Author, Professor and Mentor
Roxane Gay has used writing as a means to untangle and communicate her own trauma since childhood. Now a successful author, professor and mentor to many, she advises young women and aspiring writers on how to harness their voices. Gay shares her Brief But Spectacular take on effective ways of being heard.
Geoff Bennett: Roxane Gay has long used writing as a means to untangle and communicate her own trauma.
Now a successful author, professor, and mentor to so many, she advises aspiring writers on how to harness their voices.
Tonight, Gay shares her Brief But Spectacular take on ways of being heard, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Roxane Gay, Author and Professor: A lot of times, people ask me about voice and how to find it, as if they can go on some sort of search and find voice waiting for them at the end of it.,
But in fact, we tend to already have our voices, and it’s really a question of learning how to use our voices and knowing that we have every right to do so.
I started writing when I was 4 years old. I would draw little villages on napkins. And then I would write stories about the people living in those villages. I think and write quite a lot about trauma. Few of us know how to talk about it, because we have very little language for trauma. People seem to want us to have these triumphant stories, and there’s not a lot of space for the in-between, where you have suffered and you’re healed, but things are maybe also not OK.
When I wrote my memoir, “Hunger,” which was a memoir of my body, I was extremely worried about how it would be received, because it required a level of vulnerability I found extremely uncomfortable to write about a fat body, while living in it, without some sort of triumphant weight loss narrative. And I certainly didn’t think anyone but other fat people would gravitate toward the book.
But as I was touring it, not only in this country, but all around the world, I found that everybody lives in a body that is complicated and that they struggle with at one time or another. I think a lot of people are looking for language to talk about that.
In general, to write about most anything personal, I tell myself that no one is going read my work. I was terrified when I wrote “Hunger.” I just did it anyway. I did it despite the fear. And to have my story connect with so many people in so many different kinds of bodies was really overwhelming. And it reminded me of what great writing can do.
Oftentimes, when we think about trauma, we think about it in the context of the personal, but we deal with collective traumas all of the time. We are currently in the second year of a collective trauma, a pandemic that, in the United States, has resulted in the deaths of 800,000 people. And most of us have no idea how to grapple with that level of loss, with the fact that nearly a million people have simply disappeared from our daily lives.
There are things that we really do need to sit with and spend more time with to fully make sense of. And so a lot of my current work is about, how do we reckon with these collective traumas?
I am often asked, particularly by young women, how they can be less angry in their writing, as if anger is a bad thing. And what I love to tell these women, and what I also remind myself, is that anger is oftentimes incredibly appropriate when you’re writing about sexual violence, misogyny.
All of the issues that feminists are trying to address in our work, anger can be incredibly productive. And I hope to encourage them to find ways to use anger for the greater good and to see it as an asset, rather than a liability.
My name is Roxane Gay, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on ways of being heard.
Geoff Bennett: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.