At Guernica, Kelly Sundberg interviews author Sejal Shah about coming to terms with the shift in her identity after leaving academia, the nuances of making deeply personal and emotional experiences legible to readers, and how the question “Where are you from?” is often less about genuine inquiry and more about interrogation.
Guernica: You write in your introduction, about microaggressions: “Writing was a way to have my say—to pick up those words like a piece of glass and turn it over in the sun and consider the sharp edges or blunted corners.” This makes me think a lot about the gap between experience and an inability to articulate that experience. In what ways does writing help you find a way to fill those linguistic gaps?
Sejal Shah: Writing helped me by forcing me to find a form that accommodates and allows for and even represents or at least acknowledges those linguistic gaps. I am so grateful to have discovered the lyric essay. I read Citizen by Claudia Rankine in 2016, and I saw her give a talk that year that I found transformative—it was after the election, on the last day of November. I reread Citizen while putting my manuscript together in 2018. To see PTSD and the repeated impact of different kinds of violence on the page, and also, the gaps on the page—actually what it looks like—made me think of how I struggled with microaggressions and what do you do in this moment of violence?
There is a line in Citizen, “The route is often associative.” She also writes, “Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” I thought that was so helpful. “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” I struggle with this in my own life. Once you see the way someone sees you, I don’t think you can unsee it.
As to the form of the lyric essay, I didn’t know at first what I was doing. I was just trying to represent the inside of the feeling. The first lyric essay that I wrote, “Street Scene” was about my friend LeeAnne [who died by suicide]. I had really struggled with how to write about the grief and loss and shock, and also with what was mine to share? I based that essay on a painting by the same name [Maurice Utrillo’s Street Scene], and continuing to work with images and colors was the thread that showed me how to write it.