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Book Review: 'This Is One Way to Dance' By Sejal Shah

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credit Preston Merchant
Sejal Shah

In recent days, the Twittersphere has been in a bit of a holding pattern as we await the final numbers of an election that seems all but decided in favor of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Harris was born in the United States to immigrant parents, her father Jamaican, her mother Indian. “I feel seen” is the declarative statement making up longer tweets of affirmation about the vice president-elect.

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Being seen and heard has never been an easy negotiation for immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sejal Shah illustrates this fact again and again in her debut collection of essays This Is One Way to Dance.

Shah was born in the United States, the daughter of Guajarati immigrants in western New York, a part of the country she experienced as starkly segregated. The imprint of that “othering” never waned and existed also in other places in the United States where she lived, studied, and worked.

Shah describes a particular time of invisibility that came “before we even existed on the screen or in the pages of a Pulitzer-prize winning collection of stories.” For the latter, she refers to Jhumpa Lahiri and for the former — a long list. She writes, “It was a different world then. It was before comedians Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj… before the Diwali episode of The Office; before Jonathan on 30 Rock; before an actual Indian doctor appeared on ER; before Obama celebrated Diwali in the White House. Shah grew up during a time when “If you judged our representation on television and in books, we had mastered almost nothing in the public sphere.”

Shah’s essays, written over 20 years, between 1999 to 2019, vary in form, and she seems comfortable in the hybridity granted by the genre.

It is perhaps Shah’s experience in an MFA program that helped her understand more acutely what it takes to be seen in that context of the academy but also outside in the larger world where acceptance is contingent upon too many impossible requirements.

In the essay, “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me,” Shah describes her time as the student of Agha Shahid Ali at UMASS Amherst’s MFA program. He saw her as a “Yankee,” and later perceived her more fully at a social gathering where he played Hindi film music and she danced the Bharata Natyam steps she had learned as a young girl.

She writes of the experience, “I cannot imagine my time in the MFA program without Shahid — without those warming dinner parties in wintry Massachusetts, without remembering our poems unwritten, in order for different possibilities to be imagined.”

Even that relationship was complicated by the fact that Shah feels that there “was little room for my voice in Shahid’s workshop,” and his critique of her work was unmeasured. She learns from the experience what she would like her own teaching not to be. “The World is full of paper,” she writes. “I am writing now. I am writing to me. I am writing to myself and others like me.”

And that is what Shah does in this book. She writes for others like her who don’t easily check the boxes of identity in America—for all those who “travel for the same reason—to feel the edges of ourselves simultaneously sharpened and blurred.”

“We are sharpened by the contrast of another language,” she writes, and language is another complexity in her sense of identity. In the lyric essay “Voice Texting with My Mother,” she describes an exchange she has with her mother where the word “sorrows” appears in the text for the word “saris.”

She accepts the confusing verbal typo later in the piece and writes, “We wear our sorrows, they wear us, they wind themselves around us.”

Saris figure heavily in this work and weddings do. The cultural expectations of a traditional Indian wedding are many. The concept is even more complex for this American-born author whose references for this ceremony are Indian, The author describes the incongruity of her brother’s white friends at his wedding, playing the “dandiya raas, a folk dance with wooden sticks native to Gujarat.” She sees this particular space as making up “one of the happiest” in her life. She says it was the first time these separate cultures — Indian and American “coexisted, even merged,” in one place. Hundreds of people danced there. She finds the words of Adrienne Rich help her understand the experience as “real and normative” as the “culture foregrounded” in this context was strictly Indian — but here in the United States — and also open to all others.

But even the Indian wedding brings with it complex issues for Shah, who in her essay “Things People Said: an Essay in Seven Steps,” shows the recalcitrance of the assumptions she’s endured: the expectation that her own wedding must have included a husband on a horse, a large, four-day wedding with a bride wearing a large diamond ring and a “midriff-bearing outfit” looking like an understudy to a Bollywood star.

“There is no such thing as a typical Indian wedding,” asserts Shah in the essay “Saris and Sorrows.”

Elsewhere she says that “weddings are a series of stories, a circle of stories, are bodies, streets, intersections.”

When Shah attended a reading by the author Bharati Mukherjee, she and others in attendance “looked at her with a kind of hunger.” She writes, “We wanted to see writers who looked like us, who wrote about South Asians in the United States, or who embraced a bicultural or multiethnic identity.” She was, at first, “disappointed to learn that Mukherjee did not want to be read in that context” and that she “wished to be understood and accepted as an American writer — as American as anyone else.”

Shah comes to appreciate the idea of “self-definition,” and in this collection of essays manages exactly that. But she does so in a far more generous way. In describing her singular experiences she is writing to herself, as she says, but also to others like her — each with unique sorrows, listening for varieties of language that mean “home,” and music that invites everyone to join in the dance.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.