would I even begin to write about them? The essay form gave me a place to begin. I wrote “No One Is Ordinary” for the Kenyon Review blog, and having a deadline and space waiting for me made it easier to approach: it’s not the entire story of depression in my life or the entire story of Jim’s life, or Mahesh’s life, or LeeAnne’s life. They are snapshots in an album and an ongoing conversation with my brother. They are a conversation with my friend, the painter Leslie Roberts, after watching Ordinary People gave me a way into writing about enormous loss.
Rumpus: Not sure if this is an Indian/South Asian thing, but “365 Pelham Road” spoke to me in ways I wasn’t expecting at all. You write, “I am straightforward, to a fault, often without decoration,” and this seems to be an apt description of me, too. Line like, “I never wanted anyone to be able to see into my home—houses are for hiding…,” and the fact that I, too, remember the houses I’ve lived in by their numbers, is telling of the feelings this essay will undoubtedly bring up for readers. What is it about the house numbers, and the memories they hold?
Shah: The writer Alice Adams (who is vastly underrated and should be taught and read more) wrote “My First and Only House,” a story I love and have taught for years. The story begins:
Because of my dreams, I have come to believe that I have been imprinted, as it were, by the house in which I spent my first sixteen years… I simply feel that first marriages, like the first houses in which we live, are crucially important, that in one way or another we are forever marked by them.
The way Adams describes the narrator’s relationship to her first house resonated with me—even in high school, when I first read it. My parents still live in the Pelham Road house. I was too young when they moved from their first house to remember that number. The number 365 was part of the script I always heard on the phone, when describing to a friend or visitor how to find our house: “365, the number of the days in the year.” I can still recite the phone numbers of friends from middle school and high school, some of them, because we have that rotary phone memory, tactile, kinesthetic.
Rumpus: You explore the importance of names and naming in threads throughout your collection. In “There Is No Mike Here,” it is most obvious, your brother’s struggle to fit in and your mother’s bafflement. You write, “I cannot imagine trying to publish under a name that is not mine—or changing my name when convenient to help my writing be seen.” Beyond the exploration of Sejal as a common Gujarati name, and of your brother and his new name, of names to be remembered even when they’re gone, can you tell us more about how these essays were your answer to the questions you had around names and naming?
Shah: “There Is No Mike Here” began as a response to Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet who used the name of a former high school classmate of his (Yi-Fen Chou) as a “pen name” and ended up having his poem chosen by Sherman Alexie for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2015. This poet asserted that he used a Chinese name because he thought it would help his chances of getting published. The poet Purvi Shah wrote a terrific essay for VIDA which looks at the labor and gender inequity in this “literary yellowface.” Who has the time to send out a poem fifty times, she asks.
I’m also interested in how we are shaped by our names, particularly ones we did not choose—what does it mean to hear those syllables and that language for our whole lives? I remember how thrilling it was when my young nephews—who are twins—responded to their names… and even how we decided which name would go to each child.
Rumpus: “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent” is amazing in its feral wildness, and the almost detached observations of self and the limits one can go to. It is also an essay that is surprising to find in this collection, even though it, too, explores you as a writer, how far you can go, how much you can tolerate, and then how you can rise from the ashes. What made you take that trip at that time in your life, and how do you think of that time now?
Shah: Thank you so much for this question. “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanentc was a late addition to the manuscript, but I’ve heard from other readers that it felt like an important essay, different from the others. It’s also an essay that mentions depression, mental health, and failing out of a tenure-track job: all things that had happened, but that I had not written directly about, because for a long time, I didn’t have the words to write about it. I took that trip to Burning Man at that time, when I was thirty-nine, because I could. I was single then and for the first time in many years, I was not preparing to teach classes in September. I don’t think I would do that now—because I have a partner, a house, parents and in-laws who are older and with health issues, work. I remember my future husband was impressed when I told him about the trip; I’m glad he could appreciate it. He reminds me sometimes when I feel uncertainty or fear—you are strong enough; you have that nerve.
Rumpus: I love the way you’ve woven in humor in each of your essays. I laughed out loud in “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,“ at this line: “Sejal A., Sejal B., Sejal N. Shah (there was no C.).” I’d love to hear more about your process in sprinkling humor into nonfiction.
Shah: I am a pretty serious person, but also love humor—especially when it’s sharp. Humor can get at things that are difficult to address head on. I think if you can laugh about it, if you can find another way to see it, it can help you survive it.
Rumpus: In “Temporary Talismans,” you write about postcards: “Postcards are incomplete, imperfect, and often say something about one’s travel or daily life—they free us from the sense of having to write something extraordinary or profound.” Last month, editor and writer Sari Botton wrote a thread on sending postcards in a small attempt to save the USPS. Do you think this could be the start of us being kinder, more considerate, less wasteful, and perhaps, look into such temporary talismans more than we have lately?
Shah: I love Sari’s newsletter! For This Is One Way to Dance, I’m slowly sending postcards out. Postcards are tactile, asking nothing of us, unlike bills or email. I think writing postcards could be a thoughtful response or powerful practice in this difficult time—people are calling each other on the phone more as an antidote to Zoom; we are writing letters, making collages… postcards are from a tactile time when we could see each other in person. Letters and postcards are talismans. By slowing down, they invite us to be more thoughtful with our attention, to be kinder, to be intentional.
Photograph of Sejal Shah by Preston Merchant.