Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Now you may remember Zaila Avant-Garde from this winning moment back in 2021.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Murraya, M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.
Speaker 3: That is correct.
Melissa Harris-Perry: At just 14 years old, Zaila became the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but because Zaila is Black girl genius personified, that was not her first major accomplishment.
Zaila Avant-Garde: For my 13th birthday, I decided that I wanted to celebrate becoming a teenager to do a Guinness World Record.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zaila holds two Guinness World Records, both for different methods of basketball dribbling and her success led to some pretty special moments like this one with basketball legend Sue Bird.
Sue Bird: Let me be the first to congratulate you on being named Sports Illustrated Sports Kid of the Year.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Hey, hurray, I had no idea.
Sue Bird: Congratulations.
Zaila Avant-Garde: I feel like winning Scripps has put me on the platform where I can now just be a person for people to look at and see if she can do it, she's just a normal girl, I'm a normal girl too, I can do it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She's bringing everyone along and giving lessons on how to be awesome with not just one, but two new books. The first one is out now and it's titled, It's Not Bragging If It's True: How to Be Awesome At Life. The second one will be out in late June and it's a children's book titled Words of Wonder: From Z to A. Before we started in on the books, I asked Zaila about her recent move from Louisiana to Washington DC.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Oh, yes. I've always loved a lot of things about Washington DC but my dad's actually from here, so we're actually living in his childhood home, which brings up a lot of annoying things that he says every day about how so in this room this happened and this is the room where this happened. Other than that, I'm definitely loving the experience of having moved here. My favorite part I would definitely say is the pizza. There's a place here called Ledo Pizza, which I am obsessed with. My whole family loves it actually so I would say that's the best part.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, I love this. I love that pizza is the thing, and also, I can just hear your dad in my head. When I was seven, this is what happened. [laughter] When I was 12-- Oh, parents. [laughter] All right. Talk to me about making the decision to become a book author. Why did you want to write these books now?
Zaila Avant-Garde: My childhood dream, one of the many ones I've had has always been to become an author since I've always been an extremely avid reader. By extremely, I mean extremely. I've read way over 1000 books in my life and I just have always loved writing so it was a natural progression for me to want to become a author myself.
Around the time right after I won Scripps, I was thinking, so this is a great time for me to write a book because now people will be wanting to hear my story and how did I become so awesome. I thought that you know what, I think I should write a book here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did you become so awesome?
Zaila Avant-Garde: [laughs] It was just nurture. I came into the right household for the type of person I am where anything that I'm even distantly interested in, my parents full-on support me. I've had all kinds of ridiculous ideas and stuff like I want to be a ballerina or I want to be a PE teacher. Though as I say in my book, PE Teacher didn't get much support, but everything else that I ever wanted to be, they would literally do whatever it took to get me to double in that interest. I would definitely say that just the open household I lived where anything was possible. Nothing was held back, was definitely a big contributor to how I became so awesome.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the book, you also begin with this idea that one of the things that you have to do to be awesome in life is to have someone else's back.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Yes, definitely. I am a big sister. I have three younger siblings. I have one who's 13, one who's 11, and one who is 4. I've basically been an older sister my whole life as long as I can remember and that's definitely played a big part in my life, learning from an early age how to take care of other people and stuff just like I was taken care of.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That role of older sibling is a big one. It's a big responsibility and sometimes folks will feel like, "Ugh, I don't want to have to be responsible in this way. I'm also a kid," but I hear you really embracing it.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Oh yes, definitely. It's like having [unintelligible 00:05:04] people to bully [unintelligible 00:05:05] Wait, no, I never said that. I never said that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [laughs] You sound just like my husband who's an oldest brother.
Zaila Avant-Garde: I never said that. I'm completely kind and always do whatever they ask me to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [laughs] It's a little bit of both. You got to toughen those younger siblings up. I'm for it. [laughs] You also write about setting yourself free. As a teenager, what does that mean for you to set yourself free?
Zaila Avant-Garde: My teenage years so far, and they're almost over, haven't been that stressful. I have had no teenage angstier, snuck out of the house leaving a bed dummy or something in my bed or anything like that, but at the same time I have experienced the everyday struggles of anxiety and stuff. Like, does this person think I'm weird?
Probably I'm a pretty weird person, but still that's this person like me, this, that. I have all those issues and self-insecurities that every teenager or every person really has. I would definitely say thanks to my parents, I've been pretty limited in my anxieties and stuff and I definitely am very thankful for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you can embrace your own weird, when you can just roll around in it, enjoy your weird, let it be central to who you are, it really is quite liberating.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Oh yes, definitely. The moment I stopped trying to hide myself is the moment my life got a whole lot easier.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does It mean to choose your opponent?
Zaila Avant-Garde: Well, for me that means basically having a plan of attack. Like not just, I see problem, let me just run straightforward into it. Oftentimes, I like to say the idea of, let's say you have a brick wall in front of you and you just see I have to get through that. Let me just run through it. If maybe before you do that, look around and oh, there it is, you see an opening in that wall that you could just walk through.
Also, I talk about in the chapter, Choose Your Opponent, I talk about how when I was competing the spelling bee, my opponent was not the people who were on stage before me spelling their word, my opponent was in [unintelligible 00:07:12] Merriam-Webster dictionary. That was my opponent. Everybody knows that in the spelling bee world, and there's a really good camaraderie among us because of that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're taking a quick break and we'll be right back with more from Black girl genius, Zaila Avant-Garde.
It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and I'm still in conversation with teenage phenom Zaila Avant-Garde, who's out with two new books, including, It's Not Bragging If It's True: How to Be Awesome At Life. Another lesson that you offer, which again I think is one that probably took me until my 40s to figure out and I still don't probably have it totally figured out, is embracing chaos. What does that mean to embrace chaos because I think for so many people, we do feel like we're living in a very chaotic moment.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Let me take a breath before answering that. I would say like for everybody, COVID-19 was hard on me, especially since-- Though this is not an official thing, but I probably actually had it. At a certain point, [unintelligible 00:08:34] the really early stages of it and it was horrible, like really horrible.
For me, that was really a changing moment in my life because I was studying for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which unfortunately got canceled while I had these really splitting headaches and all this stuff. To make matters worse, my parents also were having a little bit of sickness, especially my dad who is the stay-at-home parent so he would be sleeping.
That leaves me with my two or three-year-old baby brother who is doing two or three-year-old baby brother stuff while I can barely see because my head is just exploding and I'm trying to study, my head exploding and, oh, where's my baby bro? Oh, he went outside opening the sliding doors.
I would definitely say all that stuff combined was definitely a motivating factor for talking about embracing or making friends with chaos because that was a really tough period for me to get through, but I was way better for it when I got through it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Then I'll ask one more on this, and maybe it's connected to, but also a little bit different from embracing or making friends with chaos is also knowing when to chill. What are some of the tools for figuring out, we need to just step back, just chill.
Zaila Avant-Garde: For me, I would say that I've always had really good parameters so to speak for knowing when to chill. Maybe I chill a little too much, who knows? I think a very big important part of success and working towards something is relaxing because you can't just work on something for 24 straight hours, you're not going to get as much done as if you just take a break, do something else, take a glass of water, do whatever you need to do to just relax a little bit before going back at it.
For me, some of the things I do to relax are listen to podcasts which definitely don't include NPR. I'm definitely not as we speak looking and scrolling NPR as we talk. I just wanted to put that in there that my whole life, I've been listening to NPR podcasts and such, and also, I love listening to music. Sit in my massage, I have these little massage legs things that as a basketball player are very important to my recovery.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about the basketball player part a bit. You love basketball. Tell us a little bit about how your big brain, and your enormous intellect, your spirit, and humor is also connected to your love of sport.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Everything I do really is interconnected. Basketball is where like where in spelling I say, "My competition isn't the person, it's the dictionary well." I think everybody needs a good bit of man-to-man competition. For me, that's where basketball comes in because the basketball court is a really big place for me to take out any frustration or anything that's going on. I feel really relaxed when I'm on the basketball court. I would definitely say that's where I get my real physical competition in. Also, the finer aspects of working on my skills when I'm not in a game or this or that. The whole process is really both relaxing and invigorating for me.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: We've talked a lot about the book you've written that is out now, but you've got another one coming out towards the end of June. Tell us about Words of Wonder.
Zaila Avant-Garde: This book is, I'm actually going to say maybe my favorite book to write because it's geared towards my favorite age group which are younger children like the picture book type kids. I've always been an extreme lover of kids from even when I was a little kid, I loved little kids. It was really fun to write this book, and the idea of it is like doing the alphabet except backwards since my initials are Z and A so we thought it'd be a cute little thing to do Z to A instead of A to Z. In that book, I came up with 26 words for each letter that are important to me with a nice little quote and a little bit of poetry about every word.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: As you note in the book, your name means mighty powerful. As a young person growing up, I'm hearing you say, okay, your dad is walking you through his childhood home talking about his experiences. Assuming they also talked with you a lot about your name. What were the stories about your name that helped you to also feel awesome?
Zaila Avant-Garde: The general story behind my name is that when I was a baby when my mom was carrying me, one thing that was for certain, my name was not going to be Annie, it was not going to be Mary or anything like that. It had to be something that had a meaning that way I would feel guilty if I didn't fulfill that meaning, basically. That's how my parents came up with the-- they didn't come up with it. It's an Arabic name. Zaila [unintelligible 00:13:48] and it both sounded really pretty to me and to them, not that I had much input on that, did I? Anyhow, they chose the name Zaila for me because it meant mighty and powerful and they were not trying to raise me as shrinking daisies over here. That's the story behind my name. I was going to be mighty and powerful and my name was going to show it.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to ask you what your vision for the future is.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Let me take you back before I start here because it's a long one. I would say my-- For starters, I want to maybe just play college basketball at maybe at Harvard or MIT, though if any college is listening, I'm keeping my options open. Of course, from there, I might like to work at NASA or maybe even become an NBA head coach which is a personal thing of mine I might want to do. Mainly, I'm leaving my options open, but I definitely have some things that I'm specifically interested in.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You hold some world records. [chuckles] What are your Guinness World Records for?
Zaila Avant-Garde: I have one for most basketball dribbles by one person which is six. I also have one for, I believe most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs. Those are my two records right there. I actually had more, but unfortunately, somebody got the idea to come and break them, so whatever.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: [laughs] It's the nature of records. If you hold them, you've got to want people to aspire to beat them.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Zaila Avant-Garde, author of It’s Not Bragging If It’s True: How to Be Awesome At Life, and the forthcoming Words of Wonder: From Z to A. Thank you so much for joining us.
Zaila Avant-Garde: Thank you for having me.
[00:15:54] [END OF AUDIO]
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