The acclaimed writer reacts to the buzz around her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
Novelist Ayana Mathis
Tavis: Ayana Mathis’s first novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” works at the edges of what was called the Great Migration, when Southern Blacks relocated to Northern cities, considered to be one of the most transformative moments in the 20th century.
The novel covers more than six decades in the history of one family and became a national best seller. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” earned the sort of reviews writers covet, and it’s now out in paperback. Ayana, congratulations and good to have you on this program.
Ayana Mathis: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Have you been – let me ask you to set your modesty aside for just a second. (Laughter) I think every writer believes that his or her work is good work, and if it’s not good work, why do it. But were you at all surprised by the acclaim and the embrace of this first text?
Mathis: Enormously. I always make a joke that writers have different hats, and so one of the hats is you’re in your sweatpants at your computer hat, and then you have this kind of public hat.
I didn’t really expect at all for my public hat to be so big. Your relationship, my relationship with the book was really that of it was my very private manuscript, it was my Word document. So I’m still very shocked at its public life.
Tavis: Why this subject matter for you?
Mathis: It’s interesting. It was slightly an accident. I was in grad school when I wrote this book, and I was having some trouble with a sort of failed project that I had to set aside, and so I started working on this, not knowing that it was a book.
I was basically writing some short stories, and because I’m a little slow on the uptake I got about three or four stories in and realized that they were all in Philadelphia, and they kept being the ’40s or the ’50s, or what have you.
Then I realized that they were entirely a family. When it became clear that these people were of a piece, of a family, it became clear also that they needed some sort of, something that would cohere them, something that would unite them, and that would be their mother.
Tavis: So much praise for the text, as I said a moment ago. A lot of comparisons to Toni Morrison. As we say, that’s high cotton.
Mathis: It surely is. (Laughter) Surely is.
Tavis: How have you processed – let me ask how have you processed, number one, but more importantly, is there a connection, personal or otherwise, that you had to Toni Morrison’s brilliant work in crafting your own?
Mathis: I’ll answer the part about the praise first, I guess. I sort of try and set it aside, because that really is about the highest cotton you can get. (Laughs) You can’t just go wading around in there as though you belong, (laughter) so I just stay out of that.
I’m of course incredibly flattered and grateful, but I don’t process it kind of purposely, because I can’t imagine what it would do for me as a writer, other than either give me a big head or scare the pants off me, so I stay out of that.
But in terms of my relationship to her work, I am an enormous, enormous fan of Toni Morrison. I’ve probably read “Beloved” 17 times – I don’t even know how many times I’ve read it.
Also “Sulfa,” also “Song of Solomon,” and that work, I think the thing that has been most important to me about that work is the way that it is obviously work about Black women and about Black women’s relationships, but it is entirely arrived at through character.
Meaning these people are fleshed-out people on the page. Sula’s a fleshed-out person on the page; so is Beloved, so is Sethe – all of these characters. There is a resistance to I think what can sometimes happen in “Black fiction,” which is that the characters become caricatures, and they are sort of flattened to a being that is entirely seen and understood through the prism of race as opposed to a being that is entirely seen and understood through the prism of their humanity, which is, of course, gigantic and broad and capacious.
That’s what Toni Morrison does, and if there is a sort of great lesson that I’ve learned from her, it’s probably that.
Tavis: How do you go about writing a book like this that is usable, that is embraceable – does that make sense?
Mathis: Yeah, it does, it does.
Mathis: I think through the same thing – I really, deeply believe in the primacy of character. I believe that my job as a writer is to put a believable human being on a page.
So as much as writers are certainly concerned with things like themes and tropes and all of these things that are kind of happening beneath the text, it seemed to me that first and foremost, my job was not to sort of tricks or show that I’m smart or anything like that, but to simply write these characters.
I think that if you just write your characters you end up with something that people can access, and I think the same – I certainly wouldn’t deign to speak for Toni Morrison, but obviously her – what she’s bringing to her characters is enormous and complex and deeply layered.
But she is also writing her characters. So you can read her 17 times and you can access her the first time on one level, then you access her a second time on another, and then another, and another. But she’s writing her characters.
Tavis: So let’s talk about your characters in “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”
Mathis: Well, the title character’s name is Hattie. Hattie is a – when we meet her, she’s 17. She has just come from Georgia with her mother and her two sisters. Her father was murdered. The year is 1925.
Over the – she has a very sort of difficult situation very, very young in her life, in the first chapter of the book, and what happens to her I won’t – no spoilers – what happens to her shapes her very much, and it makes her not a woman who is unable to love, but a woman who has a great deal of difficulty with tenderness and with affection.
So deeply capable of love, deeply compromised when it comes to being affectionate. At any rate, after the first two children she has, she has twins; she goes on to have nine more children over the course of the bulk of the 20th century.
The first chapter, as I said, begins in 1925, and the last is in 1980. So through the course of those 60-some-odd years we meet each of her children in some capacity, generally speaking, of course. They’re not children; they’re adults when we meet her.
Hattie is the life’s blood of the novel. She is present in some way, shape, or form in every single chapter. Very often what’s happening is that we understand her children and we understand Hattie through sort of a prism or lens of each other.
The children are looking at her, and so we her in all her nuances and her complexities, and she is looking at them, and so we see them in their nuances and complexities. So they’re sort of playing off of each other throughout the novel.
Tavis: The genesis of these characters for you is what? How does it come to you?
Mathis: That is a very hard question to answer. I do believe – I’m not one of these writers that gets very sort of foo-foo when they say oh, I was in the shower and suddenly so-and-so tapped me on the shoulder, (laughter) and I said, “What is it, Twyla?” And then she was in the book. This doesn’t happen to me.
Tavis: That’s funny, but everybody has a process, though.
Mathis: Everybody does have a, everybody certainly does have a process. But what I think is interesting is the process of the imagination is so mysterious and so strange, generally speaking with these characters, but when I would start a chapter – as I said, each chapter is sort of titled after and from the perspective of one of Hattie’s children – I would generally speaking know maybe two or three things about them.
Hard, concrete facts. I’ll take one from the middle of the book. There’s a woman named Belle. She’s quite ill, she has tuberculosis. She’s dying. She’s sort of witty and sardonic and wisecracking, and she has done a, she has a very fraught relationship with Hattie and her mother – with Hattie, her mother.
I knew that, and that’s all I knew, and then I began writing. Now where that germ comes from, I’m not sure. Mostly what I would need to know is whether the person I was about to sort of embark upon, whether they were male or female, and essentially what year they were kind of – what year the story would take place in.
Other than that, no. So there was a lot of very sort of calculated thought in terms of okay, well, it needs to be, this one needs to be around 1952, for example, and he needs to be a male.
Then after that, I don’t know. Sometimes they’re fragments of family stories, not recreated in any way in any exactitude, but something that sparks something. The imagination is so mysterious.
Tavis: What always fascinates me when I see this kind of critical acclaim coming out the blocks is not just the work but the back story to the worker. Your back story, not unlike most people who’ve done what you’ve done here now, is rather interesting. So you bounced through a few colleges.
Mathis: Oh, I surely did. I like to call it –
Tavis: Dropped out of a few, bounced through a few, before you –
Mathis: Oh, I like to call it my “varied undergraduate career.” (Laughter)
Tavis: That sounds so much more charitable, doesn’t it?
Mathis: Doesn’t it, though? It really it was just I was just kind of a mess and didn’t know what I was doing. So yeah, I did. I went to three different universities, didn’t finish any of them.
I waited tables for a long time. I’m from Philadelphia, I left Philadelphia when I was 18, I went to NYU, I cycled through my university career. It took about six years before I kind of gave up.
I waited tables, I worked in magazines for a long time, I lived in Italy for five years. I just sort of went around the world, I suppose, collecting experiences, which makes it sound very intentional and glamorous, but really most of the time I was just living my life as people do.
Being kind of confused, trying on different shoes to see if they fit. They didn’t, so I would try on another one. But eventually not very long ago, I was, I guess, 36; I ended up at the University of Iowa, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Tavis: Not just ended up. It doesn’t get much better than that. We’re back to that high cotton again.
Mathis: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: The Iowa Writer’s Workshop is high cotton.
Mathis: Back in the high cotton. I was very lucky. I had, as I said, I lived in Italy for a few years and I came back and I went back to working in magazines, which is what I’d been doing before that.
For some reason – I’ve been writing all my life. I’ve been writing since I was nine years old, but – and I wrote poetry for a very long time, and then I stopped writing poetry. I don’t know why. Just sort of the well dried up.
Then I didn’t write at all for several years, which was very disconcerting, because I, even though I didn’t have sort of careerist aspirations as a writer, it was very much my identity. It’s how I thought of myself.
So when I, when poetry went away and I didn’t write anything, I was really stuck and confused. Anyway, I returned from Italy where I had been, and I don’t know why, but writing became really urgent.
I made a transition from the poetry that I had been writing or had stopped writing into something like prose, so they’d be sort of short, kind of language-driven vignettes that I later tried to cram into a book and it didn’t work.
But at any rate, I – but it seemed, I began to feel that it was a sort of now-or-never kind of thing. I was taking a writing class at the time with a very good friend of mine who wrote an incredible book called “We the Animals,” and he went to – his name is Justin Torres, and he went to Iowa the year before I did.
We were very good friends, and he said “Come see me,” and I did. I got there and I thought this is what I should do. I felt very sort of now-or-never about it.
Tavis: Is there in that story some advice you have for people about finding their muse or about getting to center?
Mathis: It’s so hard to do that, because I think – well actually, I suppose I do, which is to reject all the advice about that stuff. Simply because I think that we have come to a place kind of in America in general where we have a slightly more narrow path than we ought to, or slightly more narrow vision than we ought to of how to get to a place that is sort of our place.
I think that we have some sort of vision that everybody is moving towards perfection, and that there is some sort of set steps or something like that that you can move through to get to that place, and that that’s sort of the project of being alive.
I think that the project of being alive is to be alive. So there will always be twists and turns and steps forward and steps back, but that’s just your life. There is no sort of place at which to arrive, and I think that the more one focuses on an end point, the harder it is to get there. It’s like the horizon, sort of ever receding, ever receding, ever receding.
Tavis: Well, in case you don’t know this, you arrived. (Laughter)
Mathis: That’s funny, I don’t feel that way.
Tavis: You have arrived there. Yeah, well, all the rest of us do. (Laughter) All the rest of us do, the best-seller lists do, and everybody else seems to think you have arrived.
Mathis: But there’s always another book, that’s the thing.
Tavis: There always is, yeah, but that’s the good thing. Once you arrive, you can do it again.
Mathis: Well, that’s the thing – every book is its own test, I think.
Tavis: I think you’re up to it, though
Mathis: I hope so.
Tavis: Yeah. The book from Ayana Mathis is called “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.” A national best seller, and we highly recommend it. Congratulations and good to have you on the program.
Mathis: Thank you so much. A pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Good to have you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.