I first met the American poet and essayist Sejal Shah when we were both students at Wellesley College; a mailbox mixup had us introducing ourselves to each other formally, although I’d been seeing Sejal perform classical Indian dance at Slater House’s annual Divali dinner. In the years that have passed since our college days, both Sejal and I have become writers, and I loved to read her essays over the years, published in places like the Kenyon Review, LitHub, The Rumpus.
The Internet made it possible for me to read her while she was in the United States and I was in Pakistan, so when I read her first book – a memoir published in linked essays called This is One Way To Dance – I felt familiarity and warmth as I read essays that had been published and reworked for this edition and other essays that were previously unpublished. Reading in print is entirely different from reading online. On paper, Sejal comes across as irrepressible: her soul burns with curiosity, courage, the willingness to experiment with life and the boundaries that she and others have drawn for herself.
My favorite essay in the collection remains “The World is Full of Paper. Write To Me”, Sejal’s essay about being taught by the famed Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Another, “Your Wilderness is not Permanent,” about Sejal’s experience at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, had me agog: I’d expect that sort of memoir from Allan Ginsberg, not the daughter of Gujarati immigrants, raised in upstate New York and actively connected to her South Asian community, working as a writer and academic (And yet it’s not too far a stretch to imagine her as the spiritual goddaughter of Ginsberg through this piece). “Saris and Sorrows” captures what it’s like to enact a Hindu wedding across communities in 21st century America, a perspective you’ll hear from no one else but Sejal.
This book is full of poetry, of heartache, of belonging, of loss. Sejal’s Indian/Gujarati/South Asian identity and heritage frame but never limit the scope of the writing, or the breadth of the vision. To paraphrase Agha Shahid Ali, the world is full of books. Read this one.