It is October 2012. I am in Paris. In May 2011 I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In July of that same year I sold my first novel. A few months later, I sold the first European rights to a small French publisher. In celebration of these events, my then girlfriend and I rented a little apartment in the Passage du Grand Cerf, one of those stunning nineteenth-century covered shopping arcades, with a glass and wrought-iron roof arching over the marble-tiled walkway below. The Passage is more beautiful than we’d anticipated. At night a grainy yellow light shows from the fixtures above the locked boutiques, a sexy ambient light that illumines our walk to the apartment door, our steps clicking on the marble floors and echoing through the deserted passage.
I have one professional obligation. A popular magazine has decided to review my novel—we are three months from its publication—and they would like a quote to include in their article. They will call me at 2 p.m. on a Thursday on the rented apartment’s telephone. Thursday dawns brilliant and blue. I get up early and have a pastry and coffee at a café on Rue Montorgueil. I walk to the Tuileries and then to the Place des Vosges. At 1:30, I rush across town to the apartment and sprint up the stairs. I was told the call from the magazine would be brief. I pick at my fingernails and hope they’ll call on time because the gorgeous afternoon is going on without me, and the forecast calls for rain the next day. It is two o’clock, and then five past and then nearly ten past and, really, I am getting a little huffy and have begun to search for the number to call my publicist’s office when the phone rings.
“Hello,” I say briskly. There is a delay in the connection, and then a voice says, clear as day, clear as though it were sitting next to me, “Is this Ayana?”
“Yes,” I say. “This is Oprah Winfrey.” There is a long pause. “No,” I reply. “It isn’t.” “It is. It’s Oprah Winfrey.” I feel a kind of buzzing in my head, and my heart feels as though it has grown dangerously large in my chest. Its beating might crack my ribs. I look around for a bottle of water, but there isn’t one. I think I might like to smoke a cigarette, but I can’t do that either; I am on a landline sitting on this couch in this apartment in Paris talking to Oprah Winfrey, and a cigarette would not be appropriate because, somehow, she might see me. I take a deep breath and I start over. “Hello,” I say. A great many things are said during our conversation, about my novel and literature in general. Oprah quotes Toni Morrison from memory. My goodness, I think, she really does read all of those books. On we go talking, and I might even sound a little bit natural because I am a good mimic and I can mimic “natural.” It’s all going very well until my girlfriend returns to the apartment and something in my tone (perhaps I don’t sound as “natural” as I think I do) makes her pause. She stands in front of me with her head cocked, listening. After a minute or so, she jabs at me with her index finger and starts waving her hands around and mouthing, exaggeratedly, like a silent film actress, “Is that Oprah Winfrey? Is that Oprah Winfrey?”
Oprah says I shouldn’t tell anyone about being the Book Club pick because it’s all a huge secret until it’s announced. She also tells me that she’s going to have them move up the publication of the book from January, so that it can be available for Christmas. Then she’s gone, and I am out on the street standing near a little playground bent at the waist with my hands on my knees to steady myself. My girlfriend is lying on the asphalt kind of laughing/crying. The French passersby are not particularly amused.
When you are a writer, people will always ask, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” I have an answer for that question: I starting writing when I was a kid. When I was nine, I filled a marble notebook with short stories about a little girl named Blue. When I got a little older, I wrote poetry and wanted to be a poet. I like this answer because it is true and also because it is neat and satisfying. I had an aspiration and, with some luck and hard work, it was realized, a sure sign of an intact American Dream, an assurance that merit does indeed determine success. Any other answer raises the specter of randomness, or worse, the uncomfortable truth that there are a great many people who work very hard for all kinds of things and never, ever get them.
We have a cult of success in America. We believe that if we just work hard enough, we will achieve. It is certainly better to hold these beliefs than a fatalist vision of the world in which fortunes are determined entirely by factors outside of oneself (social position, nepotism, economic status, etc.). Nonetheless, there is something naive about our way of looking at things, and cruel too, in the way children can be cruel because they are too young to have anything but an absolutist vision of the world. It isn’t always true that failure has direct correlation to insufficient grit or ambition. We resist the fact that race and class play a significant role in what we want and whether we are provided with the tools to make an attempt at getting it. The humbling, and unsettling, reality is that all obstacles are not surmountable. And in any case, is the sole objective of our lives the surmounting of obstacles so that we can come in first, like dogs in a race? This seems an impoverished vision of our human experience, more tragic and empty than any failure could ever be. But I have wandered into questions about how we might characterize a life well lived, and that is not the subject of this essay.
With regard to “wanting to be a writer”: when I was nine, writing the stories about the little girl named Blue, my mother was very sick and was hospitalized. My grandparents took me to see her once. To get to her, we had to pass through several heavy doors that each opened with a loud buzz and then a click. The doors slammed behind us: Bang! Bang! Bang! After the last bang, I saw my mother sitting on a couch behind a glass window with tears streaming down her cheeks. She asked my grandmother to please, please take her home.
I wrote poems throughout my high school years. My mother was still ill. We lived a transient, pillar-to-post, paycheck-to-paycheck kind of life. Sometimes there were no paychecks. My poems were not ostensibly about any of those things. I wrote about a kind of general disaffection, about loneliness and being very angry, enraged, really, with the world. I kept journals in which I recorded my discontents in capital letters with red ink. I had a great many female friends, but I was angry with them because they were thin and I was fat. I had a lot of male friends with whom I found greater kinship, though I was secretly in love with half of them (in retrospect this may also have been the case with my female friends). This unrequited love was a confirmation of sorts. I was a relatively popular girl but despised myself a little. That my infatuations were not reciprocated reified my self-assessment. Why should anyone return my fat, black, poor affections?
I should mention here that I was a teenager in the 1980s. Reagan was president. Black people were on television all of the time. For thirty minutes a week those black people were the Huxtables, being middle-class and wearing sweaters. But most of the time the black people on TV were being arrested, selling or doing drugs, or wandering around the ghettos in which they all (except the Huxtables) lived. Sometimes they were prostitutes. Frequently they were some iteration of Reagan’s favorite societal scourge, the Welfare Queen. She was usually sitting on a bench in a public housing project surrounded by the brood of unkempt, unruly, criminals-in-the-making children she’d birthed as a result of her uncontrollable libido, children she could not provide for because she was too lazy to get a job. She had no husband to help her because black men don’t get married; they just impregnate women and go to jail.
The damage done by those images of black people is inestimable. Why would the nation rally against a government that didn’t support public schools, social programs, or make any attempt at improving the conditions of poor and black folk when every available representation of those people showed them to be irremediably degenerate? And what were we—young black people raised on a steady diet of images that showed us as unworthy, ugly, peripheral—to think of ourselves? The lucky among us didn’t break. But every last one of us took a beating politically, economically, and psychically.
What I am getting at in all of this is that I did not have a moment in which I fixed upon writing as an ambition. I couldn’t quite name my ambitions. They had something to do with not being the Welfare Queen, with being a person who would not be disdained or dismissed. I wanted to be understood as a distinct self, my distinct self—inviolate and individuated, in the way I saw the not-poor, not-black other was granted its selfhood. So overwhelming was this desire to be, and so bewildering any specific course of action to achieve it, that all the things I most wanted took on an unqualified and non-goal-oriented character. In my terms, “being a writer” meant that I was a person who wrote and wanted to write, but that sensibility was uncoupled from tangible outcomes, like the publication of a book, or building a professional life. The notion that my writer identity could concretize into goals or achievements was farfetched, maybe even a little ridiculous.
I was suspicious of all of the things I wanted, writing or otherwise, simply because I wanted them. And so my desires were reduced to beautiful dreams that floated through my adolescent and young adult life, only acted upon in halfhearted fits and starts. Five or six months of furious writing were followed by a year or two in which I didn’t pen a single line. I never made any real attempt at publishing my work. Better a dream deferred than hopes dashed.
It is Wednesday, December 5, 2012. I get up at 8 a.m. and make some coffee. I walk the dog. When I get back I open my laptop. The headline on Oprah.com is “Ayana Mathis, Oprah Book Club 2.0,” followed by an image of my book and a giant picture of Oprah and me. My head is thrown back in a wide, toothy smile. I am a happy Tyrannosaurus rex in an orange blouse. The phone rings. It is my publicist. At 8:15 the Oprah empire sent a press release to all of the country’s major media outlets. I was told this would happen, but I didn’t understand what it meant. I imagined that an email would be sent and someone in the bowels of “the media” would file it away, or something.
I Google my name. Pages of hits appear: New York Times, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Boston Globe, People, USA Today, and on and on. By 10, the phone is ringing nonstop. I do a phone interview with the Daily News for a feature in the next day’s paper. Arrangements are made for photographers from the New York Times to come to my apartment for a photo shoot that will accompany a profile. My editor calls, crying, to tell me that she wants to read me Michiko Kakutani’s review of my book. “Michiko Kakutani!” I say. My stomach lurches. “Oh no.” The review is a rave. I weep between interviews.
I have not eaten or changed out of my pajamas and it’s nearly 3 p.m. My mother calls, and we sit in silence on the phone together because we are both too stunned to speak. Here is what has happened, though I do not yet know it: On December 4, I had one life. On December 5, I had another life. I wouldn’t ever go back to my December 4 life.
I received a great many emails and phone calls from well-wishers during that period. When they asked how I felt, I said I was shell-shocked. This was true. It’s still true, perhaps. Thankfully, I was aided by my provenance. I am the product of manner-minding, nose-to-the-grindstone, aspirant (but poor), middle-class black folk. I managed my new surreal existence by thinking of all the publicity and attention as work. Work I could do! My job in this period, I told myself, is to publicize this book. I told the well-wishers as much. Everyone told me to “enjoy it.” I tried to do that, though once my book tour started, I was so sleep-deprived and jet-lagged that in the evenings, after I had finished the day’s duties, I would lay in the hotel room darkness with the blankets up to my chin watching movies on HBO.
The well-wishers also said: “You deserve it!” This presented a number of problems, which I resolved outwardly by simply saying thank you. (When people first began saying this, I would look startled and then reply in some self-deprecating way. Various parties repeatedly and vigorously explained to me that self-deprecation and fright are not the appropriate response to heartfelt congratulations.)
“You deserve it!” is just one of those things people say, I realize, but it unsettled me. That anyone deserves outsize success, that I deserved a success beyond every fantasy I’d had about the fate of my book, was incongruous with my sense of myself, what I knew about the nature of lived experience and the experience of the people I love most. Those lives are bound up in struggle. Struggle isn’t tragedy. It is necessary to say this because too often the former is conflated with the latter. And too often we create false narratives around struggle; we say that people have “overcome” their circumstances or “overcome” their struggles, when in reality people often manage to survive their circumstances by way of the very mettle or knowledge gained through the circumstances themselves. It is not ever possible to entirely leave behind any aspect of ourselves; we cannot step out of history, personal or otherwise. I come from strugglers. For us, the measure of a life is survival by means of elegant improvisation and wiliness, grace and dignity in the face of difficulty.
My grandparents were born in Virginia near the turn of the twentieth century, my grandmother in 1910, my grandfather in 1908. They migrated to Philadelphia, where they married and raised nine children with a good deal of pragmatism and a lot of hard times. They were poor people, in my mother’s sense of the words, by which she means anyone for whom a utility bill has caused a crisis, or who has eyed the steaks at the butcher counter knowing she’ll end up with a bag of navy beans and package of ham hocks. My grandmother cleaned white people’s houses and worked in a munitions factory during WWII to save enough money to buy the family’s first house.
For some forty years most of my grandmother’s dinners consisted of whatever was left at the bottom of the pot after she’d fed her children. When my mother was a girl she saw Grandmom, as I called her, licking drying food from the tines of one of the children’s forks when she thought she was alone. She would never have admitted to being hungry. My grandparents were not the sort of people who talked about how they felt about things, or what they yearned for or were heartbroken by. Their children grew up and had decent enough lives and didn’t have to clean white folks’ toilets. I don’t know if this outcome was sufficient to them. I used to believe their silence on these matters implied an absence of desire, or a repression so great it mimicked absence. This was a lazy and insulting conclusion. What did I know about their inner lives? Or what they dreamed in their privacy?
My mother inherited my grandparent’s reserve, but she was prone to whimsy and restlessness. Her life was marginally easier than theirs in sociopolitical terms. She was not born into Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century. Despite the vicious, entrenched racism in the Philadelphia of her youth, she was freer than my grandparents. Freer to want things and express those wants, whether she could act on them or not. In high school my mother’s drawing teacher encouraged her to apply to art colleges. She was desperate to go, but my grandmother, who did not see the sense in sending her black daughter to art college in 1952, forbade it. My mother finished high school with a secretarial degree and went to work in an office. She went on dates and had boyfriends and did all of the things young women her age and generation did—except get married and have children (I was not born until she was forty, in 1973), or settle permanently into a life she didn’t want.
My mother enrolled as a full-time student at Temple University when she was thirty years old in 1964. She worked nights all four years to pay for her tuition. After she graduated, she taught elementary school for a couple of years. But it wasn’t long before her troubles would rear up like Scylla and Charybdis. She has spent over half of her life, and almost all of mine, dodging monsters.
My mother is a master of improvisation; she raised me with no money and no resources and sometimes no home. She has rarely used, in the strictest sense of the term, the degree she earned. I asked her once if she still thought going to college was worth all of the effort—that is to say if pursuing her ambition was worth the struggle to do so. She said, “I realized at a certain point that I didn’t know much about the world. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life like that. I wanted to know.” My mother is the preeminent authority on the pursuit of impractical urges. How one’s life might turn out, even after heroic effort, is anyone’s guess. It’s like this: A door opens, perhaps just a fraction of an inch. There’s no telling if the door will open at all, or for whom, but if it does, you push push push until it is wide enough for you to squeeze through.
Some seven or eight months after the publication of my novel, a deep, lingering sadness set in. Success, of the sort that is measurable in terms of recognition or money, comes with a set of presumptions. The joy of the successful party is taken as a given. It is assumed that an inexorable progression begins, whereby a first success is a stepping-stone to further successes. It is also assumed that success engenders additional, elevated goals, more ambitious ambitions, so to speak—for example, the regional track star tries for the nationals, or the city council person runs for mayor.
Success is a far more mingled phenomenon. In the months after my novel’s publication, I was suddenly required to do all kinds of things for which nothing in my life had prepared me: television appearances and newspaper interviews and lectures in front of people who believed I was an authority of some sort. Out of sheer necessity, I manufactured a new self to meet these responsibilities. She did all that was required of her with aplomb, but she was a strange and unnerving being. I felt like I had stumbled across my doppelgänger on an airplane. The new self and I marched through the alien landscape of our new life. I was unmoored. I was ashamed of my good fortune. I felt I was a fraud and poseur.
I continued on. I taught. I gave some lectures. I wrote a few pieces of nonfiction. I applied for fellowships. All of this was done slowly and with great effort, like I was waist-high in mud. I was less productive than I had ever been at any period of my life. I couldn’t start my second novel. I decided that New York City was at fault for my writer’s block. In 2013, I came into some money and I bought a house a couple of hours away from the city. I had never owned property, nor had my mother. My success had done something useful at last. I would have a place to write. And more importantly, the house would be a bulwark against the transience and hardship of my youth. My mother nearly wept with relief.
In the first full summer I spent at the house, I was up and working by 7:30 every morning—mug of coffee in hand, notebooks open, like a real writer. I produced a few pages every day. At week’s end I’d have twelve or fifteen pages of weak, meandering prose that led straight to a wall I couldn’t get around or under or over. I’d scratch those pages out and start again the next week, with less conviction and energy. Each day, sometime toward evening, when the light turned orange and slanted through the high windows of my writing room, I would feel as though I had dissociated from myself and was looking down at this Ayana, this writer at work in her studio in the house she’d bought. Whose life is this? Then, I would think, Put away those notebooks. The first book was a fluke. You can’t write another. This was the voice of paralyzing doubt, doubt of the kaleidoscopic variety, continually morphing into new and convincing iterations of itself until it arrived finally at futility: Why do this writing thing at all? It doesn’t matter.
It is January 17, 2016. I am in Iowa City, Iowa, where I come in the coldest part of the year to teach for a semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The temperature is negative one. The sun is bright and high, but if I go outside for more than sixty seconds, my fingers ache. This does not stop me from putting on a thick pair of gloves and smoking a cigarette on the steps outside of the apartment I am renting for the semester.
I have a recurrent fantasy. At the end of the term, having written fifty pages of my new novel, I give a small reading in the glass-walled library in the building where our classes are held. My work is enthusiastically received. As I read aloud, I hear that the language is powerful and resonant and the characters are moving. I am restored to the self I was when I was a student here. At that time, in 2011, my novel was only a computer document to which I returned daily in my privacy. There were no reviews or interviews, no accolades. There was no career. After a time, the novel in progress took on its own momentum and became a kind of a propulsive force urging both of us forward.
I was exhausted during that time. But it was exhilarating. I had named my ambitions at last. I would be a writer. I would finish my novel. I would not be stopped.
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.
Here in Iowa, the evening temperature drops to negative ten. Too cold for another cigarette, too cold for anything but bed. Tomorrow I will teach my first class as a member of the permanent faculty. There’s no going back to my student days, no magic restoration to a former self. It occurs to me that perhaps this fear and sadness is also a crutch. If I am crippled with doubt, I don’t have to write. I don’t have to risk disappointing myself with a bad novel or discovering that it is in fact true that I can’t write another book at all. In order to continue after these first jarring and sudden successes, I must find some way to understand ambition on my own terms.
I could spend the next three years as I’ve spent the last three: stuck. I might, as I have in the course of writing this essay, arrive at some truths about the mechanisms of my tangled relationship with my dreams and accomplishments. This might get me moving again, or it might not. If my grandmother, an elegant survivalist if ever there was one, were still alive, she’d shrug at my dilemma as if to say: All of that might be true but you still have to get on with things. She’d be right. If I’m honest, what I want is a neat answer to all of my questions, and instructions about the way forward. I won’t get those things. Nobody does. But I have my mother and grandparents and their parents, their lives and labor and the ways they kept going through the worst, and the best. In my scramble to find a foothold in this new life, perhaps I can borrow from their strength. That’s enough being scared, they’d say. We didn’t do all of this struggling so you could just give up. Get up now. Take a step. Then another. Then another. Like we did.
This essay appears in Double Bind: Women on Ambition, edited by Romin Romm, publishing April 11, 2017, from Liveright.