I am thrilled to announce that in a little over three weeks Voice of Witness (VOW) will publish it’s latest book, Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy and my name will be on the title page.
“The men and women in Invisible Hands reveal the human rights abuses occurring behind the scenes of the global economy. These narrators—including phone manufacturers in China, copper miners in Zambia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and farmers around the world—reveal the secret history of the things we buy, including lives and communities devastated by low wages, environmental degradation, and political repression. Sweeping in scope and rich in detail, these stories capture the interconnectivity of all people struggling to support themselves and their families. ” To read more about the collection visit http://voiceofwitness.org/labor/.
I first learned of Voice of Witness in 2010 while I was on a road trip with several of my best friends that I had studied abroad with in college. We stopped off in San Francisco in December and found out that Peter Orner and Annie Holmes were speaking about VOW’s latest book Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives. Already interested in checking it out, we discovered that the event was to be held at 826 Valencia – San Francisco’s only independent Pirate supply store (also a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students with their writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write). So naturally we had to go.
Peter and Annie’s stories of working on the book were incredible and moving. I had just submitted my Fulbright application about a month earlier and as I listened to them talk about how oral history is a powerful way to address human rights issues I had a moment of clarity. I felt, with almost uncomfortable certainty, that I wanted to do something similar with my work in India. I approached Peter and Annie after their talk and nervously told them about my hopes about getting the research grant to go study cotton farming in India. I asked with some trepidation how they got involved with VOW and what had led them to working on this book. Could random, inexperienced folks such as myself suggest book topics? Was it crazy to wonder if I could ever work on a book on cotton farmer suicides with VOW? I was filled with adrenaline and a curiously potent mix of nervous confidence.
But one step at a time. I had to get to India first. I had just submitted my application and it would be months before I would hear if I had received the grant and was going to India.
By the time I finally found out that I was going to India it was April, 4 months since I’d first heard of VOW and met Peter and Annie at 826 Valencia. I was so overcome with relief and excitement that I had gotten the Fulbright that I didn’t think of Voice of Witness until a year later when I was in Kochi at a conference for Fulbright researchers and scholars to present their work. I was speaking with a friend and he asked if I had ever heard of Voice of Witness. Yes. Mmmhmm. I had. He suggested that I get in touch with them; they were compiling narratives on human rights and the global economy.
So a few weeks later I emailed Corinne Goria, the editor of this collection, and told her who I was, where I was, and what I was doing, trying to be professional about how desperately I wanted to get involved with the book. After a Skype interview to discuss how I could contribute to the book, I set off to see if I could find a widow of a cotton farmer who would be willing to be interviewed by me for several hours on several different occasions. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was poised to attend a gathering for widows in the area that weekend. Subhag, my friend and translator, was able to come with me and we mingled with the widows during their lunch at the event. I had to find someone who could answer questions with great detail, who would talk about her childhood, who could give me enough material to shape into a rich narrative. At the very end of the day Pournima and her son came up to Subhag and asked who I was.
Over the next 6 months I visited Pournima every few weeks. At first I only visited her for the interviews. But after the third interview it was clear that she was very depressed and overwhelmed by her situation. I also felt overwhelmed and unsure of how I could help to ease her situation so she could feel peace and regain a sense of hope for her children and herself. You may remember this – I wrote about it in the post “Supari.”
I shared my fears with Corinne and with Ajay and Yogini Dolke, a couple that runs the non-profit SRUJAN, and who were instrumental in helping me with my research while I was in India. Corinne encouraged me to keep visiting Pournima without interviewing her to show her I cared for her well-being. Ajay and Yogini were inspired to reach out to their network of colleagues, friends, and family to raise money to purchase a sewing machine for Pournima. For more about how we were able to help Pournima, see the “Donate to Pournima” page.
I became friends with Pournima and her son and daughter (whose names I have omitted to honor Pournima’s wish for privacy and protection). I traveled with Pournima to the village where she grew up. I met her mother, father, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews. I saw her father’s cotton fields, where she spent much of her childhood. That same week Pournima found out it was my birthday and insisted that I come to her home and celebrate with her family and her neighbors. We filled ourselves with fried treats and sweets and filled the neighborhood with music and laughter.
Pournima never ceased to amaze me with her generosity. Every time I came to see her, whether or not I was coming to interview her, she fed me, gave me tea, and made sure I was healthy and happy. “You look skinny. Are they taking care of you in Mulgavan?” she would often ask.
It was hard to explain to her why I wanted to share her story with the world. “People do not know about the struggle of cotton farmers in India. It is important that they hear your story. We have to raise awareness,” I would tell her. And as soon as I would say this I would wonder how much of a difference her story could make. While she shared her story and I edited it and prepared it for the book, thousands of farmers were still killing themselves. One farmer every 30 minutes. How could this book improve this situation?
It’s a question I still live with every day – one that I am revisiting more frequently now that the book is almost available in print. I am, however, so honored to have been able to be a part of the process of helping Pournima share her story, and in that process, helping her to overcome her devastating past and start living a brighter, more hopeful life. Being a widow in India is not easy, but Pournima is strong. She is resilient. Perhaps her story can give others the strength that they need to overcome tragedy. I know her story is inspiring, and I am looking forward to see how that inspiration is manifested as more and more people get to read her words.
I recently had the opportunity to select a few photos (out of hundreds!) from my research in India and put together a collection to display at the Left Bank Dance Studio in Alton, IL. It’s wonderful how these opportunities just keep knocking at my door and I am so grateful for the tangible support of the Arts in the community of Elsah/Alton, IL.
On Saturday, January 26, I hosted a screening of the film “Bitter Seeds,” the final film in Micha X. Peled’s Globalization Trilogy. Here is the synopsis from their website:
Bitter Seeds follows a season in a village at the epicenter of the crisis, from sowing to harvest. Like most of his neighbors, cotton-farmer Ram Krishna must borrow heavily in order to afford the mounting costs of modern farming. Required by a money-lender to put up his land as collateral, he gambles on everything he has.
When his crop is attacked by pests, Ram Krishna must do whatever he can to avoid losing the family land. Adding to his burden is another duty – his daughter has reached marrying age, and he must find the money for an expensive dowry. Ram Krishna has just become a candidate for joining the ranks of the farmers who commit suicide in despair.
Weaving in and out of Ram Krishna’s story is that of his neighbor’s daughter. Manjusha, a college student, is determined to become a journalist and tell the world about the farmers’ predicament. Her family opposes her plans, which go against village traditions. Manjusha’s ambition is also fueled by her personal history – her father was one of the suicide victims. When a newspaper reporter agrees to look at her writing, Manjusha takes on Ram Krishna’s plight as her first reporting project. Armed with a small camera from the production team, her video becomes part of the film.
The film follows the seeds salesmen from the remote village in the state of Maharashtra to their company’s headquarters. Interviews with seed industry executives (including Monsanto’s) and their critic, Vandana Shiva, flesh out the debate.
Bitter Seeds features compelling characters to tell a deeply moving story from the heart of the worldwide controversy about the future of farming.
“Films like this can change the world.” – Alice Waters
“A tragedy for our times, beautifully told, deeply disturbing.” – Michael Pollan
The film is available on Netflix. If you are interested in purchasing the film, visit the Teddy Bear Films website. I highly recommend seeing it!
I can’t even begin to explain how neat it was to have that film as a resource for my audience. It was filmed in the region where I did my research about a year before I arrived. Some of the folks interviewed in the film were people that I also met and spoke with while I was in India. It was a great window into the world that I had immersed myself in last year; there were scenes on buses and around towns that felt very familiar to me. As I watched the film with all of the friendly folks that came out to support me and learn more about cotton farming in India, I thought about my friends in India and wondered how their harvest had turned out.
Being able to display my photos, screen this film, and talk with people about my research and my experiences was so gratifying. There were so many good questions about the film and my research. I was thrilled to see a discussion about agriculture in India taking place in the backyard of Monsanto’s headquarters. Here in southern Illinois we are surrounded by farming. Monsanto’s headquarters are just a short drive away in St. Louis, MO. How encouraging, to see people drawing connections from the clothing that they wear to the farmers who grew the cotton a half a world away.
All photos are for sale and if you are interested in purchasing one, please contact me: email@example.com
Not pictured: “Bollgard Toy Car.” 4×6 and 6×8 on 11×14 white mat. $60
Not pictured: “Making Papad.” 5×7, 4×6, 4×4, & 5×7 photos on 16×20 white mat. $70
Not pictured: “Pola dye.” 11×14 photo on 16×20 white mat.
A big THANK YOU to my family for helping me pull this off! My little sister #1 is really the photographer in the family. Her opinion was crucial in narrowing down my pictures to this final selection. She gave me feedback every step of the way and I couldn’t have done this without her. And thanks to her, I have photos of the event! A HUGE thank you to my mom and dad, the crafter and the Mathematician in the family, who helped me to custom cut all of the mats with multiple photos in them. It actually took 3 pairs of hands sometimes. And a big thanks to little brother #1, the techie in the family. He picked up the projector for the film, set it up, connected the sound, and then returned it after the event. And little brother #2, the athlete in the family, did lots of heavy lifting, helping me to transport all of the frames to the Studio. And little sister #2, thanks for helping all of my guests find the popcorn! ;)
I’m so lucky to have such a talented family on which I can depend!
And of course, thanks again to the Left Bank Dance Studio for offering me its walls and giving me the opportunity to share this work in another small but extraordinarily gratifying way.
Above all, I want to thank the villagers of Mulgavan for opening their homes to a stranger from a foreign land and for humoring me as I stumbled through learning Marathi and kicked off my flip flops to traipse along with them through muddy fields. धन्यवाद!
The story of an environmental activist (Dr. Vandana Shiva) and a farmer (Bija Devi) and their fight to preserve heirloom seeds in India amidst great opposition.
Created by: theperennialplate.com
In Partnership with Intrepid Travel: intrepidtravel.com/food/
For more information visit: navdanya.org/
Filmed & edited by:
Daniel Klein ( twitter.com/perennialplate/ )
Mirra Fine ( twitter.com/kaleandcola/)
Music by: The Orange Mighty Trio: orangemightytrio.com/
Filmed on 5d Mark iii w Canon 24-70, 70-200 2.8 L
She hands me a chunk of betel nut
I place it in my mouth.
My teeth test its strength.
My tongue knocks the nut
across the roof of my mouth
down the inside of my cheek.
Saliva washes over its bitter surface,
slowly softening the outer layer
till its skin peels back
and the next hard layer is revealed.
Bitter, long lasting, slow to dissolve.
I left Mulgavan to talk with a widow who has been sharing her story with me for an upcoming book that the non-profit Voice of Witness is putting out. This is the third time I’ve interviewed her and the first time she tells me she wants to die.
Her husband, a cotton farmer, killed himself two years ago. The pressures of his mounting debt were too much for him to handle. He slowly slipped from being a loving father and ideal husband to an irritated and anxious man, increasingly dependent on loans from private moneylenders. Her son, 15, hates to see his mother so sad. He leaves when I come to talk with her. He doesn’t want to hear about his father.
Six months ago she slipped and broke her hip. A doctor fixed her up with a metal rod and a screw and told her she can’t work for 2 years. She can barely get across her house–the house that her husband took a loan on in 2007 for his farm. Last month the bank officials came to tell her that if she didn’t pay the loan they would force her out of her house and board it up. Left with no other choice, she pleaded her mother to tell her brothers to give her the 3 lakh rupees (about $5,500 USD) that she needed to pay off the loan. Her brothers did not willingly give her the money. And although things are settled now and she doesn’t have to worry about the house, the tension that she feels she has caused her family adds weight to the burdens she has been bearing for the last 2 years. At least before she could work hard and try her best to support her children. Now she sits in her house, thinking about the things that she has told me, waiting for the day when she’ll be able to walk and work.
This work is slow and bitter. Like supari.