Sejal Shah

On the Architecture of Writing, Creative Collaboration, Exploring the Spaces In-Between, and Her Short Story Collection, ‘How to Make Your Mother Cry

Cover of Sejal Shah: On the Architecture of Writing, Creative Collaboration, Exploring the Spaces In-Between, and Her Short Story Collection, ‘How to Make Your Mother Cry: Fictions’

In Sejal Shah’s How To Make Your Mother Cry: Fictions (West Virginia University Press, 2024), the protagonist mentions: “(I was an unusual child, or perhaps very ordinary.)” There’s nothing ordinary about this collection, which traces the story of women and girls growing up and growing into their own lives. The stories are mythic, poetic, often featuring important talismans and unnamed characters, moving backwards and forwards in time with fluidity. Carefully curated ephemera—photographs (both personal and historical), drawings, letters—punctuate the stories, constructing a constantly evolving story of identity and selfhood.

I read How To Make Your Mother Cry shortly after reading Sejal Shah’s 2020 collection of essays, This Is One Way To Dance. I was struck by how much the books echoed each other—they are both interested in a complication of binaries, in the spaces in-between. I spoke with Sejal over video about the many versions of her book, the architecture of writing, and how she constructed her unconventional story collection. 


Nirica Srinivasan: I read your essay collection, This is One Way To Dance [TIOWTD], recently. It was great to read your books so close together—I feel like they talk to each other so much!

Sejal Shah: I was just thinking about how How to Make Your Mother Cry [HTMYMC] is really a companion book to This is One Way to Dance.

NS: HTMYMC has the subtitle “fictions”, rather than “stories”. Why did you choose that word?

SS: I’m better known as an essayist than as a fiction writer. It’s true for women of color and writers of color that often, there’s a desire to read our fiction as nonfiction, as though it’s not imagined and not created—even though there are many fiction writers like John Updike or John Edgar Wideman who use some autobiographical material in their fiction as a jumping off point. I do the same. It’s also often a gendered assumption, as though women are just writing about our own lives and our own experiences. I think that it’s misogynistic—the idea of who gets to be a creative writer, who gets to make up things and have their imagination seen as valid and worthwhile.

I will also hear people say, colloquially, “Oh, I love the stories in TIOWTD”, even though they’re essays—they’re true stories. For me, using the word “fiction” was a way to emphasize that, although there are poems and images and some autobiographical material, ultimately the genre is fiction. I chose the plural, fictions, because for a long time I’ve used this tag: a writer of Fictions and Truths. It’s a way that I think of myself. I love subtitles that are a little different.

NS: I was struck by the poetry of the writing in HTMYMC. How do you approach writing your prose with poetry in mind?

SS: Something that’s not as well-known about me is that I began my writing life as a poet. I did my undergraduate thesis in creative writing, and it was half in poetry, half in fiction. I’ve been walking this line, and my interest has been both in lyric and narrative for a very long time. That continued as I began to write more and more nonfiction, and you can see it in my fiction as well. Similar to TIOWTD, HTMYMC was also written over a span of twenty years. When I sit down to write, I don’t necessarily think ‘I’m going to write a story, I’m going to write nonfiction, I’m going to write a poem.’ I write and see what emerges. Then I try to shape that.

NS: What’s it like to revisit work you’d written so long ago?

SS: Sometimes it’s awkward because I have changed as a writer. There are moments where, honestly, I cringe a little because I see that it’s an earlier way that I wrote. But that happens with TIOWTD, too, now that it’s been a few years! We keep changing and growing. I didn’t do any major revisions on these stories the way I did in some of the essays. I felt the stories had their own shape, and I was happy with them individually. The challenge for me was figuring out the order of the stories, how they worked together.

NS: How did you decide on the structure you have in the book? There are named sections—“a girl walks into the forest”, “a girl is lost in the woods”, “a girl claws her way out”.

SS: It went through quite a process. Initially I had a different order of the stories, and they were not in sections. I also didn’t have poems and images, so it looked more like a conventional story collection. But as I worked on it, I felt I was interested in doing something different than what I had seen, and even what I did in my first book. Images were really interesting to me. I thought that the sections and the subheadings might help the reader to have a little bit of scaffolding for the collection.

I would still make changes now—that’s the kind of writer I am! One of the challenges in publishing a book is you have to make a decision, and then let it go. For a long time, I actually had the essays in TIOWTD in sections, and ultimately I made the decision to take the sections and subheadings out. But I’ve always been interested in divisions and subheadings, the form of sections, so it was something that I enjoyed trying in HTMYMC.

NS: Throughout your book, there are talismans and artifacts—photographs, handwritten notes, a playlist at the beginning. What were these like to collect and curate?

SS: It was really fun, and it was a lot of work! The story collection had existed as a more conventional story collection for many years. My agent asked me if I had any additional stories to add. I said, no, this is the collection as I see it. Then I mentioned I was thinking of adding images. And she liked that idea. I think that came out of the fact that in TIOWTD, I often reference objects and artifacts and images. But at that time, I didn’t quite know how to put them in the book itself. I did a lot of events over Zoom, since it was in the early part of the pandemic, and I would often pick up and show an object that I had written about. I started to think, what would it be like to have those objects in the book?

It was fun and challenging to figure out where to include these touchstones—I think of them as poetic pauses. I needed to figure out the juxtaposition between the story and the images, how they play off each other. I found it incredibly satisfying. I’ve always admired photographers and visual artists, and it helped me to think about myself as one too, as a curator. We live in a very visual world. It made me think, why is the convention that books only consist of text?

NS: Some of the artifacts are scans of feedback on your stories, from workshop notes. I’ve never read a story and then had commentary on the story in real time! What was the thought process behind that?

SS: As both a teacher and student, the commenting and feedback process was so important for me—and it wasn’t always positive. Including Jim Foley’s comments—those were the best comments that I got, really—was a way to include him and my memory of him. He’s known as a journalist, but he was also a terrific fiction writer. The book for me is also about memory and memorials. Bringing in Jim’s comments was a way for me to honor him while also giving the reader a little bit of a glimpse into what the process of writing stories is like. I really loved what he had to say. I thought it could give the reader a way into some of the stories that are a little more innovative or experimental.

NS: There’s a line I loved in the story “The Half King”: “It was just a moment and I hadn’t needed to make it visible.” A lot in your writing isn’t straightforward: events are alluded to, perspectives shift. How do you approach what must be made visible, what is excluded, and what gets to be kind of translucent?

SS: “Translucent”—I love that as a metaphor. One thing that is so powerful about short stories is how they can give us a way into this in-between space. No matter what is written, there’s space in fiction for what is not said. It’s part of the power of fiction to create a world and then to leave some space in it for the reader to inhabit. I would say that I don’t work that self-consciously as a writer—some of this is doing the writing and seeing how the writing emerges, and then going back and doing a lot of revision and reworking. It’s a delicate balance—how much do you give the reader? How much do you create a space and allow there to be some ambiguity?

The different kinds of scaffolding were a way to give the reader some rungs, a way in, if the stories themselves seemed a little more innovative. With “The Half King”, there are a lot of time leaps, moving back and forth in time. The subheadings in the story were another kind of scaffolding to give the reader a foothold. Maybe it’s challenging for some readers, if it’s slippery—where are you in the story? And yet, I find life to be challenging. In real life, you’re also trying to figure out, what is the story? Where do I fit in? How do I read or interpret a conversation that I have had with someone? There’s so much that’s unsaid. I try to represent some of that: what is unsayable between people.

NS: I love the architecture analogy—the scaffolding helps readers navigate your book, but also shows parts of the building process itself, like with the feedback. You’re not just giving the reader a story.

SS: You know, at one time, TIOWTD and HTMYMC were part of the same book. I didn’t include all of the essays or all of the stories, but I had a version of the book that was a hybrid manuscript. I sent that version out to presses and contests, and it was a finalist several times. But part of what was challenging was that I didn’t label what was fiction and what was nonfiction. I realized we come in with different expectations if we’re reading nonfiction or fiction. I had an editor at University of Georgia Press who was interested in publishing the nonfiction, so I separated them out and came to see the essays and stories as distinct projects, distinct books.

NS: You’re interested in the spaces in-between—between cultures, identities, forms. What draws you to that?

SS: Maybe this is the part of the work that’s most autobiographical, having grown up between at least two cultures, and I would say even more—having parents that are from two different countries, Kenya and India, and then growing up in the United States, and growing up not in a major metropolitan area but at a distance from major cities. I grew up in a suburb, but just a few blocks from the city line in Rochester, New York, so even in my community, I lived on the border between two very different municipalities. It is just part of my worldview.

In another interview, the writer noted that the protagonist in HTMYMC is an outsider in all these different ways. I think that’s sometimes true of me. If I think about the films and books that have made an impression on me, there is always a character who feels a little bit apart and is observing what is around her.

NS: Your acknowledgments section is so extensive and grateful. Do you think of writing as a collaborative process?

SS: It surprised me when I looked at it myself to see how long it is! I was looking at another book recently and I thought I could have divided them, so I’d have ‘publication credits’ where stories were previously published. But even then, I would want to acknowledge the editors. Editing is a lot of work, and often invisible work. Acknowledgements are a place where the invisible can be made visible. I really appreciate, as a craft, “visible mending”—you can see the stitches, and that’s part of it. I think of acknowledgements that way.

The acknowledgements for me are a kind of author’s note, to draw attention to these collaborations and these conversations. Especially when you work on a book over a long period of time, and it takes time to find the right publisher for it, it’s important to acknowledge those conversations. But this book is also a snapshot of a certain moment in time, so it reflects how I was thinking about acknowledgements at that time. There’s something of my personality that’s maybe even a little obsessive about trying to remember and acknowledge every possible influence—and there’s no way that one can do that. Acknowledgements are always incomplete.

I believe in erring on the side of gratitude. The artist’s life is not one that’s easy, but one that’s very rich, if you’re lucky enough to have conversation partners, collaborators, people who you think through some of this artistic work that we do on our own, and which is solitary and sometimes very lonely. Because of the way I worked on this book, it felt much less lonely to me. So yes, I do think of the writing process, especially with this book, as collaborative. I was also lucky enough to have an assistant, Abbey Frederick, who worked with me on compiling and wrangling the images and epigraphs into a specific order. We talked about those choices a lot.

NS: I love the inclusion of “companion texts” at the end of the book, influences on you and your writing. Even with epigraphs—one book can introduce you to so many different works. Your book does that in so many ways!

SS: The companion texts were important for me! It’s interesting that you bring up epigraphs—an earlier version of this book had epigraphs between each story, and from many of the writers that are included in the companion texts. I spent a lot of time deciding which epigraph would go before which story. There were a couple of reasons why they were removed. When the book went through peer review, one of the readers felt that they took him or her out of the book. But also, it’s expensive and time-consuming to get permission—for example, there was one permission request where I heard back from the publisher months later, after the book had already gone into production.

Originally, I had epigraphs from Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Sheila Heti, Sujata Bhatt, among others. The inclusion of a section on companion texts was a way of keeping some of those influences in there that I couldn’t keep as epigraphs.

NS: What is your writing practice like? How do dance and movement influence your writing?

SS: My writing practice includes morning pages [a freewriting practice popularized in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way]. Journaling is a foundational building block for me. Free writing, automatic writing—I’ve been doing it since I learned of it in high school, so a long time ago! Another thing I love to do is to write with other writers. Sometimes I do that over Zoom, which has been great because it allows me to stay connected to writer friends and collaborators who live in other places.

Dance is really important to me. I grew up writing and dancing—I started learning how to dance when I was four or five, so it has felt as fundamental to me as reading and writing. You can be in this one-dimensional space if you are just writing, just in front of your computer. The flexing and stretching of the body in space, even the kind of proprioception we feel as the body moves in space, helps me inhabit different parts of the writing, and different parts of myself. I used to take a class called 5Rhythms. It’s these wonderful movement meditation practices, and you move through these five rhythms—flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness, which together form a wave. I suppose the story can move that way too, with increasing tension; it could be a version of the Freytag triangle!

NS: I’d love to hear more about a specific story in your collection, my favorite one—“Ithaca Is Never Far”, a retelling of the Penelope myth. 

SS: Some of these stories I worked on for years, but “Ithaca Is Never Far” came out in a rush. That story was really a gift. It came out of a trip I made to India and taking the night train from Chennai to Bangalore. I hadn’t been to India in several years at that time, so my visit made a huge impression on me, as any kind of travel does. I was in my late twenties then. Part of my experience in the US, growing up in an Indian community, was people trying to set you up, and feeling the pressure of finding a partner. Do you know the film When Harry Met Sally? I love that movie, and I love the interstitial stories of how people met, how they fell in love, how they ended up together, how they got married. That’s one of my all-time favorite kinds of origin stories—how two people met, whether it’s a romantic relationship or not. We have such an emphasis on romantic relationships and partnerships in this culture, and in Indian culture, too. I was thinking about this—how do you find the right person? Or any important person in your life. Is it the story that’s more interesting, about how I met this person? Or do you meet the person and then you create the story, you make up the myth?

I do sometimes wish that “Ithaca Is Never Far” was the first story in the book. I probably paused because of the word “incest,” which would’ve then been in the first sentence in the book. Because of the kind of writer and person I am, I will always see other versions of the book. The book that you’re holding in your hand is only one version.


Sejal Shah is a writer and interdisciplinary artist. Her debut story collection, How to Make Your Mother Cry: fictions, was published by West Virginia University Press on May 1st, 2024. Her award-winning essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, was a university common read and an NPR Best Book of 2020. Her writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Guernica, The Guardian, the Kenyon Review, Lit Hub, Poets & Writers, and The Rumpus, among others. She lives in Rochester, New York. Find her online at and @sejalshahwrites on Instagram and X.

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