Breaking Big

S1 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Roxane Gay

See how Gay, child of Haitian immigrants, transcended expectations to become a leading voice in the feminist movement with her essay collection "Bad Feminist." How did she convert a painful childhood into a career that helped women around the world?

AIRED: July 20, 2018 | 0:26:05
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TRANSCRIPT

- [Carlos] From a young age Roxane Gay was writing stories.

But over the years, she developed her skills

beyond just storytelling.

Her voice became a battle cry

that helped jump-start a modern-day feminist movement.

- Please welcome Roxane Gay.

(audience applauding)

- [Carlos] But how did this quiet child

of Haitian immigrants turn her own harsh path through life

into a spot at the top of all the best-sellers lists...

- Time Magazine declared 2014 the year of Roxane Gay.

- [Carlos] And on a journey towards Breaking Big."

(audience applauding)

What makes people successful?

What are the unexpected turns in life

that propel people to greatness?

(dramatic music)

I'm Carlos Watson, editor of OZY.

I'm out to uncover the real secrets behind Breaking Big.

(people murmuring)

- The story of my body is not a story of triumph.

This is not a weight loss memoir.

There will be no picture of a thin a version of me,

my slender body emblazoned across this book's cover

with me standing in one leg

of my former fatter self's jeans.

This is not a book that will offer motivation.

I don't have any powerful insight into what it takes

to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.

Mine is not a success story.

Mine is simply a true story.

I wish so very much that I could write a book

about triumphant weight loss

and how I learned to live more effectively with my demons.

I wish I could write a book about being at peace

and loving myself wholly at any size.

Instead, I have written this book,

which has been the most difficult writing experience

of my life,

one far more challenging than I could have ever imagined.

- [Carlos] How did you come to writing?

Did you come easily to--

- I did.

I've been writing since I was four years old.

I just always loved telling little stories,

and the older I got the bigger the stories became.

But I've always written and I've always loved writing.

- She was only four years old.

And so she couldn't physically write with a pen,

so she used a typewriter.

And she started writing stories.

- [Carlos] How did you become good?

I mean, is that a nature or is that a nurture thing?

- I do think that some people are born

with an innate talent for creativity.

And I teach, so I do believe you can teach writing.

Absolutely.

But you can't make someone have the spark.

So I think it was both that I had some innate ability

to write but I was also nurtured as a writer at home.

- Who was at home nurturing you?

- My parents.

Both came from poor families in Haiti,

and they came to the United States separately

and met here in the U.S. in New York.

- [Carlos] How did the family end up in Nebraska?

- [Roxane] My dad's company was headquartered in Omaha.

And so we would always go back to headquarters

after he completed assignment.

He builds tunnels.

- The neighborhood we lived, they were very few non-whites.

We were outsiders in the neighborhood.

- [Nicole] She was a loner.

I saw the other children playing together

and she was by herself.

So when I asked the teacher,

"Why do you think she wants to be alone?"

she says, "That's what she likes to do."

Was it because she was the only non-white child

in her class?

The teacher saw it differently than I did.

(typewriting)

- [Michael] She had a lot of different interests

than her peers.

She was always reading and she was also a very fast reader.

- [Nicole] Two or three books in one day.

So, library.

(chuckles)

(upbeat music)

- [Carlos] And as a little one,

what kind of books would Roxane have gotten from the library?

- I was reading everything.

My parents (chuckles) did not censor my reading.

- When a child feels different,

taking in other people's negative views,

finding evidence for your own problems,

your own inferiority,

you can either fight back with that world

or you can discover another world.

- [Carlos] Making yet another move,

Roxane and her family headed back east to New Jersey.

And it was here that Roxane's life would change forever.

(soft dramatic music)

- Christopher and I were friends

or at least shared a semblance of friendship.

During school hours, he would ignore me,

but after school we would hang out.

We would do whatever he wanted.

He was always in control of the time we spent together.

In truth, he treated me terribly

and I thought I should be grateful

that he bothered to treat me terribly,

that he bothered with a girl like me at all.

I had no reason to have such low self-esteem

at 12 years old.

I had no reason to allow myself to be treated terribly.

It happened anyway.

- I don't come to it easily,

but tell me about what happened when you were 12.

- When I was 12, I was gang-raped by a group of boys.

(dramatic music)

It was in an abandoned hunting cabin in the woods

behind our neighborhood.

(dramatic music)

In the aftermath, I did not tell anyone.

- [Carlos] Why did you not tell anyone?

- Because I was young.

I was 12 years old and I felt a lot of shame.

We were Catholic, so pre-marital sex was a sin.

I did not have the vocabulary to articulate the difference

between sex and rape.

So in my head, I had had sex, even though I knew

I didn't want it and I said no.

And then I just thought I would get in trouble,

and I would disappoint my parents if they knew.

- We never knew about it.

- We never heard about it. - Nope.

- She never told us anything about it.

She kept it to herself all those years.

- In your book, you say specifically

that you don't say his name, right?

- Yep. - You don't tell us who he is.

- I don't want to give his name power.

I don't want to take my hard-earned time and energy

and my very good book and sully it with his name.

And so he doesn't deserve to be named.

(dramatic music)

- People who survive a trauma, maybe they've been raped,

maybe they've been a victim of another crime,

it can be actually a variety

of really potentially devastating traumas,

but they do survive.

And the one thing I think never happens

is really forgetting.

(dramatic music)

- [Carlos] Burying her secrets deep,

Roxane chose to get away again and attended

the prestigious boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy.

(birds chirping)

Once there,

she turned her energy towards self-preservation.

- [Michael] When she left home, she was pretty much

what I would call an average child,

as far as her physical appearance.

(soft piano music)

Then, few weeks later, we saw her,

and we were surprised and shocked

to see how much weight she had gained.

- I gained quite a lot of weight in response

because I thought, "Well, next time I'll be bigger

"and stronger,

"and also if I'm bigger,

"perhaps they won't be interested in me."

Because I saw how they treated fat kids,

I saw how everyone treated fat kids.

And I just wanted to do whatever I could

to not have to go through something like that again.

- [Michael] We took her to see different doctors

over the years.

Did tests left, tests right,

they couldn't find anything wrong.

- [Nicole] I knew something else was wrong,

but she was not going to talk.

She wasn't ready.

(soft piano music)

- When you keep that kind of a secret to yourself,

it warps your relationships with everybody,

because you have this secret,

and the more you have this secret,

the more you nurture it.

When you're holding on to that kind of shame,

the shame only gets deeper and deeper

because the less you talk about it

the more you start to believe

it's something you cannot talk about.

- [Carlos] Despite not being able to escape her suffering,

Roxane excelled in school

and went on to an Ivy League college.

Introduce me to Roxane in college.

- [Roxane] I started out college at Yale,

and then at 19 I kind of had a breakdown.

- [Carlos] What prompted the breakdown?

- [Roxane] I had, you know, the secret,

and I wasn't really dealing with it.

And I asked my parents, "Could I take a year off?"

And they said, "No."

And of course they didn't have all the information,

so they didn't even know what they were saying no to.

- [Michael] In retrospect,

I'm sure if we knew then what we know now,

we probably would have been better equipped

to know how to help her.

- So I was like, well,

in August before classes were about to start,

I just decided to go across the country

with an older man that I met on the Internet back then.

Oh, I know!

And he didn't murder me--

- You were on the Internet back then?

- I was on the internet in 1992.

(keyboard clacking)

(dramatic music)

- [Carlos] And then what happens?

- [Roxane] And then he flew me to San Francisco.

And we went to some parties and had a very good time.

And then he said, "Well, come live with me in Arizona."

And I was like, "Sure."

(chuckles) I was 19.

Like, there's nothing more sound than going to Arizona

with a 44-year-old man.

But to his credit, again, he never did anything

I didn't consent to.

He never hurt me, he didn't chop me up

and put me in a freezer.

There is a god for broken people,

who sometimes just looks over you

and keeps you alive despite your best efforts.

(dramatic music)

- She's showing you, "Yes, I'm rising

"from all these experiences,

"but I'm not rising as this beautiful bird.

"I'm rising as someone who has bruises

"and broken bones and scars."

- [Carlos] Following her brief rebellion, at 25,

Roxane returned to school to complete her masters

and would take the first steps

towards becoming a real writer.

How did your 20's impact who you are today?

- I'd lived quite a lot of life in those years.

By the time I turned 30, I was still kind of a mess,

but I was more interested in addressing the mess.

I certainly did not find much writing success in my 20's,

but I kept writing anyway.

You know, I started to believe there was a conspiracy theory

against me, as one does.

I would read about all these book deals

that people were getting and just think,

"Where's my book deal?"

And then I had to realize, "Oh, I haven't written a book."

(upbeat music)

But I was always writing.

Before I was publishing I was submitting my work

and getting rejected and getting deep in my feelings

about that rejection.

Then just sending more work out.

But I was still working and putting in the time

and putting in the effort to become better.

- [Maria Massie] The best advice she gives young writers

is she tells them to not give up, to keep going.

I mean, Roxane wrote for free for years and years

and years just to be published,

just to get her name out there.

So, she's one of the most persistent people I know.

She never gave up.

(people murmuring)

- So get a job you don't care about,

that you can do very well.

Yes, because when you take a job home with you,

it takes up your writing time.

I still have a day job I haven't quite let go of,

and so that to show you, like, how deep into your career

you need to get before you can quit, just have a job.

It could be anything,

and treat your writing also like a job.

- Thank you so much. - You're welcome so much.

- Hi. - Hi.

- [Carlos] In 2005 while studying for her PhD

and teaching undergraduate classes,

Roxane helped launch a literary magazine

and began sharing her work with the world.

(upbeat music)

- [Ashley Ford] Pank magazine was publishing some of the best,

most important and just groundbreaking work

in independent presses and independent lit.

Every college student that I knew who was writing

was desperate to get into Pank magazine.

- We just wanted to build this place

where people could share their writing.

It just happened organically, like, slowly but surely.

So I started getting my work out there

in this weird, unexpected way.

And it would just--

kept parlaying into bigger opportunity.

- And what was the moment--

what was the breakthrough moment?

- My first really gorgeous piece of writing was an essay

I wrote for The Rumpus called The Careless Language

Of Sexual Violence.

(dramatic music)

And I wrote it in a fury.

I was writing about a New York Times article

about a gang rape in Cleveland, Texas.

And a young girl, 11 years old, was gang-raped.

And the article was about how the town was suffering after,

and I was just outraged.

How dare you worry about the town

and the town's reputation

and those poor boys?

There are about 28 of them, so I felt no pity for them.

They are rapists and this was a child.

This particular story hit home

because of the young girl's age

and that there were multiple assailants,

that definitely resonated with my own story.

- She turns every thing hard to deal with,

hard to reckon with, hard to understand,

into a beautiful recognizable moment.

It becomes a scene.

- [Roxane] I knew exactly what I wanted to say in that essay

and it was just very satisfying to be able

to articulate my feelings about what I was writing about.

- That essay went well beyond the limits

of the independent literature circle.

And I think that that's when people

in other spaces really started to take notice of her.

It was like, "Oh, that's a nice essay,

"also here are 10 other amazing essays

"that this person has written.

"Who is she?"

- [Maria] I'd been reading essays and short stories

and one of my clients mentioned Roxane Gay.

Her name had just been popping up in front of me a lot,

so I felt like, "You know what, this is a sign,

"somebody who is going to have an amazing career."

And knew I had to work with her.

- [Carlos] After two decades of writing,

the essay would prove to be Roxane's breakout moment.

And in 2014, the world would finally hear

the full power of her voice

with her first non-fiction book,

a collection of essays called "Bad Feminist."

- I was thinking through my relationship with feminism,

which is something that I had,

especially during my teens and 20's, thought,

"Oh, I'm not a feminist, that's not me."

Because I have some ideals that are inconsistent

- with feminist ideals. - Like?

- For example, I was like, "I enjoy men."

But the more educated I became and the more I read

and lived, the more I began to understand

that that caricature is so wildly inaccurate

and does not depict feminism or what it aims to do.

With "Bad Feminist," I think it was the first time

we had seen someone writing about feminism in a way

that was a little more accessible

than feminism has traditionally been written about.

And it was a way that allowed women to be flawed

and be human.

And as black women, in particular,

we deserve to be seen and heard

and to be considered

as part of the feminist movement.

I reject the mainstream feminism

that has historically ignored or deflected the needs

of women of color, working class women,

queer women and transgender women

in favor of supporting white, middle,

and upper class straight women.

Listen, if that's good feminism, I am a very bad feminist.

(audience laugh)

- [Christina Greer] Anyone who has a feeling of other,

has a unique perspective in this country.

And so she's many others, right?

She's othered because her parents are immigrants,

she's othered because she's a woman,

she's othered because she's a person of color,

she's othered because of, you know,

this sexual assault that she experienced,

you know, 12 years old.

And that's an othering experience for a lot of women

because it puts you outside of, say, sexual norms.

(audience applauding)

And so this concept of who belongs,

I think is at the root of all of her writing.

- [Carlos] With "Bad Feminist,"

Roxane had tapped into the Zeitgeist.

Her willingness to be completely open

about her faults and contradictions

helped make her the voice of a movement.

It also proved to be incredibly successful.

- When "Bad Feminist" went on sale,

it was an Amazon Best Book of the Month,

which was very exciting.

And then it was a New York Times bestseller its first week,

which, again, I'd just been telling her

that I thought it was going to be.

- I wonder whether the same you,

working as hard as you were, creating as much as you create,

would have had as much success 10 years ago.

Or whether you happened to come along at a moment

where there was a meaningful desire

for your kind of unapologetic inconsistency.

- I would say I created the moment.

It happened at the right time,

but it happened because I willed it to happen.

- [Maria] She's got no time to waste,

so I think that her directness is infectious.

I think people love it and I think she's, you know,

one of the few writers who feels really comfortable

being as direct as she is.

- Girl, you and Twitter?

We need to talk about Twitter.

- We can.

- We're gonna talk about Twitter.

- [Carlos] While the success of "Bad Feminist"

catapulted Roxane to new levels of popularity,

it also opened her up to personal attacks.

(dramatic music)

Do you feel that Twitter allows you, in some ways,

to be a fuller version of who you are?

- No, I don't.

I think it just allows me to say what I want to say

when I want to say it, how I want to say it.

I get to control the circumstances, and that's great.

I think it's more of a controlled medium.

- [Maria] She has a lot of trolls out there too.

I mean, people who are so vicious to her.

It's just people who hate, people who don't, you know,

like what Roxane has to say,

they don't agree with what she has to say.

They can be really, really awful,

and it amazes me sometimes that she stays on Twitter.

- [Carlos] Do you like the back and forth

that I see you sometimes have on Twitter with the--

- Oh, no, I don't.

I don't dislike it.

I do it because it has to be done,

because it's important to show these bullies

that you don't get to bully everyone.

You don't have a carte blanche

to say whatever you want to people

simply because it comes into your head.

- [Carlos] Deciding to fly in the face of her trolls,

Roxane found the strength to be fully transparent

with her readers and tackle her hardest

and most personal book, her 2017 release, "Hunger."

- I wanted to write a book about what it means to live

in the world in a fat body,

and what is the history of this kind of body.

- "Hunger" spoke to me just because I feel like she gave

a little bit more about what had happened to her,

about her trauma,

about her size and how she dealt with it.

So I think that, to me,

was one of the more eye-opening of her work

because she was talking about something

that she's never talked about before.

- [Roxane] I also taste hope.

I taste the idea of having more choices

when I go clothes shopping.

I taste the idea of fitting into seats at restaurants,

movie theaters, waiting rooms.

I taste the idea of walking into a crowded room

or through a mall without being stared at

and pointed at and talked about.

I taste the idea of grocery shopping

without strangers taking food they disapprove of

out of my cart,

or offering me unsolicited nutrition advice.

I taste the idea of being free of the realities of living

in an overweight body.

I taste the idea of being free.

- [Carlos] Comfortable in your body today?

- Oh, no.

- No? Even today?

- I think the world is very inhospitable

to bodies like mine.

- Have you found any form of therapy that actually helped?

- Therapy has been useful throughout my life.

I've gone off and on since I was 14.

It's only now, after having written "Hunger,"

that I've been in a position to really deal

with a lot of the issues that are underlying.

- That feeling, or that thing I went through,

I'm not the only person who went through that,

I'm not the only person who feels that way.

If this book was a bestseller for how many weeks?

Hm, it can't just be me and Roxane.

So I'm not the only one, and she's not the only one.

- For me a lot of it was just turning 40

and realizing that I don't have to apologize for myself

and that I'm not a problem.

And that has been very freeing.

- [Carlos] With her biggest success to date

and nothing left to hide,

Roxane has let herself move past the hardest parts of her life,

and is now open to living in the present.

(soft vocal music)

I know you said that 40 was such a wonderful turning point

in many ways...

- The sense of self that I've developed,

and I won't say I'm a confident person,

but I'm definitely more at ease with myself

and just accepting, like, this is who I am.

It's very freeing to just stop beating yourself up

for just being human.

- [Michael] I think she feels somewhat liberated.

She let out what was bothering her

and now she feels that she has nothing to hide.

- [Maria] She called herself a Bad Feminist.

She's messy, there's no like clean lines

about how she thinks about things and, to me,

I related to that.

I mean, we are messy people.

We can't--

There can't be like this one rigid,

narrow way of thinking or being.

That's what's so appealing about Roxanne.

I think she really relates to people because she's real.

- And today where are you in your mind,

a literary career mainly or teaching career?

- I'm at the end of my teaching career, for sure.

- End? Why end?

- Because I don't need the money.

And with my speaking schedule, something had to give

and it's certainly not going to be my writing.

- [Carlos] Where's your writing going to take you next?

- [Roxane] I think my writing is going to take me into film

and television next.

- [Carlos] Ooh, like?

- I'm working on a screenplay for my fiction novel,

"An Untamed State," which I'm co-writing

with Gina Prince-Bythewood,

and working on a couple of TV projects.

So many unexpected opportunities have come my way

that hopefully I get better as a writer and thinker.

(soft vocal music)

STRAHAN: When I left football, I did not cry at my press conference.

I was happy. Fifteen years,

no more getting beat up, and I'm done.

MAN: Here's a guy who crushed bodies for a living

who could transition into television

and be just as successful.

STRAHAN: I was never one to put limits on anything.

Let's figure out something else that people think I can't do,

and see if I can do that, too.

- I've read two of your books.

I've read "Bad Feminist," I've read "Hunger" twice,

and I really, really, really--

And she schlepped me here from Brooklyn.

- She schlepped me. - Oh, my God, all the way from Brooklyn?

- Yeah! - No, she lives in the Valley now.

Oh, okay.

- Thank you. - Thank you.

- You guys have a great night. - Thanks a lot.

(people murmuring)

- I wanna thank you for your books

because they really meant a lot to me.

- [Roxane] Wow! That's so kind.

- This is the book that really spoke to me when I read it,

- so thank you. - You're welcome.

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