Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
A memoir that challenges stereotypes, celebrates dance, and reflects on loss.
In her debut essay collection, This Is One Way To Dance (University of Georgia Press), Sejal Shah contemplates notions of perception, reflects on loss, and challenges stereotypes. In 2015, I had a chance to attend a panel discussion on the lyric essay featuring Shah at the NonfictioNOW conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was immediately intrigued by her background, a Gujarati woman, raised in the United States, straddling the invisible and visible boundaries of navigating two identities. Reading This Is One Way to Dance made me feel less alone. In her essay collection, Shah navigates the shifting terrain of various labels—South Asian, American, woman of color, writer, daughter of immigrants, diasporic—and what it means, ultimately, to belong. Shah’s tenacious questioning guides her essay collection. She brings awareness and depth to all the subjects she explores, from language, to dance, food, marriage, and more.
—Rudri Bhatt Patel
Rudri Bhatt Patel These essays span two decades and you revisit many of them by adding a second date that shows when they were updated or revised. What did you notice about your craft and writing as you read passages written in other parts of your life? Were you surprised at how you reconciled past and present selves?
SS I don’t think that we do reconcile our past and present selves. As Joan Didion says in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” we would be well advised to be on “nodding terms” with our past selves. Although uncomfortable, it was a learning experience to revisit other selves!
Sometimes I needed to update or revise an essay for it to make sense. In the essay about the writer Agha Shahid Ali, I chose a postscript to do that. I hit upon that strategy late in the revision process, because I didn’t want to change the essay. It reflected my thoughts from 2002, when I first gave a brief eulogy at Shahid’s memorial service. In 2013, I revised those remarks into an essay-as-tribute. However, in the five years since I wrote the original essay, my thoughts on teaching and mentorship had changed. For other essays, I added commentary in a kind of afterword in the notes at the back of the book.
RBP Your prelude includes the Gujarati spelling of your name in three different places in the text. Was the placement of your name an intentional choice? And what is the reason behind writing your name in Gujarati versus English?
SS Although I write in English, I grew up in a bilingual home and culture and wanted to represent that visually. My name is one of a handful of words I remember from Gujarati school. I chose to use the Devanagari script, because it’s beautiful and makes visible my linguistic reality and speech community. My parents still speak a mix of Gujarati and English to me.
I don’t believe that everything must be translated. This is a political stance and intentional. It was important to me to resist the ideas of the monolingual as standard and non-English as foreign. Many Americans are multilingual. It’s a gift and it’s a challenge to some readers, but it allows a text that does not center, presuppose, or assume an English-only or Eurocentric reader. It’s an acknowledgment of an individual story as well as our much larger, multilingual culture.
“Prelude” is an invocation and summoning of myself to the page: it’s also a direct address, a poem reminding me that although I wrote the book for everyone, I also wrote this book for me; that it was a dialogue with myself, with past selves, with questions I’ve lived with for a long time.
RBPIn your essay, “Skin,” you write, “The Brown boys are silent. I can’t find them, can’t see them.” How is this invisibility and lack of voice a contributing factor to misconceptions about Indian men and women?
SSThis invisibility and lack of voice contributes to misconceptions. We do not have a representative voice in publishing, which is 80% white—who are the agents and editors making these decisions? Who is in the writers’ room? Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu made this point: a stereotype like Apu was particularly harmful, because there were almost no other representations of South Asian Americans in popular culture during those years. And I mean decades! The Simpsons’s spokesperson said they made fun of everyone, but Kondabolu pointed out that in this situation, they weren’t “punching up.”
Part of what was powerful in the documentary was hearing the voices and perspectives of multiple Brown men and women, actors, and comedians of different backgrounds. Ironically, Hank Azaria refused to be interviewed, because he said he didn’t want to throw himself on the mercy of the editing process. He wanted to control how he was represented. For many years South Asian Americans didn’t have that control. The Problem with Apu was released in 2018. It took another two years and this racial reckoning for The Simpsons to acknowledge or make any changes to the character or who was voicing him. That resistance and denial is worth noting.
RBPIn your essay, “Matrimonials: A Triptych,” you have this particularly important line, “I don’t write in Gujarati, a language I spoke before I started school. Can you be Gujarati if you don’t speak Gujarati? If you’ve only been to Gujarat twice?” If language and place is a marker of belonging to a particular culture, can you ever fully belong if you only know fragments of your heritage? Are you always an unreliable narrator of your heritage?
SSMost narrators are unreliable: we are both the authority on our lives, but also our vantage point is not a panoramic, omniscient perspective! That’s what’s interesting in both creative nonfiction and first-person fiction. I wish that I spoke Gujarati fluently and that I could write it, but the lack of fluency doesn’t make me feel as though I’m not South Asian or Gujarati. I also am a reliable narrator of my life experiences, but any story is filtered through an individual viewpoint. There’s not one truth. For me, fragments confirm what we know: any narration is partial.
RBP“Where do you come from?” is a question that carries multiple triggers. Do you think people are asking this question less? You say, “At twenty-seven, explanations tired me.” Do you think you are doing less explaining a decade later?
SS This question assumes that anyone is either owed an answer or must answer the question. I don’t believe one can accurately read someone’s class, cultural, racial or ethnic background only based on appearances. People are more complicated and nuanced than that. The first draft of “Who’s Indian?” was written twenty years ago. With twenty more years of South Asians Americans as part of American culture, when do we stop being seen as foreign?
For me, it also depends on where I am living. I rarely got this question when I lived in New York City. I saw this question called out on Twitter as a microaggression. And it is. If a person feels they have the right to know what your racial heritage is beyond your answer, that’s a moment to ask, Why? And why do they believe they have a right to that knowledge?
It’s also about respecting the answer a person chooses to give. No one owes anyone a rundown of their racial or ethnic history. If I answer India, it suggests that race and heritage trumps my lived experience as an American. It also erases my family’s Kenyan background. I still love the Jasbir K. Puar epigraph [that Shah uses for her essay, “Who’s Indian?”] which points out that it’s the question itself that is problematic by pre-supposing one place and also insisting that this place is not here.
We’re going through a necessary racial reckoning right now about anti-Black racism and white supremacy. There’s still a lot of education needed about the history of Jim Crow laws, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act (which led to an increase in South Asian immigration) and earlier laws meant to deny citizenship to Asian Americans already in the United States—laws that shifted the classification of South Asians already existing within racial categories in this country.
When do we get to just be American? Maybe when white Americans acknowledge that they are from somewhere else and not native to this country. That’s finally beginning to happen.
RBPI am interested in the idea of trying to find home and how familiarity often creates that feeling. You talk about interacting with people from India in Italy and how the “salwar-kameez” stood out to you. Can you talk about how traditional Indian clothing (chaniya-cholis, saris, salwar-kameez) shapes your identity and its personal significance to you?
SS My book’s cover design is based on a video of me turning in a chuniya chori I wish I had bought for my wedding. Marrying into a Tamilian family heightened all the ways in which I feel Gujarati. Growing up, Navaratri, garba and dandiya raas played an important part in my life. I wanted to conjure dancing and this experience. I knew I wanted saturated, primary colors, embroidery or mirror work: a design that would read as Gujarati. I’m grateful that Erin Kirk, the art director at the University of Georgia Press, translated my idea into this gorgeous cover. The image connected my childhood, Ba (my grandmother), dance, my cultural background, home, and the wedding outfit that got away. I also loved that she was able to use a childhood photo of me on the title page: I’m in my first chuniya chori, which Ba sewed from fabric bought in America. I’m posing in the front yard; she’s standing behind me in the doorway of my parents’ first house.
RBPIn the exchange between you and the Indian shopkeeper in “Who’s Indian?,” you mourn the loss of language when you are unable to converse with him. Does this create a crisis of identity, of not belonging?
SS I felt some sadness that I wasn’t able to speak with him in a common language, but more than that, I felt hope, and some joy, because we wanted to connect—and we looked for different ways to connect, the way I would in any country where we didn’t have a common language. The same was true when I traveled in India and met people who didn’t speak Gujarati or English. They spoke Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, or Malayalam—not languages (apart from a few Hindi phrases) that I know.
RBP In that same essay, you wrote about a trip you took to Italy:
I didn’t realize I would feel drawn to other Indians in Italy, nor that we might mutually wonder about each other’s stories of emigration or immigration, and any link we might have beyond a shared sense of having left some place.
You photographed this family but you never sent the photographs even though you promised you would. Every interaction is an exchange of taking and receiving. Would your decision be different today?
SS It wasn’t a decision as much as a fact. The larger context is that I was personally struggling with several things that don’t show up in the essay but fostered a situation where it became impossible to complete small tasks like getting those photos in the mail. I was dealing with sexual harassment, managing a mood disorder, teaching, and taking classes. I try to remember this when I’m disappointed—you can’t know the whole of what’s going on in anyone’s life. I wish I had sent the photos, but I was maxed out with just making it through that period in my life.
RBP As you mention in your essay, in “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me,” Bharati Mukherjee intentionally disclaims a hyphenated identity. Can you explain where you stand on the use of “Indian-American” as a label?
SS The hyphen is outdated (and jarring) to me, because it only emphasizes that some Americans—mostly white—are referred to as American and not described as European-American. Their belonging is centered and implied. I don’t think of myself as hyphenated. I probably felt differently in the nineties. But after twenty-five years, I find it othering for my work as an American writer to be modified in a headline or journalist description (this book about “Indian-American” culture). Who gets to be called American? Isn’t this book also about American culture?
I often do describe myself as Indian or American. And I choose to use Asian American or South Asian American or BIPOC as a coalition identity. I’m more likely to say Indian or American depending on to whom I’m speaking rather than “Indian-American” or even “Indian American,” which feels like it is for a white audience. I’m not trying to distance myself from my culture or race—I am foregrounding my lived experience and nationality. How we describe people and ourselves matters, especially in the media.
RBP In “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent,” you speak about making an exception to your vegetarianism and eating bacon for a week. How did you give yourself permission to do so? Did you see this as a departure from your heritage?
SS I’m drawn to what people or characters do when pushed to a personal extreme. One of my first creative writing professors described fiction as getting your character into a tree and throwing rocks at him or her to see what happens. Think of the plot of nearly any film—so often, it’s the hero’s journey. What was most interesting to me in the essay was confronting fear: of being lost in the desert, of the cold—of being lost in my life. Burning Man offered a visually dramatic setting, but it took years to find the heart of the essay and edit the side stories, asides, and details out. I kept the detail about bacon, because it showed me at an extreme moment. I knew my goal was to keep myself fueled so I could find a ride out. In fact, I grew up eating meat (a longer story).
RBPLoss is something you visit in “No One Is Ordinary; Everyone Is Ordinary.” This essay begins with you watching the film adaptation of Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, which is about how two parents and and their younger son deal with the loss of the older son. At the end of the essay, you list the names of people you lost in your life. I was particularly touched by this list and how that was one way you showed your love for them. I loved how you made the personal universal. Can you talk about why you included this essay in your collection?
SS Many of the essays in my book are elegies or in an elegiac mode. This essay, though brief, connects these different losses. It’s about grief: when you lose someone fundamental, you often re-experience the trauma of other significant losses again. I have written more about Jim Foley [the American journalist who was executed by ISIS in Syria], though it’s not in my book. His death affected my life and my perspective. My husband was only twenty-two when he lost his brother—that kind of sudden loss changes your entire life.
There’s more to say about any one of those people—they all deserve many essays. The essay connected these losses and said their names as an address. We see this with Black Lives Matter: how important it is to see and hear the names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Daniel Prude, because we instinctively know that to say their names is to keep their memory alive. My essay was a way to gather people I loved and lost and grieved—so we are together until we are together again.
RBPIn your dedication, you specifically mention your friend, the late LeeAnne Smith White, and your grandmother, Indumati Natverlal Shah. How have these women shaped your writing and identity?
SS LeeAnne and I admired writers and artists whose work is rooted in a sense of place—Alice Munro, Georgia O’Keeffe, Linda Hogan. We shared an appreciation of travel, friendship, music, and art, which has continued to influence me as a writer and a person. Like me, LeeAnne also lived with depression. It’s important to write about mental illness, which is often stigmatized, but also common. One of her legacies for me is to value time with friends and the joy in small moments, as well as to write about the challenges of having a mood disorder that takes time and energy to manage. It’s a taxing second job, invisible to many.
Indu Ba, my grandmother, taught me about the importance of being adaptable and independent—always moving forward. She also taught me to dance, which has been an important connection to my culture and heritage. She was an early feminist with a can-do attitude about everything. She learned to drive in her fifties—I don’t know any other women of her generation who did that, in a foreign country. I also loved speaking Gujarati with her.
RBP There are hints of lightness in your essays. In particular, I loved the passage where you talk about morphing into the “LeBron James of Rochester,” as well as you donning a Big Ten T-shirt. Do you find it particularly challenging to incorporate humor into serious essays?
SS I feel like I’ve succeeded when I’m funny, because I am pretty serious as a writer and person, but I do have a wry outlook. A friend from graduate school read my book recently; he sent me his marked copy to sign. In his margin notes of that essay he wrote, “I can hear your voice here.” I could hear it too. I can see places where an editor has cut that kind of aside out or I have, so it’s a triumph when I have earned that humor. Often, I write about what troubles me: what gets under my skin and what haunts me—things I haven’t been able to resolve. But life is better when you can find a way to laugh.
My essay, “Things People Said,” is an example of how humor comes out when it’s also connected to anger. Some of our greatest comedians are those who say what there’s some stigma against saying, like how we as a country haven’t dealt with race. When I stop censoring myself in my writing, the reader senses that and responds to it. At this moment, with this administration and president, we’re hungry for the truth, for someone saying the emperor has no clothes, which is both funny and terrifying. But also freeing.
RBP The last line of your collection is “Words are rising: this is how to dance.” How has dance, hip-hop, garba, and dandiya-raas informed you as a person and a writer?
SS I grew up dancing and studying dance. I was interested in all kinds of dance and studied Indian Classical Dance, ballet, modern dance, Afro-Caribbean dance, 5Rhythms. Part of it is the style, signature, fingerprint, fashion—how a person moves is similar to how a writer puts words together. It’s a voice that will carry a feeling: that’s what I’m after.
My title is a line from an essay I wrote eighteen years ago; I’ve been living with those words a long time. I see my writing as a way to dance. Writing has kept me moving forward and grounded, which is what dance has done too.
You can observe any five people dancing the same choreography and it will look different: how we move, how we are able to move; what we carry, our history. How we see the world, without saying a word. Martha Graham said, “Movement never lies.” That’s true on the page, also. It’s the voice you want to follow. What I wanted most of all with my book was for a feeling to rise off the page—a visceral response, like what it feels to watch a beautiful dance unfold at the right pitch or to be spinning, yourself, alone or with others.
This Is One Way to Dance is available to purchase here.
Rudri Bhatt Patel is a lawyer turned writer and editor. Prior to attending law school, she graduated with an MA in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is the co-founder of the literary journal, The Sunlight Press, on staff at Literary Mama and her work has appeared in the Washington Post, JSTOR Daily, Civil Eats, Business Insider, Saveur, DAME, Brain, Child Magazine, ESPN, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir on grief, Hindu culture, and how it provides perspective on life’s ordinary graces. She lives in Arizona with her family.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.