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A Conversation with Tanya Selvaratnam: Writer, Actor, Activist & Producer

Writer, actor, activist and producer. Those are just some of the words that describe Tanya Selvaratnam, an Emmy Nominated and Webby- winning producer and author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock.Tanya S 2

Born in Sri Lanka and raised in California, Tanya Selvaratnam was encouraged to pursue the type of vocation familiar to many South Asian families in the field of medicine or law.  Despite this, her parents exposed her to various forms of art when she was a child, taking her to shows, movies and music events.  It was through those experiences that she cultivated her passion for the arts, something she initially suppressed due to her family pressure.


[My parents] had a deep love for art and entertainment. When I was a child we would go see Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Willie Nelson. My father loved country music so we listened to a lot of Country music stars like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Kris Kristofferson. It’s just not something they thought that I would do myself.

However, the pull to act, to become someone else and play another story, drew Tanya to take theatre in high school and college. It was an experience that she loved and that helped her come out of her shell.


Her career in the arts started after the death of her father in 1994, when she tried to focus on things that made her happy during her time of mourning.  It was through this journey that she found her joy with her artistic expression. In 1995, during her time in graduate school at Harvard, she was given the opportunity to work as a youth organizer for the steering committee of the NGO Forum on Women in China.  Later on, she was hired as an assistant by Anna Deavere Smith to help with the playwright and production with Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a broadway production about the Los Angeles riots. From there, she started coming into contact with other people in the arts such as the Wooster Group in which she was a performer, becoming a global success and officially branding herself as an artist.


She moved to New York, where she started producing films in 1998. Her recent work as the Executive Video Producer and Director for Glamour magazine’s 2017 Women of the Year Award showcased honorees such as Maxine Waters, Solange Knowles, Patty Jenkins, Nicole Kidman, Samantha Bee and Peggy Whitson. Her first produced film, On_Line, directed by Jed Wientrob, got her into the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, launching her career as a producer that opened the doors for her film to be played on channels such as HBO, PBS, Sundance Channel and much more.


Her success wasn’t limited to that of a producer. Her book, The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism and the Reality of the Biological Clock appeared in Vogue, CNN News, Bust, Huffington Post, The Stranger, Pop and Politics, Toronto Review, and Women’s eNews to name a few. Her book, a deeply personal and candid account of her journey through miscarriages, loss and infertility, challenges the idea of feminism with regards to delayed motherhood, fertility and the lack of information for women who want to get pregnant.  It was a book that garnered much support as well as criticism.


I was prepared for the reaction both positive and critical because the subject was a loaded one. Because it talks about abortion, miscarriage and infertility. Subjects every woman has experience with whether it be her own or her sister’s or her mother’s, but rarely talk about. I felt compelled to write the book because of the personal experience I was having with multiple miscarriages, and the more I talked to my friends the more I realized that they had their own personal experiences, but we had never discussed this. And I thought, why aren’t we talking about this?

Identifying herself first and foremost as a Humanist, Tanya uses her talents to make an impact in her activism. Teamed with organizations such as the World Health Organization, Gays Against Guns, Third Wave Foundation, Artists for Tsunami Relief, Ms. Foundation for Women, World Conference on Women and The Do school, her greatest personal successes are what she does to raise awareness of social injustice and women’s empowerment around the world.  It was through her activism that she has found great joy, meeting and collaborating with many like minded women such as her mentor, Soon-Young Yoon, a women’s human rights activist, who currently serves as the United Nations representative of the International Alliance of Women.  


The time that we are in has been called the reckoning and I say it’s the reckoning and the purge. It’s the reckoning that women have been oppressed, subjugated and discriminated against for a very long time and that when you bring race into the mix, women of colour, are especially discriminated against. It’s not that the systems are broken, it’s that the system is working exactly as it should and they need to be replaced.  I feel like we live in terrifying times but they are also exciting times because there are more people calling themselves activist than I’ve seen in my lifetime. I feel like once we get through this period of tumult that we will ultimately be in a period of progress where we can strive towards greater equality. If you look at what’s happening in America for the past year, it really has been women leading up on a positive path. Women who are leading in the fight to save health care, women who are leading in the fight to end abuse and discrimination with the MeToo movement. Women are leading the resistance and leading the revolution and I believe they will lead humanity. However, it is important to do so in collaboration with men and to recognize men who are doing the right thing while holding accountable those who are not.

There was a passion in her voice as she expressed her thoughts on the MeToo movement. The tinge of excitement coupled with the hard work she puts in to promote women and women’s equality, gave a clear indication of what aspect of her work she valued so dearly.  It was also clear that the same message she strives to share with other women, was one that she lived by in her own life. As a Tamil woman, to be able to make a name for herself in mainstream media required a degree of tenacity to break free from the cultural barrier that is heavily influenced by our surroundings and community.


It’s important to understand those who try to control you or suppress you because a lot of it comes from conditioning. They have not evolved, but it’s important to, if you can’t control the way people treat you, then it’s important to control the way you react to them. So, focus on how you are going to be free and how you are going to be satisfied. Stop judging yourself through the lens of others.

Her self-identity as a human first, and second as a Tamil woman, was a clear indication of her refusal to limit herself to one aspect of who she was. Perhaps it was that distinction, and how she viewed herself, beyond cultural constraints, that helped elevate her to where she is now. Giving her the courage to explore, expand and make her mark on the world.


Know your passion, know your power, figure out who has the career you would most like to emulate and learn about how they got to where they are. Never let any deter you from your passion because we have one life to live and it’s important to be happy and fulfilled. And if you are struggling, figure out who can support you and have your back. Don’t be alone.

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