The PEN Pod: On Race, Place, and Belonging with Sejal Shah
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Sejal Shah, who is the author of the new essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance: Essays on Race, Place, and Belonging. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, The Kenyon Review, Lit Hub, Long Reads, and The Rumpus. The recipient of a 2018 NYFA Fellowship in Fiction, Sejal recently completed a story collection and is seeking a publisher for the book. She’s also working on a memoir about mental health and taking notes toward a YA novel. She is core faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and she’s based in Rochester, New York. We talked to Sejal about microaggressions, how relationships to places have impacted her writing, and how literature can help us push past stereotypes and myths.
The essays in your book, This Is One Way To Dance, were written over a 20-year span, from 1999 to 2019. What was it like for you to revisit some of those earlier pieces in particular and consider them in the context of putting together the collection?
That’s a great question. It was painful, honestly. It was a challenge to look over essays that were written over such a long span of time—over 20 years—and to think about how to make a cohesive manuscript. I knew that I wanted to complicate and resist existing narratives of Asian Americans and South Asian Americans, so I did look to that, and I did some updating and revising. As an example, I wrote about my brother’s wedding in an essay that I first wrote in 2002, and then I updated it for 2019. I was really interested in moving beyond the stereotype of Indian weddings that I think are out there. So that essay was about his wedding in 1992, and then the experience of watching Monsoon Wedding in 2002.
I have three other essays about weddings that are later in the book that have something to do with my wedding. One is called “Things People Said,” and it was a list of things that I think could be considered microaggressions. It starts out with, “But did your husband ride in on a horse?” and various things. And then another essay called “Ring Theory” is about my ambivalence about wearing an engagement ring, or really any jewelry. The last essay is “Saris and Sorrows”—although my husband and I are both Hindu, our families come from different parts of India and have had really conflicting traditions, and our wedding was really challenging because of that, and because his parents were grieving the absence of their elder son who had passed away suddenly in his twenties. So it wasn’t just a wedding-as-circus for white consumption; it was a religious ceremony that was difficult.
“I definitely think this is a moment where I’m certainly thinking about kinship, who is our kin, and I think that’s a fundamental question right now. What do we owe our neighbors and fellow humans—our Black brothers and sisters—for whom to be alive is a risk, whether you’re at home or in the street, just living your life? And I think my book is about family and identity and belonging, but I think what’s becoming really clear to me right now, and I think for many of us, is a really limited view of kinship that I think is an American nuclear family.”
Right now, we’re in this moment—amid the pandemic—with ongoing protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s also this collective, long overdue reckoning with racial injustices in our country. How do you think all those things might affect how readers are encountering your book now?
I think it’s all enormously complex. I can give you an answer that’s me, Sejal Shah, answering this question in July, but I don’t think there’s a single answer. I definitely think this is a moment where I’m certainly thinking about kinship, who is our kin, and I think that’s a fundamental question right now. What do we owe our neighbors and fellow humans—our Black brothers and sisters—for whom to be alive is a risk, whether you’re at home or in the street, just living your life? And I think my book is about family and identity and belonging, but I think what’s becoming really clear to me right now, and I think for many of us, is a really limited view of kinship that I think is an American nuclear family.
What I hope that readers get out of my book is depth and complexity of what it means to be Asian American right now, and for years. Beyond the model minority myth, we really only had stories of Jhumpa Lahiri or Apu, or like I mentioned, Monsoon Wedding—just very specific and sometimes stereotyped kinds of stories. So I think it’s become really clear to us right now just how pervasive white supremacy is. And we need more voices telling more stories and providing other narratives.
As we’re thinking about these different narratives and what stories have been out there, there’s been an important conversation happening in publishing about how white publishing has been. And I wanted to give a shoutout to my editor, Valerie Boyd, who found my work and solicited my manuscript. She’s Black, she’s brilliant, and I think it’s really important that we have people of color—that we have Black editors making these decisions. I think that’s the way that we’re going to have more diverse stories out there. So I think that’s a really important thing to be pointing out right now.
It’s so important not only who is represented on the page and who’s writing those stories, but who’s behind the scenes as well.
Certainly. I mean, a different version of this manuscript was a finalist at five other presses or for contests. It came close, but I don’t think that it’s an accident who picked it up—University of Georgia Press and Valerie Boyd.
I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the ways in which your relationship to the different places that you’ve lived throughout your life have influenced the writing that has come out of those moments?
I love this question. My essays are about race, place, and belonging, but interviewers often focus on race, which is understandable, but place matters so much to me. And I think part of that is that I didn’t grow up traveling very much. We were often at home, and books and libraries were really how I saw the world and learned more about the world. I live in Rochester, New York right now, and that’s where I was born and grew up. But in the 20 years I wrote these essays, I moved around a lot, so that also actually made it kind of complicated when I was putting the book together.
I lived in the far east of the Upper East Side in Yorkville for five years. I lived in Brooklyn, in Park Slope, for a year. I lived in the Bay Area as a child. I lived in Northeast Iowa, a little town of Decorah, which I just fell in love with—it’s near the Minnesota border, and the Driftless region of Wisconsin. I’ve lived in the Boston area for five years and western Massachusetts for six years. And the thing that is really important to me is that all these places are particular and specific and individual, and same with western New York.
I think they really vary wildly when it comes to regional culture and definitely driving. When I go back to Boston now I think, “Oh my god, how did I ever live there and drive there?” I mean, it’s a different speed. Rochester’s not like that at all; neither is Western Mass. For at least six months of the year, a constant topic of conversation in Rochester is the weather. Like, weather is something here just in the way. I think it’s similar to the upper Midwest, at least when I was there. Also public transportation, is it there? How do people dress? How long does it take to get to an Indian store?
When I lived in Iowa, I would go with friends—the closest Indian store was in Rochester, Minnesota, which was an hour and 20 minutes away. So you had to cross state lines to get to an Indian grocery store. I really love the particularity of place and how it influences the stories we tell and the people who we are. And being Indian American in New Jersey or New York is going to be very different, I think, than in northeast Iowa or in western New York.
The different “immigrant communities” around the country look so different across the region, whereas typically in the white American imagination, it all kind of exists as one monolith, but it’s really not like that.
That’s exactly it. I feel like it’s another way to push back and complicate and resist that, as you said, monolithic, white imagination, or the narratives that we see on TV. I think that when we describe the particularities of a place that we can see, that there are so many individual stories.
“I feel like [examining place] is another way to push back and complicate and resist that, as you said, monolithic, white imagination, or the narratives that we see on TV. I think that when we describe the particularities of a place that we can see, that there are so many individual stories.”
You’ve written this memoir looking back over a period of years, you’ve just finished a collection of short stories you’re working on, you’re working on a memoir about mental health—which is a topic that you explore in this collection as well—and you’re also working on YA novels. What is the experience of writing fiction versus nonfiction like for you? Do you find that writing in fiction or nonfiction helps you access different modes of writing or thinking?
As I was thinking about this question, I wrote some craft capsules for poets and writers, and I was wondering if I could read a little bit from one of them that’s about fiction. This is from my last craft capsule; it’s called “Breaking Genre”:
“There is magic in fiction, in not having everything you write be attached directly to you. In my stories I draw from a wilder field, and I’m not worried about how something sounds, if it would make my public self cringe. If you grow up in a deeply private, Hindu, conservative, traditional family as I did, fiction and poetry offered a different code, a cover. I missed that cover when I tried to move to straight nonfiction. So why force it? Why choose? I want whatever genre allows me to speak the deepest truth.”
What I love about fiction is imagination and creating characters and composites, and I’m pretty literal when it comes to nonfiction. I know some people kind of have a wider sense of what nonfiction might be, to include what I would call fiction, but that’s not what it is for me. I think with fiction, there’s a sense of play and following an image or a voice or sound, whereas nonfiction, for me, is more excavation.
I wanted to mention one of my essays, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” which used to be a short story and when I expanded it, I made it into an essay. “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” is about reading YA series—Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Betsy, Tacy and Tib series—and imagining myself and my friends into the kind of series that we didn’t have then. So imagining it as the Gujarati girls, and what we were doing in suburban Rochester. Solving the case of the unfinished homework.
For people of color looking back at childhood memories of reading, we often realize that we had to do all this work of imagining ourselves into those stories. As children, we don’t realize it until it’s much later.
Exactly. I had someone ask me, “What did I think back then?” And I thought, “Oh, I wasn’t thinking.” But you’re right. It’s a kind of labor that, I think, if you’re white and you grew up reading those, maybe you didn’t have to do. Not that everyone has the same story. It’s a lot of different steps in terms of fiction and nonfiction. Something that was really important to me was learning about the lyric essay, which is a hybrid between poetry and the essay, poetry and nonfiction. Some of my essays in the book are lyric essays. I think the fact that they include gaps, that they’re nonlinear and circular, was really important to me and allowed some aspects of poetry into what I would otherwise think is straighter nonfiction. It’s been really great to hear from poets. I feel like they are the ones who respond to those essays the most.
A lot of the folks that we’ve been talking to on the podcast who themselves don’t identify as poets are saying that they find that they are turning to poetry itself, or to that lyric, nontraditional structure to access a part of their writing.
I think that there’s more room for uncertainty in the lyric essay, particularly around trauma and the collective trauma at this moment.
“What I love about fiction is imagination and creating characters and composites, and I’m pretty literal when it comes to nonfiction. I know some people kind of have a wider sense of what nonfiction might be, to include what I would call fiction, but that’s not what it is for me. I think with fiction, there’s a sense of play and following an image or a voice or sound, whereas nonfiction, for me, is more excavation.”
What are you reading right now?
I have a stack of books. I’ve been buying a lot of books. Right now, I am reading Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me by Pam Deb, whose work I read about on Twitter. The Inner Coast, these beautiful essays by Donovan Hahn, whose work I knew a long time ago as we both had poems published in an anthology, and these were poems written when we were teenagers. We both went on to write essays and I’ve never met him, but we did an event together recently, and I was reading his essays for that.
I was really inspired by this online conversation between Kiese Laymon and Imani Perry from the Free Library of Philadelphia. I need to watch that again—it was really amazing. I have, in the stack, Jesmyn Ward’s anthology The Fire This Time; Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows, which is about Zora Neale Hurston (I have not opened it yet, but it’s on my list); Prageeta Sharma’s Grief Sequence, which is prose poems; Alia Volz’s Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco; Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders; and Roy Guzman’s Catrachos, debut poems from Graywolf.
I’ve gone back again and again to Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Also Nikole Hannah-Jones’s recent work about reparations. Mia Birdsong—who’s also from Rochester originally, but I met her in the Bay area; she’s an activist in Oakland—has a book called How We Show Up that I think is just perfect for this time. It also came out in June, and it’s challenging and extending our ideas of family, friendship, kinship, and community. I think that’s just what we need right now. But it’s been really hard to read it in a straight way. So I’m grateful for my backyard and for getting outside and walking.
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