Simplicity is radical and empowering

As Sejal Shah’s collection of essays This Is One Way to Dance comes out, a collaborative conversation between Gayatri Sethi, Sejal Shah, and Namrata Poddar.

A few months ago, I was browsing my Facebook feed when not one, but two South Asian writer friends posted thoughtful praise about This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah (University of Georgia Press). They referred to Sejal’s essays as “impossibly beautiful” and to her as kin. I was immediately struck and began to read her previously published essays as I awaited the release of the book. I was equal parts awe struck, inspired, and intrigued.

As I read the lyrical essays, I imagined a conversation among friends written up as a multi-voice interview. What if we had a virtual roundtable of writers talking about the essay as a way to showcase how conversations, like dances, would rhythmically flow from this elegant book?

In this experimental piece– a conversational dance– we will summarize e-mail exchanges and chats between Sejal Shah (SS), myself – Gayatri Sethi (GS), and Namrata Poddar (NP) about this book. The style of what follows is deliberately eclectic and pays homage to the distinct style of the book we are discussing. As we explored the complexities of such a collaboration, we settled on the possibility that simplicity, though elusive, is potentially empowering.

By Gayatri Sethi

This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah

GS: How does this book speak to empowerment, broadly defined?

NP: The choice to narrate oneself through a collection of essays with a fragmented or “queer aesthetic” (as the author names it) is empowering, especially in a literary scene where a long, continuous narrative—the novel in fiction, the memoir in creative nonfiction—is often the form of storytelling favored by agents, publishers and prestigious award juries. The essay is well known to be a form favoring the margins; it allows the individual to take up space over the collective. Sejal’s choice of form is on the other end of many contemporary award-winning novels by BIPOC that are published by the Big 5, where main characters bear a much heavier burden of representing their community or even their whole country. As a literary critic, I spent years doting over what is considered to be the “political” or the “global novel” (and I remain a fan) but to claim space for quieter stories in a time when heavyweight gatekeeping favors otherwise, especially when it comes to BIPOC voices, is empowering.  On taking up space, a book centering a middle-class Gujarati American experience is empowering too, especially within a body of South Asian American writing that is dominated by Brahmin voices. Gujaratis, like my own community of Marwaris, usually belong to the baniya caste or the “merchant community,” with centuries of migration built within our communal histories. For a book to take up space outside of the Black and white racial binary and outside of Brahmin-Dalit caste binary is empowering. This isn’t to dismiss a longstanding absence or erasure of Dalit voices; it’s on the rest of us to make sure South Asian representation happens in a more equitable way. But a book that pushes us away from dichotomous thinking on South Asian identity, even if Sejal’s book doesn’t engage explicitly with caste, is empowering.

GS: A book centering Gujarati American experience is empowering. I am a Punjabi descended East African born diasporic desi, and so much of this book is empowering in the sense that it reads like a mirror in which a group of friends are gazing together, and we behold each other, together, reflected honestly and beautifully for us to collectively marvel at ourselves.

As I read the essays, I learned that Sejal, you too, are connected to East Africa. I knew a Sejal Shah growing up in Botswana who was originally from Kenya too. Many of the people I know through both academic and South Asian writer circles, know and admire you. There are many coincidences and parallel life experiences to investigate, and share.

I thought of empowerment in the sense of the personal too. The essay “No One Is Ordinary; Everyone Is Ordinary” left me with a sense of having encountered something significant. I felt a new insight forming. I associate this feeling with what is empowering – new knowing from within – unlocked by reading something that felt like a key that turned the lock and opened me up. Thank you for writing essays like keys to locks in me.

SS: Essays as keys in locks—this is beautiful! I love the journey and questioning inherent in the essay form, particularly the lyric essay, in which gaps, circling, and a lack of a paraphrasable plot are key. In fact, there’s a lovely part of the famous definition of the lyric essay by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata in the Seneca Review, which argues that it “elucidates through the dance of its own delving.”

For me what is empowering is to have multiple voices, perspectives, essay forms, personas, even, over time. To have This Is One Way to Dance be a part of many books coming out now: there are many of us, women in our forties and fifties, not the under-30 or under-40 New Yorker spread, but to have more room and space: to insist on more South Asian American voices. We are more than both of the most visible South Asian Americans visible in American culture in the last twenty years: Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful books and Hank Azaria’s / The Simpsons’ racist portrayal with Apu.

There’s The Problem with Apu (Hari Kondabolu’s smart documentary) and also the problem, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said,the danger of the single story, a single representation when there were no others for so many years.  Cathy Park Hong notes this in her recent essay collection, Minor Feelings: until recently, for the last twenty years, “Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories were the template of ethnic fiction…the fault lies not in Lahiri herself…but in the publishing industry that used to position her books as the ‘single story’ on immigrant life.”

I’m thrilled you find the centering of Gujarati American experience as empowering. I’m really moved by that. I love Bhanu Kapil’s poetry and have so appreciated Gurinder Chadha’s and Mira Nair’s films—specifically the centering of diasporic Punjabi stories. Growing up in a small city and Indian American community, I loved that we had friends who were Bengali, Telegu, Punjabi, Maharastrian, and Tamil. I enjoyed noting the ways in which our cultures were different from one another’s, as well as the similarities between us.

Originally, my wedding was purposefully off-stage in my book. When I decided to write more about it, I wanted to complicate the trope of an Indian wedding as a feast laid out for white eyes to consume, and instead depict an event about religion as well as a family’s trauma and grief. I wanted to make a book that’s about relationships, connection, resilience, and how to keep moving in the face of loss. To show a very ordinary middle-class kid of working-class immigrants’ childhood hours away from an international city. To be specific: Gujarati, Rochester, New York. To center these stories. I was amazed that even in the midst of a pandemic and protests, the book found readers. To trust. To redefine the essay.

I do touch upon my mother’s East African and Kenyan heritage and this is something I want to write more about—because our histories and our diasporic identities are varied in ways that are often missing from representation. We need many stories. Race functions differently in different countries. To have so few representations of South Asians flattens the cultures and entire areas of the world (including Kenya and Uganda), which are multiple and magnificent and complicated and complex. They and the US have a colonial history, which still affects which stories are told and by whom, and what publishing deems as being worthy.

GS: We are multiple and magnificent and complicated and complex—now and going back. I am going to keep repeating these words to myself to fend off the tendency to accept tokenism as representation. What wisdom, truth or ideas from the book do we glean for “these times”?

NP: As brown readers and writers, we constantly think of representation and the violence white gatekeeping can do it, or rather, unlike white writers, we don’t have the luxury of not thinking about these things.

I mean, in an ideal world, a country built by immigrant labor, especially of Black and other people of color, on stolen Indigenous land, would consistently center BIPOC stories, but we all know that reality works differently in a U.S. literary landscape where gatekeeping at all levels is overwhelmingly white. 21st century U.S. though is making it impossible to ignore questions of race and migration—and I refer here to those who’ve had the luxury of ignorance in our country. An aftermath of 9/11 attacks reopened debates on what it means to be brown in America, the aftermath of November 2016, the rise of a fascist administration, and more recently, an ongoing pandemic continues to fuel the question of what it means to be BIPOC in the United States. As importantly, recent Black Lives Matter protests that expanded into a global movement opened up the question of systemic oppression at multiple levels, even if it started with the necessary focus on police brutality against Black Americans.

GS: We could also connect these to the Modi regime and the rise of Hindu fascism among the desi diaspora globally. There are potentially numerous implicit insights in Sejal’s essays about what diasporic desi solidarity might look like and what our role as South Asian Americans as co-conspirators in support of Black Lives might mean.  I recently read a piece in which you speak about the silences in this book, Sejal. What might you add?

SS:  In my recent reading list for Electric Literature, I wrote about books by women of color that helped me reclaim my voice and write about health. I wanted to make visible Black and Asian American writers whose books had shown me how to fight back, resist, and write about the self, structural racism, mental health, and community.

This reading list and the  essay I published last year on invisible disability and neurodiversity are my most important “companion essays” for this book.

I want to credit my editors, who are both Black: Valerie Boyd, who co-edits the Crux Series in Literary Nonfiction at UGA Press  (This Is One Way to Dance was published as part of Crux) solicited my essay collection—and Walter Biggins, who shepherded my book through the review process as executive editor of UGA Press (he is now Editor in Chief at University of Pennsylvania Press). They valued my work and voice. It’s important to note that the publishing industry is 80% white. So, I don’t think it’s an accident that the editors who did believe in my work are Black. Several agents had contacted me, but then passed on my story collection and essays. Since 2016, my manuscripts had been named a finalist at several university and small press contests. So, what made the difference? They could see beyond the single story.

NP:  I don’t see Sejal’s book explicitly trying to answer the bigger, pressing questions at the heart of American history and politics today. It does explore, though, a brown narrator’s relationship to both invisibility and hypervisibility due to her ethno-racial identity, adding to a rich canon on home and belonging that already exists here. Like any good literary work, her book harnesses the power of personal storytelling to center the details of the narrator’s everyday life and emphasize the experience of being an other, of being consistently othered. As a country, a collective attunement to “difference” is our biggest need of the hour, I think.

GS: I was struck by many of the same themes in Sejal’s book. Sejal, you write in the essay, “Who’s Indian?”: “Many of us travel for the same reason—to feel the edges of ourselves simultaneously sharpened and blurred.” I felt exposed. I, too, am drawn to traveling while I suffer from anxiety, I trek to places like Cuba, Trinidad, and Aruba in search of this sharpened blurring. In those places, when I travel alone, I am vaguely Indian. When I travel with my biracial children and their Black father, we are often assumed to be Caribbean (that is until they open their mouths).  When a story or essay or poem evokes such realizations in me, I find that whether the explicit intention of the collection is to address the current political times or not, learning about myself and others like me feels timely.

SS: It’s so odd to not be able to travel now—except we can travel by reading. In some of my essays, I wrote about previous relationships—white, Jewish, biracial, Black. Our friendships and relationships change us. This is one way to live a life, to dance, to be American or Gujarati or diasporic or South Asian or all or none of the above. I wanted to move what has been, in American culture, at the margins and to claim the center. We are not marginal in our own lives. It’s publishing that was behind the times, not writers.

GS: What I took away as ideas and affirmations for “these times” from this essay collection are specifics. Postcards. Thank you’s. Letters to younger selves. I have been mailing handwritten notes with tea bag inserts to friends and advisees I mentor throughout the pandemic induced sheltering. As I read the essay in which you describe your postcard exchanges with old friends, I found myself chuckling. I adore sending snail mail. I still mail postcards from travels and collect the ones I receive on my fridge or tucked away in books I am multi-reading. I suddenly feel the urge to buy “sheltering in place” worthy postcards to mail out.

I have a question for you, Namrata: If you were to send me a postcard about this essay collection, what would it say?

NP: As you know, I married a Gujarati American and proudly claim his large Californian family as mine. I bought Sejal’s book intrigued yet confident I knew the community she was talking about. Then I learned: Oh, this is a Gujarati America of middle class [western] New York, not of working class California. Humbling reminder on what I often tell others: Brown, honey, ain’t a monolith.

GS: Mine to you would say: Simplicity is empowering. Let us dance (conversationally)!

SS: I love this! Brown is not a monolith. Most of my extended family lives in California—it’s a very different culture than the one in which I grew up. I was offered a job there years ago and realized I couldn’t afford to relocate. The cost of living is far less in western New York. And nothing like marrying a Tamilian with no extended family in the US to learn just how varied our stories are—our experiences of being South Asian American.

I love what you said, Gayatri, about simplicity. Simplicity is radical—and yet I so often forget this. I’ve been surprised at how often people have responded to the postcard essay. It’s not about race per se, but it is about correspondence, friendship, and connection. We cannot allow this administration to destroy the USPS. The post office is fundamental for us as Americans to communicate, to vote, to exercise our civic rights.

GS: Let us continue this conversational dance by exchanging postcards in the mail, shall we?

Sejal Shah is the author of the debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press, 2020). Her stories and essays have appeared in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, the Kenyon Review Online, Literary Hub, Longreads, and The Rumpus. The recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, Sejal recently completed a story collection and is at work on a memoir about mental health. She teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Rochester, New York. Twitter: @fictionalsejal Instagram:@thisisonewaytodance Website: sejal-shah.com.

Namrata Poddar is a writer of fiction, nonfiction and the Interviews Editor for Kweli where she curates on Race, Power, and Storytelling. For about two decades, her work has explored the intersection of storytelling, race, class, gender, place and migration. It has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, The Los Angeles Times, The Kenyon Review, The Best Asian Short Stories 2019, Transition, Poets & Writers, The Progressive, Electric Literature, CounterPunch, VIDA Review, New Asian Writing, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. Twitter: @poddar_namrata; Instagram: writerpoddar and stylegully.

Dr. Gayatri Sethi is an educator, writer and consultant based in Atlanta. She teaches and writes about social justice, global studies and education. When she is not writing verses, homeschooling or recommending readings as Desi Book Aunty, she travels the globe with her teen-aged children and college students. Follow her on Instagram @desibookaunty for further reading recommendations and inspiration. Her debut book Unbelonging will be published in August, 2021 by Mango and Marigold Press. She is at gayatrisethi.com.

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