Monday, July 12, 2021

The #Midwessay: Sejal Shah, Missing the Boat

Missing the Boat

Sejal Shah


I keep thinking about docksiders and L.L. Bean and J. Crew. These nautical themed catalogs and clothing and gear. When I was in high school, I didn't get it. I just knew those clothes were expensive and it seemed crazy to buy clothes by mail, clothes that you couldn't try on first.  I knew I didn't like preppies and I couldn't afford to dress that way. What I learned when I spent a semester in a program at Mystic Seaport run by Williams College (that's preppy for you) with a bunch of other kids from small liberal arts colleges (I too went to one): the importance of water and maritime laws and marine policy. Also, I learned those clothes worked well in weather; my classmates had gear. We were on a boat for two weeks. (I found out I get seasick.) Still, I'm glad I did it. For the maritime history class, I wrote about a bridge across Irondequoit Bay off Lake Ontario. We read Moby-Dick. I learned to sail.

I didn't really know where I lived until I moved to New England. Boston and its suburbs was different than Rochester, New York, where I grew up. Later, when I lived in Iowa, close to the Minnesota border, I realized that Western New Yorkers sound Midwestern. It's the flat A, nasal, the Mid-Atlantic vowel shift. 

What about Western New York is Midwestern? It's a way of inhabiting space. Also, it's how we drive. In that way, Iowa felt familiar. We Rochesterians are not generally in a rush. Where is there to go? In the summer, to one of the narrow, deep, picturesque, small Finger Lakes or to THE Lake (Ontario), our Great Lake. Ontario is our Great Lake, but the smallest of the Great Lakes. Maybe the falls: Niagara, Watkins Glen, Stonybrook, Ithaca, Letchworth ("The Grand Canyon of the East"). We ramble. I digress.

An old boyfriend said, it's not rush hour in Rochester, it's rush twenty minutes. There is traffic, but it's not a defining part of the day and it's not hard to miss it. When I do hit traffic, it always surprises me. 

Let's talk about the Midwest. When I say Iowa, I mean Northeast Iowa. It's not flat like Field of Dreams. It's not writer-filled like Iowa City. I mean the limestone bluffs of Decorah, Iowa, part of the Driftless Region, which also includes Wisconsin. 

When I say New York, it's not Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens, it's Western New York. Western New York is like Iowa, but I didn't grow up in a town of eight thousand like Decorah; I grew up in a white suburb of a mid-sized city in a hypersegregated region. 

When I say Western New York: we are defined by water, but Rochester sprang forth on the banks of a river (the Genesee) and grew via the Erie Canal: our shoreline is not waterfront like the big three: Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland. 

If someone flies into Rochester, Minnesota, they may be visiting a major medical clinic or a Lutheran college. 

If someone visits you in Rochester, New York, it means they love you.

When I first moved to Manhattan, many people ended up staying with me (it felt as if I was running a bed and breakfast on my living room couch); they were friends, but none of them were there to see me. They were there to visit New York City.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Fast Ferry ran between Rochester and Toronto. But even with speed, not enough Canadians wanted to cross Lake Ontario and come over. I wasn't local when the ferry ran or faltered, but I read about it. Now you can see the Port of Rochester and a restaurant and landing that imagined more people. There is something ghostly about it. The ferry failed. Or our imagination failed.

We missed the boat. 

There's something about being a mid-sized city, small town in feel. There's an ease of living—day to day living—and a quiet that comes from living far from I-95, not even so close to the interstate, not near a major metropolis. 

I liked missing the boat or maybe not even having a boat. I don't miss living in the midst of everything or a certain everything. This mindset is what I identify as both Rochesterian and midwestern.


Last Saturday, we took my brother's family to the airport in Boston. My husband drove and as we passed cars and they passed us, I just felt that energy of the coast (and road rage) that Rochester doesn't have. That snaking restlessness of I-95. New England and New York City and New Jersey: you have to get somewhere, be going somewhere, be in motion. You are going to the Cape, or going to New Hampshire, or going to a game. Everyone is going to the mountains, going to the ocean, going to a lake, going to the city, going upstate. No one stays home.

We just mostly never went anywhere. I went to my backyard and the library. It was a good childhood for a writer. It made me curious about the wider world.


I was over forty before I spent time in either Cleveland or Columbus, Ohio. What surprised me about Cleveland is how familiar it felt. Both cities felt more like Rochester than any other I've been to. In Cleveland, we walked over to the waterfront (Lake Erie), saw the outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and watched a Pride Parade. I realized I had not given Ohio a chance, but Ohio was more like me, and I am like Rochester. We are part of the Great Lakes ecosystem. We have a different sense of time, it's unhurried, I think it's more cyclical than coastal. As a chronically late person, I am relieved there's less to do, fewer places to go.

Still, sometimes Western New York feels like the backwaters. At the first driveway gathering of six people I attended post-pandemic, a friend mentioned my book's cover image. I tried to describe it: a flared skirt in motion. I said it was important to me that the dress visually read as Gujarati, as in Northwest India). Where in India? asked someone there I had never met. (Do I need to mention he was the only guy white guy there?) White bike guy launched into his story: he wanted to tell us about National Geographic-sponsored trip to Varanasi. Really? I thought. I wished I were back at home. Or that I lived somewhere else.

Travel is something you undertake for yourself. No one wants to see your slides. It was a moment where I missed the pandemic's staying in. Gatherings: you don't know who will show up. I had sixteen months of no one telling me about India, sixteen months of limited mansplaining. I had lost my tolerance for white nonsense. When I say I am tired, it's that attitude. Read the paper. That provincialism. I have it, too. I prefer to think of it as regionalism.

I think we WNYers are still missing the boat in multiple ways. However, as long as I'm on the shore, this is a good place from which to see the water and to consider how I want to swim and where and how to live. We are well-situated for the climate crisis, which is not a small thing. 

Sejal Shah, conceived in Watertown, Massachusetts, was born and raised in Rochester, New York, nine-ish miles from Lake Ontario. She is the author of This Is One Way to Dance: Essays about race, place, and identity, published by The University of Georgia Press in 2020.

In my book This Is One Way to Dance, there is an essay called "Six Hours from Anywhere You Want to Be." It's about where I grew up: Rochester, in Western New York. It wasn't until after I left my hometown and lived elsewhere (New England, the West Coast, New York City, the Midwest) and then returned that I recognized Western New York and my hometown as Midwestern, as part of the greater Great Lakes Culture by temperament, temperature, geography, climate, weather, and mindset.

From the opening of my essay:

Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and the Southern Tier all hang on to the moniker "Northeast" by their fingernails. In a short story, I once described Western New York as 'disturbingly close to Ohio.' I thought I grew up on the East Coast. It wasn't until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast, they are the Cape.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both a Great Lake and the Atlantic Ocean…If you travel abroad, people will ask you where you live, and you will inevitably hear about how amazing New York City is. You can either nod your head in agreement or explain that you live nearly six hours away from that New York. And where you live is nothing like it."

When I lived in New York City, my writing group was composed of four writers: all of us had grown up a few miles from the Great Lakes (between us, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario). We shared a certain sensibility of being outsiders and we shared an attunement to a sense of place. I feel that still when I talk to other Western New Yorkers like Stephen J. West, a friend and fellow member of my current Rochester-based writing group who was willing to take up my invitation to write about New York, at least our part of the state, as midwestern.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to meet Moheb Soliman, an Egyptian American from the Midwest, and see his performance art and learn about his Great Lakes travel project during his visit to Rochester. Soliman's performance art, reading poems and mapping using an overhead projector and transparencies, strengthened my recognition of Western New York as being part of this larger ecosystem spanning the US Midwest and Canada. (Soliman's book HOMES based on the Great Lakes is just out from Coffee House Press.)

By the end of "Six Hours from Anywhere You Want to Be," I concede that where I live is more like Ohio than any of the other places I lived. And that I like it. Most of the time I do want to do what poet and nonfiction writer Wendell Berry exhorts and "stay home." 

—Sejal Shah, Western New York #Midwessay State Coordinator

Want to contribute a #midwessay? Get in touch. Details on this page.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors


  1. How can I submit an essay on the Midwest theme?

  2. I like this: "When I say New York, it's not Manhattan or Brooklyn or Queens, it's Western New York."