Shah explores race, identity, community, and place in her debut collection of essays, This Is One Way to Dance (Univ. of Georgia, June.).
What is it about dance that you find makes it a good way to express identity?
Dancing is as individual as a fingerprint or voice. It offers intimacy, joy, revelry, release, community. I learned to dance from my grandmother and aunt, but also children know how to dance—there’s something innate and unique about movement. There’s no wrong way to dance. Our dances demonstrate what a culture values. Learning Gujarati folk dances and South Indian classical dances also fulfilled a craving for connection to India itself because I had not been there. Studying modern dance also influenced me—breaking with classical forms and creating one’s own vocabulary.
Dance is really about the self and connection to spirit and others—and so it, cadence, rhythm, music, and style all felt integral to my book.
Could you elaborate on what you write about avoiding being put in a genre box?
My favorite texts are those that walk the line. While in grad school, I was often told that my prose was poetic or my fiction was read as autobiographical. Finding the lyric essay was a relief to me. Having grown up bicultural, straddling a genre line didn’t seem problematic—it seemed natural, except for when I tried to think about how to present it. I felt essays gave me the most room.
Finding a feeling of home and belonging is one of the book’s recurring themes. What are the places where you most feel this way?
In my bed, reading. In the bathtub, reading. In New York City, with friends. On a Zoom call now, with friends. When I see my parents’ faces. With my partner at home, when he is in a different part of the house—we’re together but doing our own things. On a walk with him in our neighborhood.
Do you feel there are multiple ways “to dance” and to come to terms with multiple identities?
Yes. It was important to me to have “one way” in the title. The thing about dance is that no one can perfectly imitate someone else’s movement or style.
So often, there’s the danger of a single story or storyteller, even now. When one writer and one kind of storytelling is asked to represent an entire culture, it’s reductive. I think we are told so often, as girls: this is how to live within your gender, this is how to be a woman, this is how to be Indian, this is how to be a good Indian girl, to be successful, to be happy. I wanted to push back on that idea, and say no, this is one way to live a life, this is an Asian-American story.