Review of Sejal Shah’s This is One Way to Dance
August 6, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Sonya Huber
The evening I finished your essay collection, This Is One Way To Dance, I couldn’t go to sleep afterward. The structure of the book was buzzing in my head. Does this ever happen to you? (I love that one of your essays is about postcards and correspondence, so I thought I’d write to you.) Your essays span such a wide range of time, and yet you did the most brilliant thing: rather than smoothing them out to make them all “contemporary,” you added notes at the end of each to denote when the essay was written and then when you updated it. One of the opening essays, “Matrimonials,” about Indian weddings and language, movement and return, family and translation and diaspora among so many other topics, provides a kind of map and timeline for the essays that follow. And then each essay is ended with a year for when it was written, and sometimes a second for when it was revised. And then “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me” has a postscript! I had never thought to do that before. You leave the essay as it is, a moment in time, and then enter a correspondence with the essay itself.
(And we, too, have been in a regular correspondence about the essay, emails and hellos on social media. And is it true that we’ve really only been in the same room a handful of hours in our lives? This is one of the ways that our small community of creative nonfiction writers was knit together, through the first few NonfictioNow conferences in Iowa decades ago now, in unassuming function rooms. I seem to remember talking with you before or after a panel about travel writing, where postcards had been put on the various chairs, in the same room where I sat down the aisle from gangly smiley Phillip Lopate and gawked at him as though he were a rock star. The moments of being that Virginia Woolf talked about, and how one of them was with you. And then maybe a decade later, a similar bubble. We talked for just a moment, stolen in time, about our shared experience—which I knew would come up in the book—of marrying a man with a dead brother. How that is such a thing, the presence of an absence, a man you both know intimately who is a version of your love played in another key, and yet a man you will never know.)
What is fascinating to me about your book is exactly that: how you handle the oddness of the experience of time itself, what it hides from us and what it reveals. The individual essays each present two timelines, one of your life moving forward and one of when you sat down to recall those moments. I think this is what created the mind-blowing yet subtle effect of this collection: the essays are ordered not by “when stuff happened” with the childhood stuff first. They are ordered based on when they were written, so that we are tracking your consciousness as it unfolds through time, as it loops backward and returns to previous themes and changes perspectives. The effect, for me, was of a kind of writing intimacy that one feels in reading letters or diaries: there’s a sense of being in the head of the writer as they have a conversation with what they are writing. It’s like turning over a needlepoint to view the back. But then—whereas a needlepoint’s reverse is often a mess of threads—what you do is you make the back of the essay beautiful. You tuck the ends in and connect them. That’s the image that I keep getting when I think about your book: a flower with many small petals in rings, like a zinnia or marigold or chrysanthemum (and I thought you’d like a colorful metaphor since this book zings with color, the color of saris and weddings and skylines at night and food and sepia memories). The loose ends of the essays all curve and dovetail toward a larger design, making something beautiful, and it wasn’t through forcing them to align. It was through exposing the pattern of their making.
The book is full of returns that nonetheless carry the reader forward, like the “Ring Theory” that is another essay. Even your “Acknowledgements” section at the back is a return, full with the people and places that come up in the essays and notes on process. And then the very last section, “Notes,” offers a series of tiny essays on process, so that the reader ends with the seed of each essay, its inspiration and additional moments and texts that prompted it into being.
What a brilliant and subtle design. I look forward to the time when we can be in a room together somewhere, on the other side of this terrible virus, so that I can hear you talk about process and writing and putting this together, adding yet another ring of petals around your beautiful book.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.