How Ayana Mathis Came to Own Her Ambition

Guernica has an essay by novelist Ayana Mathis about owning one’s writing ambitions, despite never really having felt entitled to them. In this excerpt from Double Bind: Women on Ambitionan anthology edited by Robin Romm, Mathis’s opens with an experience beyond her wildest dreams: A phone call from Oprah Winfrey, who tells Mathis her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a pick for Oprah’s Book Club. From there Mathis delves into the things that had held her back from reaching for great achievement, and sometimes still do: Her mother and grandparents stressing the importance of being reserved and never seeming hungry. The messages she received as a young black girl about not being deserving were often the opposite of what was promised to the much more privileged “lean-in crowd.”

Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: the legitimization of desires. In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly forty years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions? This is not a question for the lean-in crowd. That conception, of leaning in, useful though it may be to some, is the province of the entitled classes. Women who come to the big boy’s table with education and privilege; perhaps just not quite enough to make more money, to have more power, to be more successful. This is an inadequate model that implies that the old hierarchies, the old systems of inclusion and exclusion, the old distribution of power and wealth are perfectly acceptable, it’s just that the ladies should be sitting at the big table too. I and mine are not lean-in women. Mine is a long and illustrious heritage of elegant survivalists and creative realists. We made our way without a road map, or even a road, as is the case for those of us who were, by virtue of race and class and gender, barred from the paths to success. We have dreams aplenty, some realized and some not, but the manifestation of our ambitions is not a given. It isn’t even a given that we will recognize our right to have them.

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