Sejal Shah writes beautifully and poignantly about what it means to live in a culture that is obsessed with attaching labels to identities. She consistently raises the question: “What does it mean to move in a body often viewed as other?” In “Who’s Indian?” she explores the complexity of the question “Where are you from?” proclaiming at first, “Perhaps it’s not entirely possible to answer the question of where we come from, nor is it necessary.” Later, she complicates this answer, deciding, “Still, as a writer and generally curious person, I find myself wanting to know the answer to this question.” In “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent,” she writes about the grief and loss of midlife, when one realizes that what they had planned for themselves hasn’t come to fruition. Yet within the prose is an acknowledgment that maybe the failure came from the plans themselves—in her case, because they were designed for success within a broken system of academia. Shah’s essays favor questions over answers; the book’s comfort with not-knowing and ambiguity is an antidote to the unearned certainty of American whiteness. Her writing is lyrical and fragmented, and it couldn’t be any other way: the language brilliantly skirts genre in ways that mimic the liminality, grief, and identity contained within each piece.
An essayist, fiction writer, and poet, Shah has taught creative writing at the University of Rochester, Mount Holyoke College, and elsewhere. She is currently on the MFA faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop. I’ve admired Shah’s work since reading “Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability and Neurodiversity” in the Kenyon Review Online and was eager to interview her about her debut collection. Shah and I talked at length via phone in June. Below is a transcription of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
– Kelly Sundberg for Guernica
Guernica: You write in your introduction, about microaggressions: “Writing was a way to have my say—to pick up those words like a piece of glass and turn it over in the sun and consider the sharp edges or blunted corners.” This makes me think a lot about the gap between experience and an inability to articulate that experience. In what ways does writing help you find a way to fill those linguistic gaps?
Sejal Shah: Writing helped me by forcing me to find a form that accommodates and allows for and even represents or at least acknowledges those linguistic gaps. I am so grateful to have discovered the lyric essay. I read Citizen by Claudia Rankine in 2016, and I saw her give a talk that year that I found transformative—it was after the election, on the last day of November. I reread Citizen while putting my manuscript together in 2018. To see PTSD and the repeated impact of different kinds of violence on the page, and also, the gaps on the page—actually what it looks like—made me think of how I struggled with microaggressions and what do you do in this moment of violence?
There is a line in Citizen, “The route is often associative.” She also writes, “Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” I thought that was so helpful. “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” I struggle with this in my own life. Once you see the way someone sees you, I don’t think you can unsee it.
As to the form of the lyric essay, I didn’t know at first what I was doing. I was just trying to represent the inside of the feeling. The first lyric essay that I wrote, “Street Scene” was about my friend LeeAnne [who died by suicide]. I had really struggled with how to write about the grief and loss and shock, and also with what was mine to share? I based that essay on a painting by the same name [Maurice Utrillo’s Street Scene], and continuing to work with images and colors was the thread that showed me how to write it.
Guernica: It’s interesting that, in response to this question, you landed on the lyric essay. I’ve been writing essays about PTSD, and I think the lyric essay lends itself really well to writing about trauma—I feel like, when we try to attach some traditional narrative structure to trauma, it strips it of the very quality of the trauma itself.
Shah: That’s exactly it. It was like, in trying to recount it in a conventional narrative—it’s not possible.
Guernica: This is going to sound really cheesy, but something I’ve started to think about recently is that, I feel like, when I’m writing at my most powerful, I’m just channeling.
Shah: I’m with you on that. I think the end of “Street Scene” for me was channeled, and it’s very much for me related to trauma, but it took me a long time to unlearn what I learned in MFA workshops. I was trying to be legible in the academic market, but in most of my essays, there is a kind of circling—like trying to get to the bottom of something. It’s about the sound and voice of a piece, and if it’s grief, the narrative and structure have often shattered, are an accumulation of fragments.
Guernica: You have a lot of cultural artifacts that extend across your essays—Monsoon Wedding, Party of Five, Beverly Hills 90210, Guiding Light, etc. As someone who was raised in kind of monolithic culture—a white nuclear family in a rural white community—it’s easy for me to see myself represented in American cultural artifacts. I imagine that representation is more fraught for someone who experiences multiple identities at once, and I appreciated the way you used those artifacts to show both a sense of “other” and familiarity at once. Could you talk about the role of artifacts in your narratives?
Shah: I love that you use the word “artifact.” I think [using artifacts] is a shorthand for me, and it’s a relief. Being able to use a title of a TV show or significant film places us in time in these essays over twenty years, but I do spend a certain amount of time and space describing parts of my life that are not as legible. For example, I had to focus to describe the motion and feel of garba and raas, two kinds of Gujarati folk dances. Those cultural references have personal significance. I also appreciate objects and use those—like rings, maps, a wooden box—so I circle in my work to actual objects too. The object lets me go in a meditative way into ekphrasis. The pop-culture is a shorthand, a common language.
Guernica: You write a bit about how aggravating the question “Where are you from?” is to you. I wonder if you could describe your thoughts on that a bit more for readers who might not understand the nuance there.
Shah: I often feel too tired to answer this question, but also my book is an answer to that question. I got tired of living in a country that doesn’t teach geography and history—world geography and history or even our own. I don’t remember learning about civil rights, The Jim Crow laws, The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Even just the relationship between the Vietnam War and refugees who came here as a result of the war. Cathy Park Hong has this great part in Minor Feelings about being tired of explaining why she exists to a white person when they have all of this Western History, pop culture, and media on their side. The question is usually about race, and I’m often more interested in place.
Finally, I think we need to give dignity to how a person responds–to how she or he wants to define their life and lived experiences. We’re all from more than one place, depending on how you answer the questions. I don’t think the question itself is offensive, but it’s exclusionary and racist if you’re just trying to point to “What’s your race, and why are you here?” My mother was born in Uganda, lived in Kenya, then with my father in India, and now is here. When I say “Indian,” it erases the fact that half of my family is from East Africa.
Guernica: In that same essay, which ends in 2013, you add a postscript from 2018, which contradicts the conclusions you had drawn in 2013. I thought that was a really spare way of showing how viewpoints change over time, and the way that you use time in the book across the essays reflects that. How does time function within the book, and how did you come to the decision to use it that way?
Shah: This was probably where I spent most of my time in revision—putting the essays in mostly chronological order that allowed me to show these connections between different essays that had been written over 20 years—but really it was through trial and error. In my mind, I’m still changing things. My friend, nonfiction writer Wendy Call, suggested the ordering by when I wrote the essays instead of when they took place in my life or when an essay was published. I decided there needed to be time stamps to place the essay in a particular moment in the culture and in my life. I wanted to show an evolution of my thinking over a long period of time and make that process visible as opposed to hiding it. An artist friend introduced me to the concept of “visible mending” where you’re showing the work. Adrienne Rich and Joan Didion are other essayists who also used dates to mark their essay in time in their selected works and collections.
Guernica: In the same way that you use time with clearly defined markers, you also use place. This is very much a place-based book, and these essays cover a lot of different cities that are all rendered in vivid and loving detail. Could you talk more about the value of place in the personal essay? How do you try to manifest that in your own work?
Shah: I think that one’s relationship to place is really individual, so I try to listen to and render the particulars. I’m always thinking about audience and trying to be accurate. How I describe a place of course also depends to whom I’m describing it. I want to see and hear and smell and make whatever I’m writing about—what it feels like when I’m walking through a landscape—visible to readers. I think those details give it an authority of being in that place and being known.
Guernica: I think people are really shaped by place, and the way that you use details about places feels very intimate. As a reader, I felt like I was being really let in, and that was very skillful. My favorite essay in the collection is “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent.” It’s beautifully written and weird and wonderful, but I also identified with it as someone who endured some shocking life disappointments in my thirties and had to get out of my comfort zone as a result. I think my favorite line in the essay is, “All my life, I have been biking with brakes on.” I felt that in my heart. This essay, like the book, is very much an essay about identity, but it doesn’t mention race (that I can remember). I know you’ve felt pigeonholed by some of the limiting ways that your book and you have been labeled in terms of identity. Could you talk about the how this book is about identity beyond race?
Shah: Yes, thank you for that question. I understand the questions about identity when that’s part of how the book is described, but in that essay, I write about race, but it’s not about race in the way that some of the other essays are. For me, it was about the worry, and shame, and fear that accompanied the loss of former identities. And failure. I’d really thrown all of the eggs in my basket into being an academic and living in New York, so what happens when you lose an identity that you’re attached to and feels fundamental? In a larger way, if you don’t have a job, who are you? You’re not legible if you don’t make money in a capitalist economy. You don’t count. Who would we be if we had universal income? The question at a party wouldn’t be, “What do you do?”
Guernica: Non-academics have a really hard time understanding the ways that academia defines your identity. People ask me sometimes what my hobbies are, and I’m like, “I don’t have hobbies. I’m an academic.”
Shah: Totally! I have a friend who left academia, and she said it’s really great. At least pre-pandemic, she had time for hobbies like improv. In the industry she’s in now, she’s paid better and has time to spend with her children. But yes, [in academia one’s job] it’s so hitched to our sense of self. Most of us had to give up so much in order to even get the job.
Guernica: It’s interesting that you talk about academia and identity. I caught myself at a party I was hosting introducing everyone by what they do, but I had invited some friends from other areas of my life—not academic areas—and in the process, I thought, “Oh wow, this is a really obnoxious way to be introducing these people to each other.” You’re right. How different would our world be if we didn’t ask people what they do?
Shah: Then I think, well, what is the question we ask? Do I ask them, “Where do you like to walk?” You’re reminding me of when I moved back here after college. I had friends from dance that I had met, and I would introduce people by what they did, and a friend got mad at me about that. She didn’t want to be categorized. Meanwhile my friends who were in graduate school were all about where they had gone to college and what they studied. I think a lot about classifications and what we give value too. All of the labor that my mother did when I was growing up, and what was she called? A homemaker? I hated that word when I was growing up. She managed the entire house, the family. She was the cook and did the taxes, but my dad could just say “doctor.”
Guernica: And then, even getting what you want professionally can still be unfulfilling. Like publishing a book. My book publication process was really disappointing, so at some point in your life, you’re forced to look at your values and how they’re not serving you, which is what I think you really got at in that essay and probably why I identified with it so much.
Shah: Thank for saying that. I was in the same place where I had gotten so many things that I really wanted, and I wasn’t happy, and I was struggling. When I reread my essay “Your Wilderness Is Not Permanent” in preparation for talking to you, I was thinking about the silences and gaps that were there—about what I wasn’t able to say. The person I am now would be sharper and more critical in what I said about what happened [the departure from academia], but what I like about the essay is that it’s about what happens when you lose your footing, and it doesn’t really matter why it happened.
Guernica: In the final essays of the book, you write about the ways in which you were disappointed in your wedding. The reasons are too nuanced for me to briefly describe for readers here, but I remember you and I chatting about this interview, and you brought up that you had hoped your book launch would be a way to throw yourself the wedding you had always wanted. I related to that because, as someone who was rushed into marriage by an abusive man, I had seen my own book launch as a way to reclaim my personhood. I had a party at my mentor, Dinty W. Moore’s house, and it was such a beautiful moment. Sadly, your book is being borne into a pandemic rather than the joyous in-person launch you had dreamed of. How is that affecting the way that you’re experiencing this big moment?
Shah: My wedding did bring up big emotions for me. A friend described her wedding as a crucible, and I think that my book launch [June 2, 2020, the day of a social media blackout and mass Black Lives Matters protests] was also a crucible because of the pandemic and the pause. I didn’t feel the disappointment over the book as personally, because the entire world was on fire, but it did make me think about what’s important—so the book can find its readers and has its own life in the world. It’s been hard, but also, everybody [right now] has had something challenging happen or something hard to deal with. With my wedding, what was difficult was only happening to me, but now, we have this horror and this reckoning with Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor that is bigger than the book, and we’re all improvising. There are just so many things that are out of our hands right now. As a writer, going forward, I’m thinking more about how my work and my life can be of service to others.
Guernica: What is your biggest dream for this book?
Shah: I want it to reach the people who need it. I don’t know who they are, but I know that books saved my life over and over. My biggest dream is that the book finds its readers, and also, that I find an agent and a contract for my next books. [Shah published her first book without an agent.] It’s been a really emotional moment to think about, especially for personal essays, how we can use this form to amplify other voices or to look, in the lyric essay, at trauma and silence, at what is not said. I don’t know how people can write in this current moment. It takes me a long time to process. The suffering and the tremendous loss of life: we’re in another world than the world we were in when I wrote the book. Still, we need words.