Drunk on Ink Q & A with Sejal Shah and ‘This Is One Way To Dance’, a essays/memoir
Sejal Shah is the daughter of Gujarati parents who immigrated to the US from India and Kenya. She the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in fiction. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brevity, Conjunctions, the Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, the Rumpus, and Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America. A longtime teacher of creative writing, Sejal lives in Rochester, New York. This Is One Way to Dance is her debut essay collection. She has also recently completed a collection of short stories and is at work on a memoir about mental health.
About This is One Way to Dance
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 identity 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. Shah invites us to consider writing as a somatic practice, a composition of digressions, repetitions—movement as transformation, incantation. Her essays—some narrative, others lyrical and poetic—explore how we are all marked by culture, gender, and race; by the limits of our bodies, by our losses and regrets, by who and what we love, by our ambivalences, and by trauma and silence. Language fractures in its attempt to be spoken. Shah asks and attempts to answer the question: How do you move in such a way that loss does not limit you? This Is One Way to Dance introduces a vital new voice to the conversation about race and belonging in America.
SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with?
I read this book, Tiger on the Mountain, in fourth grade. Our teacher, Miss Hauge, gave me the classroom copy, because I read it so often. I have it on my desk now. It wasn’t the first book I fell in love with, but I was fascinated with it, because the book takes place in India. It was published by Scholastic. From the back cover: “Raman lives in the hills of South India. So he knows well the legend of the one-eyed tiger on the mountain…” When I met my Tamilian spouse, I remembered I knew the Tamil word for younger brother (thambi), because of the book.
To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?
Herbal tea (Bengal Spice is my fall and winter favorite) or wine.
A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?
For everyone: Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
For writers and artists: Marge Piercy’s poem, “For the Young Who Want to”
For all Americans: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
For writers, especially women: love Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Art of Disappearing”
Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?
Moby Dick. I was supposed to read it for a class (Literature of the Sea) when I spent a semester at Mystic Seaport through Williams College.
A favorite quote from your book
Can I give my favorite contenders for epigraphs instead? I ended up not going with an epigraph, but I loved all of these possibilities and they will tell you something about how I see This Is One Way to Dance:
From bell hooks’ Talking Back:
“In black communities (and diverse ethnic communities), women have not been silent…our struggle has not been to emerge from silence into speech but to change the nature and direction of our speech, to make a speech that compels listeners, one that is heard.”
From Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
“We don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them.”
From Claudia Rankine’s Citizen:
“You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?”
“The route is often associative.”
Your favorite book to film?
Anne of Green Gables (watch trailer PBS/CBC series from the 80s)
Favorite Indie Book Store/s?
Brookline Booksmith, which hosted my virtual launch through its Transnational Literary Series. I lived walking distance from Brookline Booksmith in my 20s after college. I loved going there! In my hometown, Ampersand Books at Writers & Books, the community-based literary center in Rochester, New York.
The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?
You have to say no to at least 75-80% of asks in order to say yes to your most important writing work. (When I began answering this question, I had written 50-75% of asks, but now, a month later, I see it’s even more!)
Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each book published?
I don’t know as this was my first book, published in a pandemic! My virtual launch took place on the day of the social media blackout, protests for Black Lives Matters, and mourning the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Over 200 people attended the launch, but it was a challenging and painful moment, a needed reckoning for the country. Nothing about it felt easy. From what I understand, publishing has changed tremendously in the last five, ten, and fifteen years, so while I imagine some things may be easier with a next book, many things will be different. My essays were written across twenty years and then revised and woven into a memoir, an essay collection with a narrative arc. Though I was frustrated at not having published a book earlier, I had participated in various local, academic, and literary communities for years, and those relationships and communities helped me get the word out about the book during a stressful time. In my experience, there’s always a certain level of challenge in writing, because each piece or project requires learning something new. That keeps it interesting and keeps me engaged, but also usually means it’s not easy.
Dog, Cat, Or?
Cat. But actually, I don’t have any pets. Only plants! Orchids.
Favorite book cover?
What comes to mind immediately is The Great Gatsby. I loved that it suggested a mood and era. I also wrote my junior English thesis on The Great Gatsby and I remember really thinking about the cover art and imagery. I don’t know if I’d say favorite, but iconic and mysterious. Favorite is a lot of pressure. I always liked the clean design of Rick Moody’s story collection, Demonology. I’m also a fan of the cover of Jenny Bhatt’s debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, just out last month.
Favorite Small Press and Literary Journal?
Graywolf Press (do they count as small?); Tinderbox Editions in Minnesota, which published my friend Carley Moore’s stunning essay collection, 16 Pills, and Albion Press, a micro press that just published Rick Barot’s chapbook, During the Pandemic.
Last impulse book buy and why?
Knucklehead and You Can Keep That to Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor. I had a long-ranging and fascinating conversation with Adam Smyer, the author of both books, last night. He’s moderating a panel of debut authors I’m part of for Litquake this weekend. Our conversation about our paths in life and to our first books made me want to read his books.
Favorite Vacation Place:
The Adirondack Mountains in my home state of New York.
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