Monday, August 9, 2010

Left Unsaid: A Conversation of Mirrored Missions & Global Solidarity

Tigist Selam

Ruby Veridiano

Ladies Lotto truly brings powerful women together. When they asked me to connect with artist/writer/activist Tigist Selam, I thought, well, off the bat, we already have so much in common! Last night, we shared dialogue on art for social change, transcontinental upbringings, global movements, and being kindred spirits. Read on!
– Ruby Veridiano

RUBY: So Tigist, let’s get started! Where are you from?

TIGIST: I am Ethiopian and German and grew up in Nigeria, Argentina, and mainly Germany. I left Germany when I was 16 to study in California.

R: It’s so cool that even though you’re from Germany, and I'm from California, we still manage to have so many things in common! Tell me more about your life as an artist.

T: Well, life as an artist in NYC is challenging, but very rewarding at the same time.
I can't imagine myself doing anything else and living anywhere else. My training started in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was three when I was first on stage, and then continued classical training in music and dance. Later I did theater.

R: You've been all over the world. Global perspective is so important in someone's development as an artist. How has your upbringing shaped you?

T: Point of view is everything as an artist. Everything I do has been already done.
So, it’s just about doing it my way. Since I had such a diverse upbringing, I can relate to so many different people. You see more commonalities than differences. Yet, on the flip side- no one seems to understand you. Do you know what I am saying?

R: Yes, I’m the same way! I am Filipina Chinese who grew up in a Chinese culture in Manila. I had to learn three languages growing up: English, Tagalog, and my father's Chinese dialect, Fukien. From a young age, I understood international intersections, and always been aware of a global perspective because I've had to migrate back and forth. In America, it's very uncommon to know more than one language. We are blessed!

T: My first language is Amharic (Ethiopian), then Spanish, then German, and lastly, English. I definitely feel like an immigrant and a resident everywhere I go. But in transitional cities such as SF, London, and NYC, we have an opportunity to learn and share from others.

R: We are both writers and activists. What do you write, and whom do you write for?

T: My writings range from everything, from music to memoirs, to...aah, so much! But nowadays I just concentrate on script writings. All of my travels, people I have met, encounters are crystallized in my writing especially.

R: Another thing we have in common is our activism. What movements are you most passionate about?

T: Well, my dad took me voting when I was 11. He always voted for the underdog, and I never understood why he voted for a party that would never win. My mother held many demonstrations against the Ethiopian government. Both of my parents urged me to watch the news everyday for 15 minutes before going to bed. That was the only TV I got during the week. During lunch, we used to discuss things such as immigration law. Then my mother got her own non-profit organization called the 'the ‘Christian unification of Germans and Ethiopians'. I grew up very conscious in every aspect of my life, so it all flows into my own activism.

R: So now that you're older, what causes are you drawn to?

T: My heart lies in the Youth and Education in Ethiopia.My conscious upbringing never left me, it's just natural for me to be an activist, since both of my parents are activists. Once you know there is a lot of suffering in this world, and you have the power to do something about it, you just do it. I think through education we can see things change in the long term. Especially in Africa, since literacy is so low. I truly believe in education. It all starts in the mind.

T: What about your concerns?

R: We have so much in common! I'm passionate about creating women's empowerment movements on an international level. Right now, I work with a global literacy organization called Litworld, and piloted a Girls Club in NYC- we empower girls through their words, through reading and writing. Soon, I hope I can pilot Girls Clubs Philippines. Currently there are Girls Clubs in Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, and NYC. Soon, I hope, there will be one in the Philippines! My vision is to help bridge this international connection together. I believe in global thinking, but local action.

T: That sounds awesome.

R: People don't realize literacy is such an important tool in empowerment- it is also a crucial tool in developing nations. I believe in the kind of impact I can create as one person. Creating change lies in the forefront of my personal missions.

T: Absolutely! Why is this matter so close to your heart?

R: I was the only girl in a poetry group for quite some time. I guess its natural that I became so sympathetic to women :) I was the only one up on the stage representing the woman's voice! Right now, I’m developing a program called The Glamourbaby Diaries, a writing empowerment workshop for young Asian American women. It has an Asian American history focus and a fashion framework- using fashion and pop culture as tools for critical thinking. I am so excited about it!

R: I know that anything in NYC takes a lot of work and commitment. How do you create success? In what ways do you keep inspired?

T: Well, I am not so sure if what I have is success, but I am on my way! I have to make my art a number one priority, and that can cost a lot of personal relationships. But I never run out of inspiration. I have highs and lows, but I never run dry.

R: What keeps you inspired?

T: I don't just watch films. I am a huge reader, museum visitor, people watcher and nature has been quite the inspiration as of lately.

R: What is your advice for someone who is looking to be an artist in NYC?

T: Make sure you want it. I mean, really want it. Because its a lot of work!!!' You got to dedicate yourself completely to your work as an artist and then simply believe! Know everything about your industry. Keep on learning and reaching!

R: You are in a production called Left Unsaid. Can you tell me about that?

T: I met Nelson George at his book signing in Brooklyn of 'City Kid'. While he signed my book, I told him how much I referenced him in grad school in London. We started talking about literature, hip-hop, music, and film in Fort Greene. At that point, we were living across the street from each other.

He talked about doing this web series, and [asked] if I was interested in participating. Since all the characters are vaguely based on real people, and it is an all woman cast, we had quite the fun shooting. I've just moved back to NYC from LA and decided to go full time into acting and it was just such an experience to have shared an entire summer with these completely different women from all over the world.

Nelson grew up with women and has an understanding on how women think and feel. It is funny and dramatic at the same time. Some of the dialogue touches on class and race. There are themes that explore the issue of gentrification in Fort Greene, race relations in different countries, conspiracy theories, racial stereotypes, bi-sexuality etc. There is just so much in just 3 minutes of one episode. It is a unique piece of work and I am so proud to be part of it.

My character is called "Bethlehem", a common Ethiopian name and the name of my little cousin. Bethlehem is like me, of Ethiopian and German descent. She is 21 years old and a blogger/would-be novelist. She is vulnerable and sensitive at the party and has an emotional response to some of the older women at the party. But at the same time, she has the ability to detach herself and see the whole party as an experiment. She is quite the character.

R: Wow. I can’t wait to check it out. Aside from this project, you’ve also got something big brewing: your nonprofit organization. Tell me about your nonprofit, and what steps did you take to build yours?

T: My non-profit has been on the radar for more than a decade. I worked with a dozen of different organizations internationally. It’s only natural that it is time to have my own now. My undergrad at SFSU was international relations (go figure) with an emphasis on non-profit organizations. I am really connected to the Ethiopian Diaspora and go to Ethiopia frequently. My mission is to raise the literacy rate, especially in the rural areas and introduce a reading culture to Ethiopia. My main goal is perhaps to empower through education.

R: We have such parallel ideas!

T: I know! Kindred spirits.

R: Well, it’s only natural that Ladies Lotto brought us together.


Melinda Mann Rivera said...

Chicas! I love my Tigist and never even knew we had so much in common. I wonder how many LL'ers would call themselves Activist/Artists--it's the best combo there is and I've made a life out of it through teaching. Blessed to be in both your company.


Moc said...

Marry me Tigist