Invisible Disabilities

BruceLeePostcard

This postcard is made by Kundiman, a wonderful organization that promotes Asian American poets and writers. For lots of reasons, it’s one of my literary homes.

Last week, the Kenyon Review Online published my essay, “Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability and Neurodiversity.” I’d been thinking about writing about academia and mental health for years and began to write the essay this past summer. I realize now there’s much more I could write and want to write.

Many, many people (a shocking amount to me, really) wrote and emailed and messaged me after reading the essay. I hadn’t really been thinking about what the response would be (probably because that might have spooked me–positive or negative). Thank you to the readers who trusted me with their stories and let me know about the impact of my story on them.

I posted three addendum on Facebook after my initial post of the essay. I’ll include them here, because they are essential. A couple of important points toward transparency: I could not have written this essay without my family’s support (see #2 below). After losing that job, I moved home for a few years, which allowed me time to write and apply to other positions. The next is that I am not teaching full-time now; if I had been there’s no way I could have written this essay. I would not have had the bandwidth or time.

Here are my three additional posts from Facebook.

  1. Dear Friends, Thank you for all of your messages and comments and emails. I got a little overwhelmed, but I’m reading them and will write back. It means a lot to me. Rather than call anything I’ve done brave (thanks, though), it would mean the most to me if you ask about accommodations at your workplace. Request the policy. Push back. If you are neurotypical and have the bandwidth / spoons, ask and get information for people who may not be able to. Educate yourself about the ADA. Depression is covered under it. ADHD is also (I have some form of this as well, but didn’t include it in the essay). If you’re in academia, get on a committee that looks at HR and health care and disability accommodations. Same if you are a teacher, and work at a high school or middle school. Students have accommodations by law. Those disabilities don’t go away when you begin to work, become an adult. If you are white and in academia make sure that your co-workers of color are not carrying the burden of what the institution deems to be important re: diversity work. My former chair (from when I began at that job) said to me, “You won’t have a problem with tenure. You are well-liked.” Helpful mentoring. Get some real mentoring policies in place. Especially for faculty who are working class / coming from working class / poor backgrounds, and/or first generation college, and/or immigrant, and/or of color…there are rules in academia, but most are unspoken. This does not help those of us who don’t know the rules. You spend so much money to conduct a search and hire someone…spend some time and money learning how to keep them.                           
  2. Two more things: I haven’t told my parents about this essay. So if you see them or talk to them or know them, please don’t say anything about it. They are very private people and not on social media. I also wanted to acknowledge what is unstated, but all over the essay: the enormous and incalculable emotional, moral, financial, and practical support from my family all these years. Those periods of mania and deep depression could have been disastrous without it. I have had and still have so many advantages, and It’s been hard even with all these privileges. I have health insurance. And so many Americans don’t. So think about that. I do, all the time.
Sejal Shah

January28at11:47AM

3. Hello FB Friends: I have been mulling over all the comments and messages and emails I’ve gotten in response to my essay. They have been very moving. I don’t know what the fallout will be in my personal or professional life. What I do know: many in my social media world / community are professors and I think most of you are tenured. Please, use that privilege to speak up for people who may not be able to b/c of potential work consequences. And PLEASE examine and interrogate the policies and practices around diversity at your institution. Is it actually creating MORE work for faculty identified as diverse? If so, something has to change. White people, step up. Also a race-only definition of diversity is offensive and inaccurate. There are people still in all of the situations I was in now. And there are faculty who could have spoken out or done something. Maybe they didn’t think it was their responsibility to do so. (Don’t feel the need to say sorry to me now. Actually, no one has.) It was an open secret about my former professor to many faculty and some students. I think my work colleagues didn’t know and everyone is busy, neurotypical and neurodiverse, both. But consider the consequences of NOT speaking out at meetings, looking at policies, seeing if there are codified mentoring practices in place. The sense I had at my former institution was that I was seen as somehow having fallen through the cracks. I had an incredible support system through my family and friends, as well as socio-economic privilege. If I fell through then others will too–unless people (senior colleagues, administrators) are actively invested in making sure this doesn’t happen.

I’ve had only positive responses to my essay and these posts except for a lone commenter, who admitted she was not actually responding to my essay or the ideas therein, but rather to my call to white people to step up.
Her initial comment to my above post:
A far more serious divide in academia is economic: i.e., the one between tenured faculty and part-timers. It’s a horrid system, one that’s been created and stoked by greedy administrators who have no desire to turn back the clock to a time when universities actually gave a shit about educating students and paying their instructors fair wages.
  • Sejal Shah Agree that it’s terrible—the economic divide. I’ve also adjuncted. Everything that I’ve described is a problem is that much worse for those without fair pay and fair contracts.
  • Sejal Shah Far more serious divide than what? While I think the current system of tenured vs adjunct faculty is terrible, my goal in my essay was to write about a particular aspect and time period of my experience in academia. I didn’t focus on, for example, my later experience adjuncting. There are many things I would have liked to include, but there was not room for in this one essay. Maybe in a future one. You could write about it, too.
    Finally, it was a LOT of work and time to write my essay. It’s not exhaustive—there’s more I wish I had explored and written. However, it’s not my job to address every ill in academia. I absolutely agree that this divide should be written about. I look forward to your writing or anyone’s take on it. I myself don’t have the spoons currently. I’m taking a break to turn to other work I have to finish this week.
    Commenter:  Sejal, my comment wasn’t directed toward your essay, but was a response to your call for “white people” to step up. I agree totally that is incumbent upon those with power and privilege to agitate for a better, fairer system. But in academia, many people–both white and POC–are powerless owing to the tiered economic system.
    XXXXX, my call was to ALL tenured people, including “white people,” in those positions of power and privilege in the academy. (Read my whole note again, including the beginning where I address my FB friends who are tenured faculty and administrators.) However, if white faculty and admin cannot see that it’s unfair to pile all diversity work on POC, it’s a problem. And they are also benefitting from an unfair system. That’s where I’m asking white people (who are in positions of power such as tenured faculty positions) to “step up.” I think many of my white colleagues didn’t know about this work—why would they, when they are not asked or expected to do it? For example, I served on a diversity council and not official committee, but it has the same amount of work and meetings as a regular committee. Whose labor counts? Whose is acknowledged? My comment is in response to MY situation in MY essay. If those who are not marked diverse (usually this means white) also push back against a race-only definition of diversity it will help everyone. Also if they understand that real diversity benefits everyone and should not involve only POC doing more work to satisfy white administrators and their checked boxes.
    On that note, back to the book….

New Year, New Goals, Reviewing, Readings

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017 (photo credit: Kundiman)

For the last few years, I’ve written annual goals, reflecting on the previous year, and it’s extremely helpful. I used the Writer’s Workbook 2019 by Annette Gendler, and also used her workbook last year. You can download her workbook for free by going to her website and signing up for her newsletter, which comes rarely and has good information in it.

In reviewing 2018 and 2017, I made note of two milestones I want to remember. They are both readings, and they were both videoed.

  1. In 2017, I read from one of my essays at The Library of Congress, as part of the Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival. It was a tremendous experience, and the readings were recorded. Mine begins at around 1:18. You’ll hear a bit of poet and Executive Director of Kundiman, Cathy Linh Che, introducing me. It’s the largest audience before which I’ve read.
  2. In 2018, R. gave his first reading: before an audience of 700. Here’s the link. He’d never done anything like that before. He was in a show called Listen to Your Mother, and he had to write something original and audition to earn a spot in the cast. R’s piece was very moving, and I’m proud of him for venturing so far outside of his comfort zone. The reading is much shorter than mine. Feel free to comment—I’ll pass along any words to him.

 

Late Fall 2018

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Our front yard (backyard has the yellow, front has the red-orange)

So many of the leaves in our backyard are yellow. It’s early November now. I have been cutting the rosebushes back, but not the rest of the flowering plants in our yard: geraniums, hydrangeas, and these delicate pink flowers I don’t know the name of.

I haven’t posted for months (it was a rough first half of the year, then recovering), and now where to begin? I’ll begin with news.

In June, I learned I was the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) / New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA) Fellowship in Fiction. This was a huge event in my life for a couple of reasons. I’ve applied for it before and not gotten it. That’s the way it works and I wasn’t expecting to get it this year either. It reminded me to persist. Two, the news came at an important time, when I was feeling discouraged about not being further along in my writing life.

The NYFA website quoted me in a recent post, and I’ll also include my words below:

If your stories are like mine, they might be described as non-traditional, experimental, and poetic. You might start to doubt that what you do has relevance, that it is understood, and worth reading. It doesn’t fit neatly into a category. The news about the NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship came after I had received a few rejections in a row for other things. I mentioned this string of rejections to a friend, and she said whenever that happens to her, it means there’s a big yes around the corner.

I’m also quoted in an earlier post about what getting the NYFA meant to me.

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Screenshot from the Literary Hub article about 15 Asian-American writers to know about.

In early October, an article in Literary Hub surprised me. Here’s the link:  “The Newest Wave of Asian-American Writers You Should Know.” It’s a list of 15 Kundiman writers. And I am on that list. I love both Kundiman and Literary Hub. Thank you, Tamiko Beyer, for this article.

I spent most of September in Oaxaca City, Mexico, staying with my friend Wendy, who is teaching there this semester. It was terrific to get that much time with Wendy and to work on our writing projects together. While there, I completed an essay on invisible disability I’ve been working on since July. Wendy’s edits made the difference, as did my deadline. My essay will be published in Jan/Feb 2019 in the Kenyon Review Online and I’m very happy about that.

In mid-October I began teaching a new class out of my home—advanced creative nonfiction—part study (we are reading and discussing an excellent anthology of essays by women called Waveform—I recommend it), writing exercises (imitations) and writing workshop. I’ve been working with the same writers for a couple of years now and it’s a pleasure and privilege to do so. I learn from them, too. There’s room for a couple of more writers to join for the next session—which will be in winter/spring 2019. IMG_1333

Exactly one week ago, I organized the first  Kundiman Northeast reading in western New York (Rochester). The Spirit Room (fierce poets and owners Rachel McKibbens and Jacob Rakovan) generously hosted us: our readers were poet Albert Abonado, activist, filmmaker, and writer Mara Ahmed, and Kundiman Fellow, poet, and essayist Chen Chen. It was a wonderful evening—a chance to hear Asian American voices through the work of three very different writers. Though organizing anything is a lot of work, this event was worth it. And poet and Kundiman Fellow Nghiem Tran drove over from Syracuse and one of my favorite local writers, Ravi Mangla, came, too.

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Mara Ahmed, Sejal Shah, Albert Abonado, and Ravi Mangla

Poet and essayist Chen Chen reads at The Spirit Room

A couple of days ago I had tea with my friend Irene, whom I hadn’t seen in a year. She’s also a writer and we were talking about writing and time—we are both working on books. She reminded me of a poem I had sent to her once. I needed to hear it again and she recited it and then sent me a link to it later. Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing.” I’ve mentioned it in my blog before—two years ago. I’ll post it here though the line breaks might not be right.

I miss seeing my friends all the time. And I also know I can’t be out and about too much right now—I need to scale back, draw back, stay home to do this work. And it’s fall when we gather ourselves, and for me that gathering is inside. (It’s western New York after all.) I’ll leave you with Nye’s important poem.

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

 

 

Writers & Books: Summer Retreat & Conference

Photo of Sejal Shah teaching a Writing & Yoga workshop

Writers & Books’ Gell Center in Bristol, NY. This is a photo from when I co-taught a Writing & Yoga Workshop with my friend, yoga teacher Marijana Ababovic.

In 2012, I taught my first workshop at Writers & Books’ Gell Center, a retreat facility in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York. My friend Marijana and I taught Writing & Yoga workshops, and really enjoyed bringing those two interests of ours together—especially in a beautiful place where students (and both of us) could walk by a stream, write outside, and get a little break from the usual routine. The Gell Center is just 50 minutes from Rochester, but you really do feel as though you are away.

On Saturday, July 21st, 2018, I’ll be teaching in a day-long writing retreat hosted by Writers & Books and called The Gell Intensive.  My co-workshop leaders are Ralph Black (poetry), Sarah Freligh (poetry), Kristen Gentry (fiction), Anne Panning (creative nonfiction), myself, and Stephen Schottenfeld (fiction). I once took a writing workshop at Gell with writer Sonja Livingston—the day before my engagement ceremony. It was such a good thing to do something creative before a big day involving family and a major life change, etc. Until May 15, Writers & Books is offering 10% off on all workshops, including this one.

In the past, I’ve also enjoyed taking workshops at The Millay Colony, which was once summer home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s now a rustic artist residency near the Massachusetts / New York line. The time away, the structure, the beautiful location, and meals prepared for you, is good for the soul. I’m excited about teaching in a similar environment for the Gell Intensive. All of my co-teachers are writers I know who live and teach in the area. However, I’ve never actually seen them teach and so I look forward to working with them, and learning from them, too. If you are here in Rochester that weekend, I really recommend this workshop. More info here.

The other writing-related thing I’m doing this summer is taking part in The Ladder, the inaugural literary conference hosted by Writers & Books on Saturday, June 16, 2018. This will be a terrific opportunity for writers at all stages to attend different panels, learn from editors, teachers of writing, and agents—all without having to travel to AWP or out of state. It’s downtown. I’ll be on a panel called about tackling the tricky subject of genre with essayist Sonja Livingston and poet Chen Chen. I admire both of their writing very much, and am excited to be in conversation with them about how we choose a genre or if it chooses us. Here’s a PDF of the conference schedule.

Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib

IMG_5274Do you remember the YA books you read when you were in middle school? In some ways, I never got over them. In my essay, “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” I wrote about growing up South Asian American—which really meant growing up Gujarati in the 1980s—and I wrote about the books I loved as a child and those I came back to again. These included books in a series like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and books that were geared specifically for girls: Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Sweet Valley High, Trixie Belden, The Girls of Canby Hall, and the Betsy-Tacy books.

“Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” appeared in an anthology called Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004, Ed. Pooja Makhijani). What became “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” began as a short story in my MFA thesis in fiction, but what I was really interested in doing was exploring what it was like to grow up Gujarati and Indian American in a predominantly white suburb of Rochester, New York. I sent the original story to writer and editor Pooja Makhijani, who had a call out for submissions to her anthology, Under Her Skin. Pooja was interested in the story (which was entirely autobiographical), and she suggested expanding it. Through the process of revisiting and expanding the story, it became clear to me that this was a different kind of writing—a marriage of both archeology and choreography; both artistic and imaginative—a personal essay—and it grew into one of my first creative nonfiction essays.

This week I spoke to a class at the University of Rochester about “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib” (PDF in link).  My essay has been part of the reading for this course for the last two years and this will be my fourth time coming in to talk to UR graduate students in the Warner School of Education. I realize now that only some of the YA books I allude to are well-known—often because of re-releases or film versions of the books. Roxane Gay has written about Sweet Valley High; Anne of Green Gables was made into a three-part series in Canada and broadcast over PBS, and Nancy Drew was re-released as series now using first person narration instead of the third-person point of view in the original books. A film adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, hit the theaters this year.

But the Betsy-Tacy books are not as well-known. Here’s a quick description thanks to Wikipedia:

The Betsy-Tacy books are a series of semi-autobiographical novels by American novelist and short-story writer Maud Hart Lovelace (1892-1980), which were originally published between 1940 and 1955 by the Thomas Y. Crowell Co. The books are now published by HarperCollins.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib (1941) is the second volume in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. This story introduces the character of Thelma (Tib) Muller, a German-American girl who becomes friends with Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly.

The series follows the adventures of heroine Betsy Ray, who is based closely on the author, and her friends and family. The first book, Betsy-Tacy, begins in 1897 on the eve of Betsy’s fifth birthday, and the last book, Betsy’s Wedding, ends in 1917 as the United States prepares to enter the First World War.

I particularly loved Betsy-Tacy and Tib, because of the friendships I remembered from growing up on my street. In all of those books, much as I loved them. I never saw a character who looked like me. From my essay:

In the books I read growing up, there were always words I couldn’t quite imagine. I remember, with a specificity that surprises me, the foreignness of certain colors: kelly green, strawberry blonde…How these series come back to haunt me now, with their sense of ownership over the world, with the ways in which they defined a world…We read these books, but there was no one like us in any of them. Did we think of writing our own? I want to see us. To see the girl I was, the girls we were, back when we lived at home.

Within the “Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib,” essay, I wrote the beginning of an imagined YA book—one that my husband and other friends have suggested I write someday. And I can imagine doing it now—what does it mean to write yourself in a narrative—into a world where you never saw yourself?

The Betsy-Tacy series was set in Mankato, Minnesota and covered the late 1800s into 1917, far away from where and when I grew up but this resonated with me and I wrote “a series about two best friends from the same street who made room for a third. No one felt alone past the second chapter.”

Sejal Shah lived alone with her parents on Pelham Road in western New York State, in a city that had seen better days (“Lion of the West”), that had housed stops on the Underground Railroad….

I did grow up feeling very alone at times, except for books—our middle school was almost entirely white, middle class, suburban at the time, with only one other South Asian American boy in our grade—and he was a close family friend; my mother and his had grown up together in Nairobi. But there were no other girls—and middle school is all about friendships. And of course there were other Indian Americans in the Rochester area. And so I imagined a series about us—about me and my friends who lived in the other towns around Rochester and went to different schools. Here are some of the imagined titles in the essay:

The Gujarati Girls Go to (Hindu Heritage Summer) Camp
The Gujarati Girls Go Skiing 
The Mystery of the Prasaad Plate (A Gujarati Girls Mystery)
The Gujarati Girls Go to Panorama Plaza (to see the latest Molly Ringwald movie—Gujarati Girls Mystery #13)
The Gujarati Girls Get Malaria (also titled The Gujarati Girls Go to India)

My husband and other friends have long suggested I actually write those books—and I want to do that. Because those early books made an impression on me. I loved them and wondered what it would be like to write my way into a book and bring along others who looked like me, but you couldn’t find us in the books in the library.

It reminded me of an essay I quoted from in the introduction to my MFA thesis: Adrienne Rich’s “Invisibility in Academe”—from a talk she gave in 1984 at Scripps College and later published in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. I’ve been thinking about this essay in relation to my work right now and about visibility and invisibility:

…whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard. And to make yourself visible, to claim your experience is as real and normative as any other…

And my teachers were wonderful, by and large, but there were moments, there always are—of misunderstanding, and something wounding—and not with teachers, but just by being out in the world—moments with other people—and I wanted to make the life I lived at home and on weekends, with our friends who were more like cousins and the language we spoke, Gujarati, visible. Legible. Normative. Part of the landscape and not even the most interesting part.

***

In Mankato, Minnesota (a few hours away from where I lived in Decorah, Iowa) there is actually a Betsy-Tacy society. And the house I rented in Decorah was owned by J.R. Christenson, who grew up in the Mankato neighborhood where Maud Hart Lovelace lived. My friend Sandhya, who lives in Decorah and also loved the Betsy-Tacy books, and I talk about going to Mankato someday, and I’d love to take that trip with her—driving and talking on our way to visit the neighborhood where these books were set.

In the end, two of my great loves will always be books and friendships.

Good Girls Marry Doctors

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The New York City book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors, at The Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW). From left to right: Swati Khurana, Piyali Bhattacharya, me, Jyothi Natarajan.

In 2016, Jyothi Natarajan of The Asian American Writers’ Workshop invited me to moderate the Q&A for the New York City book launch for Piyali Bhattacharya’s Good Girls Marry Doctors—an anthology of writing by contemporary South Asian American women. Piyali asked me to contribute an essay, but between planning a wedding (not to a doctor), helping to care for my grandmother, and teaching full-time, I wasn’t able to synthesize anything in time…at least not something about obedience and rebellion.

Therefore, I was especially glad to be able to take part in the project and its launch in a small way. Readers that evening included Piyali and contributors Swati KhuranaRajpreet HeirJyothi Natarajan, and Ankita Rao.

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop just posted the podcast. Piyali opens the event with a beautiful history of how the anthology came to me. My introduction comes in at about 15:30 and the Q&A happens after the contributors read their essays. It’s worth listening to the whole program. I loved hearing these essays again. And it’s the first time I’ve been on a podcast!

AAWW audience

Here are various links to the podcast, and I hope you’ll take a listen:

TuneIn Radio: http://tun.in/piGyv
GoodGirlsLaunch

 

 

2017 Year-in-Review

I’ve listed some links below to writing I published in 2017. The essay in The Rumpus and the piece in Conjunctions meant the most to me. Both felt risky to send out.

BeingBodies

 

Nonfiction:

“Women at Work (Letter to Myself at Twenty-Six)” —On sexual harassment in my MFA program. In The Rumpus (mine is the second essay, but please read them all).

“From a Distance” — Some thoughts on wedding planning and the first year of marriage. In Rochester Magazine (scroll to second essay.)

“The World Is Full of Paper. Write to Me.” —A remembrance about my former professor, the Kashmiri American poet, Agha Shahid Ali. In Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali (Ed. Kazim Ali, University of Michigan Press). Ordering information here. An earlier version of the essay can be found online here.

Prose (hybrid):

“Skeleton, Rock, Shell”On trauma narratives & girls. In Conjunctions.

Fiction:

“The Girl with Two Brothers” —More about the lives of girls & women. In Aster(ix).

“Dicot, Monocot”   Followed by a short essay—“The Story Behind the Story.” In Redux.

Essays I recommend by Other People:

Gail Hosking’s “A Conversation on Leaving the University: Getting to the Shore with One Old Paddle and One New One I Haven’t Found Yet.” In Assay.

Rebecca Traister’s “The Moment Isn’t Really (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work.” In New York Magazine.