Sejal Shah on the Tricky Work of Giving Shape to an Essay Collection
If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Sejal Shah’s poetry, you’d figure out fairly quickly from her debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, that she is a poet at heart. Her short, elegant passages poignantly reflect upon family, community, travel, and isolation. For Shah, weddings go beyond mere ceremonies linking couples. They serve as odes to ancestry, heritage, and reunions with the Gujarati Indian family and friends that have always nurtured Shah.
Shah’s musings are imbued with a deep sense of place, whether she’s writing about her childhood home in upstate New York, her temporary residency in Western Massachusetts, or at Burning Man. A trained Indian classical dancer, Shah brings this same kind of grace, precision, and agility to her collection.
Anjali Enjeti: What are some of the joys and challenges involved in selecting essays written over 20 years for a book?
Sejal Shah: The challenges involved stepping back and looking at the work with an editorial eye and realizing it made sense to hire an editor friend to read closely and look at the larger picture. I wanted to be aware of overlaps and consciously choose how I addressed them. Some of the joys and oddness are having to encounter your obsessions and ticks, the way your mind works—sometimes that’s appealing and sometimes it’s painful—also trying to keep track of how the narrative voice and speaker/narrator has changed. It’s like looking at photos in an album taken over 20 years.
My editors, Walter Biggins and Valerie Boyd, asked me to write an introduction to provide connective tissue and frame the collection, and that was both necessary and hugely challenging. I did write an introduction, but also had a poetic prologue, which provided two different kinds of addresses. My approach to how I represented speech changed over the years and from essay to essay—so I had to make decisions and consulted with a project editor too about this. I wrote most of the essays as individual pieces so then it was the work of figuring out how they spoke to one another. I wanted to be aware of overlaps and gaps in the memoir arc, the narrative and consciously choose how I addressed them.
AE: You’ve called writing a physical practice, and dance is one of the major themes in the book. How has movement influenced your storytelling?
SS: The book is a series of gestures and movements, sound. I moved a lot in some of the years I was writing about and then I also often wrote about the past: so movement in time and movement in space, place, geographically. And I knew that having studied dance for many years, and especially having studied modern dance with Garth Fagan Dance in particular was part of my aesthetic and artistic heritage. I called the opening poem, a prologue to the book, “Prelude,” after my favorite of Garth Fagan’s dances, “Prelude: Discipline Is Freedom.” Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern, and Afro-Caribbean dance and he’s associated with the Black Arts Movement of the mid 60s-70s. I saw in his choreography an example of how to foreground your cultural influences without translating them all.My teaching has definitely been inspired and formed in opposition to my best teachers and my worst workshop experiences.
In Indian classical dance, especially, there’s the gurukulam tradition, where the teacher is your guru—and that’s hierarchical in the best way. I lived with my teacher, Rathna Kumar, and her family in Houston the summer before my arangetram. You are living with (or near) and learning from your teacher in an immersive environment—it’s an apprenticeship and it’s holy, studying with a master. The transmission of lineage is special.
AE: The MFA experience can be a fraught one, and you’ve had both positive and negative experiences. How much do you think your own teaching has been informed by what you loved and didn’t love in your own MFA program?
SS: My teaching has definitely been inspired and formed in opposition to my best teachers and my worst workshop experiences. I was harassed by one of my professors. The repercussions lingered. In response, as a teacher, I realized one of my goals is to (at the very least) *not* inflict harm on my students.
In recent essays in Lit Hub, Ru Freeman and Beth Nguyen both address deficiencies of the classic Iowa workshop model and provided alternative pedagogical models. Matthew Salesses’s craft essays and extensive work on decolonizing the creative writing classroom have also been important to me. Mostly, in my teaching, I want to center the writer as the person who articulates the kind of feedback they want, what sort of draft it is, what their goals are for a piece of writing, and who their audience is. I try to be aware of what my biases are as a writer and reader and that my opinion is just that, an opinion. I’ve been writing for longer than some of my students, but I’m not much of a believer in hierarchy. I learn from my students, too.
AE: Can you talk about the process of finding and understanding heritage when you live so far away from your parents’ homelands in India and Kenya?
SS: For me it was puzzle: a map, canceled passports, jewelry, the Kenyan doll, the miniature Taj Mahal in the display case, a sandalwood figure of Gandhi clutching his walking stick, the grainy, coarse newsprint of India Abroad. I end my book with my grandparents’ names: to honor them, now my ancestors.
AE: How does travel shake loose one’s old self, to use your phrase at the end of the essay, “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent”?
SS: It’s easy to get caught in one way of living a life and something that travel has allowed me to do is to see other ways people live—whether it’s travel abroad or a conference, or visiting a friend, or a month at a writing residency. Being on a plane, a train, having cleared the deck, the to-do list, done laundry. Ironically, we had three trips planned in March and so it’s the exact opposite of that time now: but I’m remembering what my life was like as a child. A lot of being at home and reading and taking walks—and while I have missed the travel planned for the book, I also am grateful for my first way of traveling: reading.
AE: I found the postcard writing practice you write about in “Temporary Talismans,” so timely, especially given this pandemic. Have you kept it up?
SS: The corporeality of ephemera, paper, the thingi-ness of a postcard is what I miss about seeing people in person. I love that something that was in my hand is now in your hand. My friend, artist Kirin Makker, sent me a lovely mobile of sheep she made and I hung it up yesterday and I think we feel similarly about mail and postcards. I love the USPS and hope we can protect it and that it survives Covid-19.
AE: Weddings play a prominent role in the book. How have they helped to form your sense of family or community?
SS: If I’d grown up in Queens or Edison, or Fremont or LA or Toronto, I don’t know if weddings would have been as significant to me—because Indian culture is part of the larger culture there. Also, by the time I was five, my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles had immigrated to the US. We lived far apart away, so weddings were also an occasion when we saw one another.
You know, weddings were one of the only places I went to that were (some of them) majority South Asian American in culture, or even half. My brother’s wedding was a special event in my life—I was 19 when he got married, six months after my first trip to India, and I saw it as this extraordinary gathering of many different parts of his life and our lives.
Sejal Shah’s essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, is available from University of Georgia Press.