anna brones

writer + artist + activist

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Simran Sethi

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“Empower women and we all do better.”

-Simran Sethi

Journalist, writer, podcaster, speaker, professor: Simran Sethi is many things.

Her work centers around food, sustainability and social change, and whether she’s penning an article about bees for the Smithsonian, podcasting about chocolate, or speaking at a conference, whatever medium she uses, she is committed to connecting with people.

In 2015 she published an excellent book titled Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. That book is ever more topical given the recent United Nations report on the shrinking biodiversity and the risk for global food and agriculture. For example: while 6,000 plant species are cultivated for food, just nine of them account for two-thirds of all crop production. If we don’t prioritize biodiversity and conservation, we are in risk of a serious crisis.

Sethi and I have only met in person once, but thanks to this thing we call the Internet, we have been able to cultivate a friendship. I have a deep respect for the work that she does, and over the course of knowing her, I have discovered many of the commonalities that we share. We had a long conversation last summer, and I only recently got around to transcribing it.

It was so refreshing to listen to it after all this time, the things that we talked about are still relevant and I found myself appreciating this new dose of wisdom from her.

Who is Simran Sethi?

I’m a writer and I’m a professor of journalism and have been a podcast and broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker. I’ve had a number of different designations, but all of them at their very core are about creating something. For me the act of creation is one very specific intention of helping people make better decisions in their lives, providing the kind of information that will support some small or large level of transformation.

You told me that a woman who you shared an apartment with when you were teaching in Rome last summer referred to you as an artist, and that you really appreciated that. Why do you think you haven’t referred to yourself as an artist?

I’m still pretty new to referring to myself as a writer. It has taken me a long time to do that. I mean, even after a major house published my book, I would apologetically and sheepishly say, “I wrote a book.” Probably it comes from very early on in my childhood. My family and I immigrated from Germany, but my parents are of Indian origin. As far back as I can remember, my father gave me five job choices: teacher, lawyer, engineer, doctor, or scholar. My mom encouraged actual artistic creativity in my sister, but I was the bookish one, with glasses at age six, reading a lot. I didn’t see myself as, A: someone who a was creative, or B: was allowed to be creative.

It’s so interesting to me that so many people say “I’m not creative,” even though it’s not a thing that we inherently have or don’t have. It’s something that we can work on. Everyone gets to be creative, no matter whether you’re an engineer or an illustrator. I wonder what it is that’s kept us from embracing that culturally.

I think it even ties in to the notion of a storyteller. Certain people claim that mantle, but we all are telling stories every day. Like I write in my book, we’re made of story. I firmly believe that: we’re engaged in creative acts every day. Whether it’s a spreadsheet, a book or a loaf of bread. We can look to the age of rationalism and philosophers like Descartes, and I can’t really go too far down that road, but I think there’s something there separating out an artist from a thinker, as if these things are mutually exclusive. They are not, they are embedded in each other.

When you think of the word wisdom, what does it mean to you?

The first idea that comes to mind is roots going deep. And the distinction I would make between being smart and being wise. Wisdom feels like a grounded knowledge, being centered and steadier in yourself. To describe someone as wise, to me is to describe someone who is not only knowledgeable about the world, but has a deep relationship with their inner world.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece, or sense, of wisdom that you can remember?

It sounds a bit cliche, but the person who has done this the most, is my mother, with little dust bunnies of wisdom. So much of how I felt about recent decisions that I have made have been elevated by her support. I live a pretty nomadic existence, and there’s a part of that absence of a singular home that feels weird and ungrounded. My mom reminds me how remarkable these decisions are, how lucky I am, how her life would have been so different if she had been allowed to make different kinds of decisions. Her feedback and insights have been really reaffirming for me.

How do you stay grounded within that existence?

I’ll share with you what I share with my mother, to reassure her: I have to find “home” within myself. I used to be a labor support doula, helping women during childbirth. When you’re actually birthing, you’re not moving, you’re birthing, right? You’re walking around ahead of time, you’re rocking or on your hands and knees or doing whatever you do. But in the moment when you’re pushing that life into the world, you’re stationary.

It’s a little bit difficult to drop down into my creative work when I am moving; I have to find still points. And I also know the movement feeds the work. In many cases, it is the work: taking in the world and bringing it back to my respective audiences – whether in print or on a podcast.

I feel like that constantly, that I need solitude and stillness to create the work, but I need movement to inspire the work. That is a tough balance to find.

Exactly. It’s dynamic. So many things feed us. It’s a gift. And, at the same time, I occasionally – rarely now but still – feel like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live a calmer, contained life?” To pick the kids up from soccer, to make dinner with the husband, et cetera.

I have been thinking a lot about what women have to contribute. And I was thinking about all of your work in chocolate, meeting women on the ground. What are some of maybe the old traditions are wisdoms that they have that can help to move us forward in a sustainable way?

Women have a much harder time getting access to capital and land. Yet, they’re the ones who, with whatever money they earn, do a much better job at sustaining the household. It’s just so simple, right? Empower women and we all do better, our entire society will be better. If you give women access to education, credit, work, leadership positions, things will be better.

There’s this one collective of women farmers I met in Dominican Republic who make chocolate. I referenced then in a story I wrote for Yes! magazine. All they wanted was be treated the way the men were and to earn enough money to have some agency in decisions in around their families. Some of them are farmers, but they’ve now also moved into making this value added product, chocolate. The way I saw them take care of each other at the conference where we met, and what I learned about how their role in their communities were being elevated as they were seen as business people. It was quite inspiring.

From a global perspective, women feed us. We grow the crops, we make decisions around food purchases and make the food. We nourish. But these acts have also been taken from us. Women were the first people who made beer – they were called “ale wives” – women were the first to make farmhouse cheese, and so on. It’s only when these kinds of drinks and foods become commodities – when it’s taken away from the province of the home – that they seem to accrue value.

I want to continue to be somebody who calls attention to that and does whatever I can to help shift perceptions around who – and what – women are. I don’t fully know how that will play out but it starts, I think, with what you’re doing: elevating women’s voices.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

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Written by Anna Brones

March 8, 2019 at 06:43