From Sarcasm to Honesty: "Roxane Gay: With One N"
As a member of the Speakers Bureau for the last two years, I have experienced the excitement, brainpower, and consideration that goes into bringing a needed, impactful voice to our community. When Roxane Gay took to Zankel Music Center‘s stage on Jan. 25 as this semester’s keynote speaker, she shared her story — one we all needed to hear.
The Bureau, which is a student-run club responsible for funding academic speakers on campus, choses a keynote speaker every semester. In the past, they’ve chosen Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-confirming performance artist, poet, and educator; Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and immigration rights activist; and Baratunde Thurston, a comedian, writer, and cultural critic.
When approached with finding this semester's speaker, Gay seemed like the perfect choice. And her talk, entitled “Roxane Gay: With One N”, proved to be honest, funny, and heartfelt.
Roxane walked onto the Zankel stage and was greeted by a packed and enthusiastic crowd, some holding their own copy of one of her books in their laps. She first read three excerpts from her 2017 memoir, Hunger, which covered everything from her lighthearted admiration of the Barefoot Contessa — eliciting comfortable laughter from the audience — to a matter-of-fact and moving account of searching for her rapist on Google – which quieted us into a collective reverence.
Gay used the majority of her talk to engage in an extended question and answer session with the audience. In the world of college and university lectures, no matter how accomplished the speaker, taking questions from the audience can be a gamble. The silence following a speaker’s request for audience contributions can often feel intimidating or impenetrable, particularly in a large venue like Zankel.
However, Gay’s warmness, candor, and earnest desire to engage with the crowd yielded the opposite. Questions popped up across the hall, with inquiries about tackling personal memoir as a student writer, navigating identity and power dynamics on college campuses, and learning to love and advocate for yourself filling the air. Some audience questions included personal confessions of frustration and self-doubt.
Biba Contin ‘19 asked Gay a question about reconciling her family at home in Brazil with her life at Skidmore. Contin, reflecting on Roxane’s response, said “I was thrilled to see her talk about the disconnect between her two cultures [Haitian and American]…she talked freely about how it can be difficult to navigate those differences, and offered advice on how to maintain familial relationships without accepting the oppressive views they might share.”
It’s no secret that college is a time of forming personal ideology and identity while questioning social limitations and rules that don’t make sense. This undoubtedly lies within all of us. However, it is a testament to Gay’s engaging voice, both in print and in person, that a room with 600 people in it could become a space of sharing, respect, and trust, if only for an hour.