Summer Teaching & Literary 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 bring 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 way 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, incuding 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

AAWW

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.

 

Me Too; You, Too

So, this week I wrote my first reader comment in The New York Times in response to a ridiculous comment on Roxane Gay’s Op-Ed, “Dear Men: It’s You, Too.”  This is the beginning of her essay—with the reader comments below. R made this merge of two screenshots his Instagram pic of the day on 10/19/17, and I’m reposting it here.

 

GLRZ8590Besides reading Gay’s Op-Ed, this week, I also read a thoughtful column in The Kenyon Review Blog as I spent way too much time on the internet, trying to make some sense of these last two weeks—all the stories in the NYT about Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment and rape. And then so many other accounts from so many women. And then Twitter.

I had brought with me to this residency both stories (my fiction manuscript) and essays (nonfiction manuscript) to revisit and revise. I started to think about why I had not written about some experiences in nonfiction, and had only written about those subjects obliquely, in fiction. Caroline Hagood‘s column, “Me Too and the Trauma Narrative,” got to the heart of this for me:

The logic of trauma is epic and for me it has always seemed to demand a certain encoding to guard safety. Maybe this is why I’m not a memoirist. I never like to talk about what happened to me head-on.

It’s something I can only show you sideways, tilted at an angle that makes it hard to identify but familiar still. I can only fictionalize all through the night and then get on the subway to my morning life….

Read the rest of Hagood’s essay in The Kenyon Review Blog here.  

I served as biweekly columnist for the The Kenyon Review in 2016, and one of my columns also dealt with the subject of trauma. I am interested in beginning to tackle some of what I’ve written about in fiction perhaps now in nonfiction. This is new ground for me. But if not now, then when?***

***Update: I published this short essay about grad school in The Rumpus in November (scroll to second piece). #metoo

Making Time

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Where I am this month: the Anderson Center at Tower View, an artist residency in Red Wing, Minnesota. I’m writing and revising, and trying to get out of my way to work.

So here’s something my friend Geeta wrote recently about time, grief, and writing that resonated with me:

One day, around the time my parents died, I finally understood that time isn’t an infinite, renewable resource. After the grief, came the despair. I added up all the wasted hours. So many, with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. Of course, I couldn’t actually add up all my wasted hours because I never kept track of them. This was a period when I didn’t keep a journal or a schedule on paper. Even when I began writing seriously, I paid little attention to how I used my time. I measured my progress by how many pages I filled, how many drafts I wrote, publications. This last item seems a little insane now because rejections for my stories far outnumbered acceptances (and still do)…

I don’t want to live the rest of my life regretting things. You don’t either. Geeta makes a good case for how to spend your time on what counts (if writing deeply and daily counts to you). You can read the rest of her essay / blog post here

2017 Summer Roundup

2017 Summer Roundup

This summer careened by, dizzy from travel (Ohio three times; Mexico; Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island; Pittsburgh) and some enormous changes. My beloved grandmother passed on July 31. Her absence is palpable. I am still trying to adjust to the fact that I can’t eat dinner next to her or braid her hair for her (as she used to do for me when I was young); or bring her a jasmine flower from my plant (she loved the fragrance and would lift the tiny blossom to her face, close her eyes, breathe in, and smile); or just sit with her and talk and laugh. I used to see her most days. My parents’ house feels empty now.

IMG_9291I wrote a poem about her when I was sixteen, first published in my high school literary magazine, then in Hanging Loose magazine, and finally reprinted in the Hanging Loose Press anthology, Bullseye: Outstanding High School Writers. R. posted this photo of my poem on Instagram.

Now, R and I are packing up to move from our first apartment to our first home. We bought a house—I’ll finally have room (I hope) for all of my books.

In between house hunting and later-stage hospice, I taught a seven-week creative nonfiction class, which included reading and writing in response to Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. It feels important to be writing about race, place, responsibility, privilege, ambivalence, what we love, what we struggle with, what we hope will change about our country, and how we are part of all of it. If you haven’t read this book yet, please do.

Next on my list to read, re-read, and teach: essays by James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. What are you reading to help you get through this particular time? Please comment and let me know.

Here’s my writing-related news update—

Conjunctions.jpg

Writing:

My story-essay, “Skeleton, Rock, Shell,” will be published in Conjunctions 69: Being Bodies (Fall / Nov 2017). R took the screenshot of the table of contents (in-progress) above. Yes—that’s Rick Moody and Anne Waldman in the same issue (!!!). I love Conjunctions, and have been published by them online, but this will be my first time in their print journal.

My story collection, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was selected by Paul Yoon as a finalist for the 2017 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction from Sarabande Books. Sarabande will publish the winner of the prize, Tiny Heroes, Tiny Villains, by Robert Yune.

My essay collection, Things People Say, was named a finalist for the 2017 Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Competition, selected by Renee Gladman. More info in the link.

Readings, Festivals, & NYFA:

IMG_3157

Some of the audience saying hey. Those are the other fellows smiling at me in the first row.

In June, I was a Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshops. Here’s a photo from the fellows’ reading, where I shared my essay about a former teacher, the poet Agha Shahid Ali. When I remember to, I like to take photos of the audience. This was a great one.

Reading at The Library of Congress, July 29, 2017

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


July: I also read the essay (published this past April in Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, edited by Kazim Ali, University of Michigan Press) at the Library of Congress, for the Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival, with Karen Tei Yamashita and Kundiman Fellows Vt Hung and Mark Keats.

It felt significant to read in our nation’s capital at the Library of Congress, as an Asian American writer myself in front of an audience of mostly other Asian American writers, scholars, poets, and readers. Several people came up to me afterward or emailed me to say that they were moved by the essay and reading. I felt that way about the events I attended, too.

To buy a copy (and/or ask your library to buy a copy) of Mad Heart Be Brave, head over here.

IMG_3812In August, I took part in the NYFA (the New York Foundation for the Arts)  2017 Artist-as-Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Lots to learn about as I gear up to begin offering private writing workshops and mentoring in 2018. If you are a writer or artist in New York State, I recommend applying to this program, which is offered several times a year around the state—the next one is in Albany.

Thanks to Brooklyn-based writer Roohi Choudhri, who told me about the bootcamp. She teaches privately and has a terrific set of in-person and online offerings for writers. Check out her website here.

Other Nice Stuff:

Every once in a while I Google my name to see what the internet rolls back at me. I found this mention on a website library discussion board called LibraryThing. Here is what one user posted about writers of South Asian origin:

6 cindydavid4: Though I’m a big reader of Indian-American writers (or, more broadly, American writers of South Asian origin), and I’ve read some [Chitra Banerjee] Divakaruni, I’m not a fan of her work. I can’t pinpoint why exactly because I haven’t spent enough time thinking it through. I only know that, after forcing myself to get to the end of her collection of stories Arranged Marriage: Stories, I have not picked up another of her books.

These days, the most interesting writing by Indian-American (or writers of South Asian origin) women writers I am liking are: Nina McConigleyTanwi Nandini IslamTahmima AnamMira JacobSejal ShahTania JamesJade Sharma, and more.

With male writers of South Asian origin, these are most interesting to me these days: Amitava GhoshAkhil SharmaVikram Chandra — whose Sacred Games is going to be a Netflix series, Kanishk TharoorKaran MahajanAnuk ArudpragasamSunil Yapa, et al.

I’m flattered to be in such company. The other folks have books. I’m working on it.