After abandoning a memoir that didn’t quite feel right, Ayana Mathis began writing short stories. A few in, she realized that the characters, though born in separate stories, were related, part of one family.
It was the beginnings of what would become Mathis’ stunning debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Vintage, $15.95), a story so alive that it became the second selection in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and a New York Times bestseller.
“The opening pages of Ayana’s debut book took my breath away,” Winfrey said. “I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”
Set against the promise of the Great Migration, the novel chronicles the life of Hattie Shepherd, the steadfast, practical, knowing mother of 11 daughters and sons and a granddaughter, a story coursing through three generations — more than half a century.
The novel opens in 1925 with a certain, singular pain. Hattie, who had moved from Georgia two years before, is now 17 with twin babies born in June and named Jubilee and Philadelphia, “reaching forward names, not looking back ones,” Mathis writes. They die of pneumonia. In her arms. Hattie survives but is damaged, her insides emptied. Love, warmth and affection seem so far away, even as she births nine more children.
Yet this is a story absolutely about love, even when it doesn’t look anything like it.
“So often we are presented with an idea of love that is simple or somewhat unproblematic,” says Mathis, a Philadelphia native now living in Brooklyn and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “In Hattie, there is a great deal of love, but it’s messy and complicated and difficult to recognize. It didn’t always look like love, but it was very much that.”
Mathis, who appears at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Miami Book Fair International, chatted with the Miami Herald about her novel.
Q: You have been writing for a while. At what point did you consider yourself a writer?
A: It was a very slow process; it happened in stages. I have been writing since I was about 9. I wrote poetry, and I thought that would be my writing identity. Then around my late 20s, I was suddenly unable to write poetry, and stopped writing entirely for five years. I am really not sure why, but whatever [subject] I was thinking or talking about, poetry didn’t seem like the right form. It was a terrifying and confusing time in retrospect. And prose hadn’t really occurred to me yet, or even how to begin to write prose.
Q: How did this remarkable book come to be?
A: It didn’t start as a novel. I started back writing and it was these language-driven autobiographical vignettes, like prose poems. I started to think about writing in a longer form. First I thought about a memoir. But it didn’t work at all, so I abandoned it. I started writing what I thought were short stories, and then I realized that these people I was writing about were from the same family. A dear friend looked at the stories and said, ‘I think this is a book, a novel.’ There were three of four early stories and they involved either Philadelphia and/or the same rough historical period.
Q: How long did it take you to write Twelve Tribes, and where was it composed?
A: It took two years, and I wrote it in its entirety at the workshop.
Q: Tell us about Hattie.
A: She is very loosely based on my own grandmother, who also migrated from the South to the North. Hattie is a lot more difficult than my own grandmother, but in some way I think my grandmother was similarly stoic and unknowable. Hattie was sort of a way to imagine what my grandmother was like, how she may have thought. The book is as much about her children as it is about Hattie. Its about looking at Hattie through the prism of her children and her children’s understanding of her. I knew that she was young and from Georgia and that early on her [twins] had died, and as I kept writing through, she insisted on becoming more and more important and more and more nuanced.
Q: Walk us through the idea of the 12 tribes and how you come up with the title.
A: I had been doing a bunch of research and read of lot of Theology and the Bible. I had been thinking a lot about the 12 Tribes of Israel, and I remember a friend and I making a joke and saying, if this were a novel, it could be called The 12 Tribes of Hattie. That also solved how many characters there would be.
Q: Hattie has 11 children and one grandchild. Of course they are all yours, but did you feel a special closeness to any of the characters?
A: I think Floyd and Bell. I like the arc of his life, and Bell reminds me of people I know. She is very self-aware and self-sabotaging, kind of sardonic and wise-cracking. And I like her because you know she is going to be all right. Even at a very low point, you had the sense that she would be all right. She has this reservoir, something like strength.
Q: Your voice has been compared to Toni Morrison’s. Were you influenced by her works? Favorites of hers?
A: I think people across races are influenced by her because she is so important. I am an enormous fan of her work. I don’t suppose I could have written this had she not written what she wrote. I go back and forth about my favorites of her work between Song of Solomon and Beloved.