Finding Friendship in Pandemic Collaboration

Sejal Shah on Making an Illustrated Playlist With Shebani Rao

My debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, is a series of gestures, conversations, elegies, and remembrances: a constellation of memories of childhood, life-defining friendships, family, teachers, Navaratri, food, journeys, places, and loved ones. In 25 essays written across 20 years, I wrote about growing up brown in mostly white spaces, the daughter of a Kenyan mother and Indian father, and coming of age in Western New York, closer to Toronto than Manhattan, having seen neither of my parents’ homelands. The essays are about locating love and home.

Last year, I had started to make a playlist for Dance, with thoughts of submitting it to David Gutowski’s Largehearted Boy: A Literature and Music Blog’s playlists, which I had admired for years. Music was as important to me as dance when I was writing this book. I made a list: the idea was to have one song per essay. But I was exhausted, so I put the playlist aside. I had nothing pithy to say about each song. I wasn’t sleeping. The moment was not conducive to thinking about music’s joy. 

Six months later, I saw a beautiful illustration by Shebani Rao of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop with my book on one of the bookshelves. AAWW meant so much to me as a writer. I had participated in and attended many events there. Because of the pandemic, I had never seen my book on any shelves anywhere (bookstore, library). I looked up Shebani and read that she was interested in collaborating with other artists. We talked on the phone and that’s when I had the idea to revisit the playlist, but in illustrated form! 

As we started talking about how each of the tracks related to an essay and what I was trying to convey with song choices from “Like the Weather” to “Eye of the Tiger” to “Bizarre Love Triangle,” we formed a friendship. I described what it was like to listen to 10,000 Maniacs in high school (they are also from Western New York and were our local legends). We mused about Des’ree, Dar Williams, Tracy Chapman, and the Mississippi Masala  soundtrack. We also talked about TLC’s “No Scrubs” (my version of dating advice that my younger self did not take). Through nine months of conversations in the isolation and chrysalis of the pandemic, these drawings and a kinship emerged.

Shebani and I decided to use the project, which developed over most of this year, to expand on some of the key themes in This Is One Way to Dance: time and region, friendship and music, movement and place, depression and loss. I told Shebani about what it was like to lose a dear friend to suicide when I was in my twenties. LeeAnne had also struggled with depression. 

We also wanted to deepen other themes, particularly around race and being Asian American in relation to Blackness and not just whiteness as default. We talked about growing up desi / brown in America a generation apart. Through those conversations, we created a mixtape inspired by Shebani’s incredible and funny drawings: a visual guide for our visual era.

Our illustrated playlist (below) consists of several short comics. Each tells a story, which relates to a particular essay and its accompanying track. At the beginning of each comic, Shebani lists the song and the corresponding title of the essay on which the drawing is based. We ordered the comics chronologically to capture the arc of This Is One Way to Dance: from surviving middle school to becoming a writer, to dating the wrong person (more than once), to meeting a friend who changes your life (LeeAnne), to failing out of a career on which I’d staked my whole identityand moving home, starting again, finding my footing. Also, going to Burning Man (I think that’s the essay my mom most hated, but I’m glad it’s here and I love the comics Shebani made).

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A Note on the Bonus Tracks: tracks at the end of playlist include dance hits from the Bend It Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding soundtracks and two of my favorite wedding songs from the 80s: New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” (a regular at every reception) and America’s “You Can Do Magic” (first dance at my own wedding). And finally, there’s Dar Williams’ “Northern California Wants to be Western New York” because when do you ever hear anyone say Western New York who doesn’t live here? You don’t—except in this song.

Shebani Rao and Sejal Shah
Shebani Rao and Sejal Shah
Sejal Shah writes across genres and disciplines. Her debut essay collection was an NPR Best Book of 2020 and included on over thirty most-anticipated lists. Her neurodiversity essay in the Kenyon Review Online is one their most widely-viewed pieces. She is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @SejalShahWrites.

Shebani Rao (she/her/hers) is a comic artist and illustrator. She makes work about race, identity, health, and pop culture. Her art has been featured in The Margins, Buzzfeed India, Tides, and others. She also collaborates with various nonprofits. You can check out her daily musings on Instagram: @shebanimal.





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