Craft Capsule: Breaking Genre

by
Sejal Shah
6.15.20

This is no. 63 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I.

I’ve always been drawn to hybrid forms, but I didn’t think of them as hybrid until I had to describe my writing to someone else. To say “hybrid” means that you accept genre classifications and other people’s designations. I don’t. I also don’t walk around thinking of myself as hyphenated.1 I’m just me. Some of us don’t fit in the lines someone else drew. 

Like all writers, I am a combination of where I grew up, what I read, who my parents are, the languages I spoke, how safe it is for me to walk at night, my brain chemistry, the number of countries in which my parents grew up, the number of times you told me that I got the job/award/prize because I don’t look like you, the number of ways I learned to duck and weave when you blocked the door. Like all of us, I am a product of how I learned formally or informally what was what—what counts, who counts, and to whom. 

My undergraduate thesis was half poetry, half stories. I wrote and read poetry in high school and college, but then began writing prose. My lines got longer, and line breaks began to feel arbitrary. In my just-released book, This Is One Way to Dance, five of the twenty-three essays were once called stories. There is also an opening poem and a closing poem, which I think of as a lyrical coda. I cannibalized parts of what had once been the nonfiction introduction to my MFA fiction thesis to find the sounds to open and close the essays.2 

Where did my stories go? Where did my poetry go? Even as I pivoted to more nonfiction work, these forms were still there, buried, or sometimes not buried at all. In one essay3 last year, I included fiction in marked, indented sections. In writing about neurodiversity, institutional racism, and sexual harassment, I used excerpts of published short stories of mine to offer a counternarrative and voice—what the nonfiction narrator could not say in her essay. In nonfiction, I was recounting an event. In fiction, I could go to a distressing place without having to explain it. I looked for places where the language needed a different pitch, for example, when I was describing mania: 

I wanted to return to the ocean, I wanted to get cooked. I wrote on the walls in charcoal because all of the other surfaces could move and then I wouldn’t find them. I might not find you.4

Stories allowed me to say what I could not have otherwise said, at least at the time of writing. In the period in which I wrote those stories, I could not have written, as nonfiction, about the reality of being diagnosed with manic depression, adjusting to psychiatric meds that had a severe side-effect of aphasia and cognitive dampening:

They said take this pill. This one or that one, two before sleep. Take four: in the morning or at night. It’s best to avoid alcohol…These things, they said, happen sometimes. There is no relief.5

There is magic in fiction, in not having everything you write be attached directly to you. In my stories I draw from a wilder field, and I’m not worried about how something sounds, if it would make my public self cringe. If you grow up in a deeply private, Hindu, conservative, traditional family as I did, fiction and poetry offered a different code, a cover. I missed that cover when I tried to move to straight nonfiction.6 So why force it? Why choose? I want whatever genre allows me to speak the deepest truth. 

 

II.

Of course, in attempting to make a book, I encountered how the publishing and academic industries enforce limitations, rules, and expectations on writers of color, particularly in regard to genre. We are formless, but to be published you have to choose a form.

My original manuscript for what became This Is One Way to Dance was half stories, half essays, but I did not label them. Most of the pieces had already been published in print journals or online. They had been worked on, vetted, polished, edited. Several agents contacted me over the years, but no one wanted to represent the essay collection as it looks now or my (still) unpublished story collection. I learned that some editors who considered the hybrid manuscript read the stories as nonfiction. Because I wrote either in first or second person, because my narrators were women, because they were South Asian American, because I wrote about Rochester and Brooklyn and New York City and Massachusetts, the unspoken assumption was that I was writing about me.

I published my book without an agent. I still don’t have one. If you are a woman, if you are a writer of color, publishing can only imagine you in a certain box, in a narrative that makes sense to them. There’s a lack of imagination and perspective. There’s racism. At some point I got tired of readers assuming what happens in my stories actually happened. (If you need to know: I don’t have a sister who killed herself; I did grow up in Rochester; I never lived in Ithaca; I did not sleep with my professor. I write essays. If I’m calling it fiction, it’s for a reason). 

Let’s talk about two male writers both named John. John Updike and John Edgar Wideman have both drawn from some autobiographical material in their novels, but their work is accepted and reviewed as fiction. And yet most publishers don’t know how to market, let alone perceive, work by a woman of color as imagined. Our work is seen as ethnographic, dictation, not crafted, not composite, not fiction. White publishing can’t imagine that we too can create, can imagine, can make a story, can make believe. Can make money. Can be of worth, of value. They don’t believe some stories are worth advances, are worth the suspension of disbelief. 

 

III.

In her essay “Genre and Genre Theory,” my graduate school classmate, poet and scholar Dawn Lundy Martin, describes the memory of writing a poem in response to the murder of Yusef Hawkins, a Black teenager murdered by a mob of white men in 1989. It was one of the first times she knew she might be a poet, she says, describing the rightness of the form: “Poetry was the genre that allowed for a manipulation of language so that it could be stretched beyond its everyday capacity to accommodate horrific realities that make up human experience. It creates an illogic, an appropriate response to the rational narratives that attempted, with little success, to provide language for Yusef Hawkins’s murder.”

She goes on to argue for leaning into this “illogic”: poetry’s capacity to stretch, its capacity to defy genre, to create space for the unruly: “If we cannot communicate across a genre ‘divide,’ then perhaps we cannot communicate across a race ‘divide.’” In other words, how we think about writing and genre has urgent implications in real life. 

Martin’s words on poetry—her belief in a genre that breaks genre—are a comfort in and of themselves, but more than that, I was struck by the range of her essay—how the form and content of the essay made the case for crossing boundaries. I saw her place and connect a young Black man killed in 1989 and the newspaper account of it and academia and unsafe neighborhoods and genre and her position as the director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. I saw her write about power and get paid. I saw the academy implicated through language. I want to do that. I am already—writing in this tradition of unsettling genre, of fashioning queer texts. In a blurb for This Is One Way to Dance, Martin wrote: “If a queer text is an unsettled one, crossing cultures, crossing genres, then this book of essays rescripts what we think we know about identity.”

Ultimately, I had to choose a classification for my first book. At the fork in the road, I chose nonfiction; I chose what granted me the most space: essays. Editor and writer Valerie Boyd solicited my work for Crux, the literary nonfiction series she coedits at University of Georgia Press. I made a new manuscript, cutting most of the stories and replacing them with essays. 

Even as I claim a genre, I step outside it.7 It says “essays” on the cover of This Is One Way to Dance, but this word will always contain a more complicated truth—the history and movement and genre slippage and time woven into my text and its history, which I hope offers some kind of challenge to power, to the intent to classify, to discipline. I began sending out my hybrid manuscript in 2016. I sent the first iteration of the nonfiction manuscript in 2017. Then, life: #MeToo, PTSD, a move, an illness, a resettling and evaluating of the manuscript, two rounds of academic peer review (nothing is fast in the academy, and I’m not fast either). My book was published in 2020. In a global pandemic, mass protests and mourning, executions and terror, a reckoning—enough—some movement toward what looks like change.  

Language fractures, is further fractured by others, in its attempt to be spoken. I understand the difficulty and the contortion. I am speaking anyways.

 

IV.

I read my work aloud when I am working on it, when I am revising. My husband read aloud This Is One Way to Dance when I was going through proofs. The sentences have to land; the sounds have to hit a certain note. I’m thinking of when you tune a violin and the string next to it needs to vibrate. That is how I work in most any genre when I am most true to myself. I don’t think about labels. I don’t care about what to call it, what it will be called. We are called. I listen for the sound.

 

ENDNOTES

1. I had a girlhood. It was American because I was in America. I once wrote on Facebook: “I don’t hate Indian [as a qualifier] and I do use it—I just hate the assumptions that writer = white and the rest of us need to have who we are qualified. There’s a writer and then a woman writer. Or a Black writer. Or an Indian American writer. Why not just say writer?” 
2. I always go by sound, which engenders its own accidental hybrid forms. I think of voice-texting and autocorrect. For years if I said my husband’s name, “Raj,” the phone wrote down “Roger.” “Saris” became “sorrows.”
3. “Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability & Neurodiversity” in the Kenyon Review Online.
4. From my story “Watch Over Me; Turn a Blind Eye” in the
Asian American Literary Review.
5. From my story “Climate, Man, Vegetation” in Drunken Boat.
6. In 2011 my friend the poet Philip White told me he thought “Street Scene,” an essay in my book, could be called a lyric essay. I looked up the definition and agreed this rang true: My essay had qualities of both poetry and the essay. It was the first time I had heard this term. 
7. I asked two poets of color, Sarah Gambito and Cathy Park Hong, to help me launch my book. During my virtual launch, they spoke about my books not only as essays, but also claimed and named them as prose poems, meditations. I didn’t know why I asked them and not fiction writers—in my academic career I was a fiction writer through graduate school, visiting professorships, fellowships, and a tenure-track job—but it was a relief to be legible to poets who were always my first tribe.

 

Sejal Shah is the author of This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press). Her writing can be found in BrevityConjunctionsGuernicaKenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Michele Bitetto

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