What Matters: Tanya Selvaratnam on the Secret Joy of Turning 50 and Daydreaming

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Tanya Selvaratnam is the author of Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence and THE BIG LIE; and an Emmy-nominated and multiple Webby-winning producer. She is also a Senior Advisor at Gender Justice Narratives for the Pop Culture Collaborative. 

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Looking at trees. I get my clearest ideas when I’m sitting on my deck in Portland, Oregon, and looking at the giant trees. 

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

Daydreaming—as a child in California, I was always daydreaming during the long early-morning car ride from my house in Long Beach to my school in East Los Angeles. My mother would ask me what I was thinking about, and I’d respond, “Nothing.” I still daydream constantly. 

What is your biggest regret?

Not standing up to bullies in my elementary school. At the time, I was quiet, introverted, and I comforted myself with the notion that I was glad I wasn’t mean like them. It took me a while to build up the “stand up for myself” muscle. 

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I get out of my house so I’m not surrounded by memories of the relationship. Rilke wrote, “…for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Both after my divorce and then when I got out of an abusive relationship, I kept traveling and traveling to see friends or for work. During the pandemic, I was fortunate my heart didn’t get broken because it would have been hard to travel.

What makes you cry?

I rarely cry for myself, but I cry when I see other people cry. Especially someone I’m close to. And when I’m watching a movie, and a good character dies, I cry. If I’m watching on a plane, I cry harder. It’s easier for me to cry on planes—something about the altitude and displacement.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

A couple of months at most, and then I get antsy to accomplish something new.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I’ve read Brian Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters and Laura Lynne Jackson’s The Light Between Us, both of which convinced me of the possibility of an afterlife and that when we die, we don’t disappear. Earlier this year, I had a session with a mind-blowing medium, and I did a past life regression. My past lives were not easy. I hope my afterlife is easier; I’d like it to be where I can see lots of trees and owls.  

What do you hate most about yourself?

I don’t hate anything about myself anymore. Turning 50 this year made me accepting of myself.

What do you love most about yourself?

My friends—they make my world go round. I don’t really like birthdays, or even holidays—enforced group rituals in general—but every birthday I see as a marker not of growing older but of knowing friends one year longer. 

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Coquille St. Jacques, scallops served in a shell with a creamy mushroom sauce and a potato gratin border. When I was a kid, I had it in a restaurant in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. As an adult, in my early years in New York, I used to go at all hours of the night to have it at the much-missed Florent in the Meatpacking District. Now, I am searching for a restaurant that makes a great one.