There Are No Do-Overs
September 28, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Sejal Shah
We are told to pitch companion essays in the months leading up to a book release. These essays are meant to accompany and contextualize your book–to connect them to something current. I wrote one in February, intended for June, imagining the book party for my debut collection of essays, This Is One Way to Dance, as a wedding do-over. I got married five years ago in June, in a stressful ceremony filled with film-worthy religious conflicts and interfering aunties who saw my wedding as a stage for their daughter’s and granddaughter’s minor roles. I was 42 when I got married and disgusted by the stage mother behavior. My future husband and I dealt with their aggressive demands and my in-laws’ trauma. My brother-in-law had died suddenly many years earlier. He had never married, and a major life event resurfaces loss.
I realized later that I had been manic in the weeks before the wedding, but there wasn’t space for me to be sick. My grandmother, with whom I lived, had suffered a stroke six months before. My aunt had also moved in with us while undergoing cancer treatment. My mother told me later, we thought you were fine. You were smiling.
As someone with late-diagnosed and crushing ADHD, managing my book launch and promotion in a pandemic was brutal. I have written about neurodiversity and invisible disability, but in my experience, people don’t understand adult ADHD. In higher education, I had learned it was better to perform wellness than disclose a deficiency. We are a capitalist society, interested only in numbers, productivity, bottom line. I had put so many years and time and energy and myself into this book. I hired a publicist. She took a hefty deposit, stopped returning emails, and disappeared.
What I had going for me was my husband, and health insurance through him. I was not teaching in the spring, so I did as much as I could to prepare for my book release. I figured the book could be a happier, easier party. I figured wrong.
There was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know my father would be diagnosed with a fast-growing blood cancer, or that a global pandemic was headed our way. I didn’t know about sheltering in place.
I didn’t know about the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, sparking mass protests and a social media blackout the day of my virtual launch. In the months before my book’s publication, my father went through chemo, ending up in the hospital and rehab–a nightmare.
COVID-19 canceled the writing conferences I would have presented at and my planned book events. All travel: no. My husband taught middle school history from our dining room table. I was a zombie walking from the kitchen back upstairs to my desk.
My mother also has, I suspect, ADHD. My uncle helped her correctly fill out and file the forms for the long-term care insurance my father had. Even if you have insurance, they don’t make it easy. And when you have the stress of being the primary caregiver, who has the extra bandwidth to do even that?
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 mental health. This reading list and an essay on invisible disability and neurodiversity I published last year both are my most important companion essays for this book.
I began with Audre Lorde, whose powerful essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” has been a touchstone for me since I first encountered it in college. I included books by bell hooks, Claudia Rankine, Abeer Hoque, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Esmé Weijun Wang, Yiyun Li, Mia Birdsong, and Cathy Park Hong: I wanted to make visible these Black and Asian American writers whose books have shown me alternative ways to think and write about voice, microaggressions, misogyny, disability justice, third cultures, mental health, academia, medical racism, and community.
As has become clear in 2020, it’s the President, Republicans, corporations and much of our culture who are sick. Rotten at the root. Not the Black and Brown people suffering under unequal access to health care. I mean, we may be sick and/or disabled, but we are not insane nor are we cruel. That’s our government and the limitations of a for-profit health care system.
My virtual book launch was like my wedding: it was an event that was eclipsed by events larger than, outside of, and more pressing the book itself. A wedding is not a marriage. A virtual book launch is not the life or journey a book will have.
My book has had many friends and supporters, visible and invisible, and who reminded me it’s a journey: there’s magic, there’s grief, there’s change, there’s the blank page. There’s the book, which has its own life beyond you. And writing? As Margaret Atwood says in her lyric essay “Nine Beginnings,” “You begin again. It never gets easier.” You give yourself over to the page.
I have learned there are no do-overs. Managing my invisible disabilities: depression, neurodiversity, ADHD, and rheumatoid arthritis are lifelong tasks. I’m a good performer and reader, with a long background in dance. I do smile a lot, but it’s not my only expression.
Making a book and letting it go is an invisible call and response in ways that have surprised me. This is One Way to Dance has felt most real when I read letters and emails from friends, classmates, former teachers, and strangers. This is when I see my book sallying forth, making its way in the world without me.
Sejal Shah is the author of the debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance. 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 (NYFA) fellowship in fiction, Sejal recently completed a story collection and is at work on a memoir about mental health. She serves on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA at Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Rochester, New York.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
author photo by Preston Merchant