(Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2020)
Sejal Shah and I have two things in common. We both grew up in the New York/New Jersey area and pursued writing in college. This is about the extent of the similarities between me and Shah, the author of This is One Way to Dance; everything else is different. Even so, reading her memoir, I was completely drawn in. Everything about her and her life felt familiar, so much so that as I was trying to gather my thoughts on what I had loved about reading her book, I accused myself of just enjoying reading stories by someone so similar to me. When I tried to draw up a list of concrete ways that I could relate to her to prove it, I came up with only those two aforementioned reasons. I had felt so much kinship with her, and yet we were much more different than I had originally thought.
This is One Way to Dance is exactly what a memoir should be—for this very reason. In the collection, Sejal Shah seamlessly invites you into the experience of a life other than your own. The Rochester native and creative writing teacher explores life as an Indian-American and her relationships with her culture and identity in this debut memoir in essays.
Each essay is an engaging read. Some are warm and lighthearted, the recollections of a charismatic writing teacher, or about the practice of writing postcards to friends. Others are more grave, the wake of 9/11, a friend who took her own life. While these parts are joined by the running theme of being Indian-American, This is One Way to Dance is by no means a rambling lecture on that one topic. It’s a picture of an individual, accounting for cultural identity among many other things. This is part of what makes the running theme stand out so powerfully.
If you google “what makes a good memoir” and start looking through the advice that the Internet has to offer, you’ll begin to see the same theme over and over. Don’t write an autobiography. People don’t want to read the story of your life. Everyone has a life, and most of them aren’t that interesting. You have to write about your life in such a way that you will convince other people to be interested when they otherwise wouldn’t be. The second piece of This is One Way to Dance is a prose poem called “Skin.” In it, Shah writes “…you are a brown girl here, never just a girl.” By the time I got to this line I was hooked. I don’t know what it’s like never to be just a girl—I have always had that freedom—but I wanted to understand.
There is plenty there to be understood. In her eloquent yet unpretentious voice, nothing is shied away from. Shah celebrates the beauty of Indian culture, and her imagery is rich and captivating. She writes of her brother’s wedding, “it exists as one long moment in my memory: a swirl of skirts and sticks on the smooth wooden dance floor, my senses heightened by the deep jewel colors of wear-to-wedding saris—turquoise, fuschia, purple, magenta—the high from hi-hello-kem-chos, bits of conversations in English and Gujarati with so many people from every part of my life; then words and colors and food, a five tiered frosted cake, a kaleidoscopic blur of light and motion.” The celebrations and happy moments that she crafts are enchanting. However, she gives the other moments of her stories equal weight on the page, including the bitter ones. Shah endeavors to paint the fullness of her identity, and it goes beyond a glamorous image; not everything is flowers and colors. It’s also a strong sense of community. She writes of a family she met in Sicily who offered her a warm welcome despite the fact that they were strangers to each other. It’s language– reading, writing, comprehending. She writes of losing her retention of Gujarati, what it’s like to understand a language that belongs to you but not quite speak it. It’s feeling like a stranger both in America and in India. It’s being unable to escape the label of “outsider.” She writes in reflection on being othered, “I felt annoyed that the ‘Where are you from?’ question was one I was expected to answer on a Friday night. I wanted what lots of people want at the end of the week—a chance to forget, to blur the edges a little, to be around some friendly faces; to lose myself in music, in a drink, in an evening. To be a little anonymous in our small academic community. Not to have to explain who I am, where I come from, why my face looks different from the one who’s asking the question.”
This memoir addresses some of the biggest problems that plague our society today. Othering and prejudice, representation and erasure. These topics are hotly debated; they are on our news and in our Twitter feeds. In many ways they define this moment in time. This is One Way to Dance addresses these problems differently. The memoir brings you in and gives you one person to care about, someone whose clever and compelling voice paints the world around her so vividly, and then shows you how those big problems affect her. This is why it’s so crucial to the functioning of the memoir that the moments captured are widespread, from lighthearted to serious—they create the full picture of a person and make room for connection. This is One Way to Dance doesn’t make othering, prejudice, representation and erasure small; it brings them close, shows them on the personal level. It makes you care, and it tries to help you understand.
Whether writing a good memoir is a simple question of making strangers care about your life, or if it is a question of having something to say, a thematic principle or some significance to impart, Sejal Shah most certainly knows what she is doing. This is One Way to Dance is an accessible and moving work, and could not be more necessary in combating othering and erasure.
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Meghan McGowan was born and raised in New Jersey. She is a writer and editor, and there is nothing she loves more than sitting down with a new manuscript and red pen. She attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and took part in the student literary magazine, Ironhorse, and held an internship at The Literary Review. Now she lives at home in New Jersey where she spends her free time enjoying good books and secretly enjoying bad TV shows.