The debut novelist on the Great Migration and nation-building, conflations of race and class, and her “belief in belief.”
Photo courtesy Michael Lionstar
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has received an extraordinary amount of attention. Oprah Winfrey’s blessing has ensured excellent sales, there’s been a clutch of adoring reviews, and it recently graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review—a highly unusual feat for a debut novel. The book has become one of those rare things that keep clever, nervous publishers from weeping too often into their wine glasses: a “literary bestseller.”
Lacking in sentimentality, quick thrills, and easy wisdom, Twelve Tribes is perhaps an unusual crowd-pleaser. It’s the kind of story that gets called “unflinching,” a story about children of the Great Migration and the balance of beauty and suffering in twelve intertwining lives. The book jacket describes the novel as dealing with “the driving force of the American dream,” but on every page the narrative rejects approximations and generalizations. It seems to tell us that there is no single dream, that there is no single truth; with happiness, one size doesn’t fit all. It’s a highly affecting novel and its strengths lie in the way the prose is so attuned to the deep individuality of each character. Observing her protagonist in the wake of a bereavement, Mathis writes that “Hattie was like a lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known.” In the way of all good writers, Mathis knows how and when to crack through that surface mystery, letting just enough of it linger in shards, allowing the reader to glimpse the flow of thought and emotion underneath.
Our interview took place over Skype: me in Brooklyn, Mathis in Iowa. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’d now been invited back to teach alongside the likes of her mentor, Marilynne Robinson. She’s got a rich warm voice you want to listen to all day, and a knack for speaking in paragraphs. We talked about race, religion, and sexuality; “language-driven writing” versus character-led prose; and how many times Oprah Winfrey must repeat her name on the phone before she can be believed.
—Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: Perhaps we could talk a bit about class. Class isn’t something that seems to have come up much in reviews of the book.
Ayana Mathis: Class isn’t something we like to talk about in America, full stop, and especially in the context of black people. Within the family in the novel, there are different registers in which characters are speaking. August, Hattie’s husband, speaks in a kind of Southern “lower” English, and Hattie and the children are speaking something closer to what you might call the Queen’s English. The book is set in the pre-civil rights era. Economic opportunities were extremely limited. There were hierarchies, and they were class hierarchies, but given that no one Hattie would come into contact with really had any money, class differences were based a lot around things like diction, rather than wealth. So there were class differences among black people then and there are class differences among black people now. There is still an assumption among many people in American society that being black is its own class, a blanket class. That, I believe, is an erroneous and deeply offensive view.
Guernica: Do you see that view thinning out, or is it still as prevalent as it once was?
Ayana Mathis: I think things are probably improving. There’s a more visible black middle class now than there once was. The Cosby Show really was one of America’s first introductions to a black middle class family. But there is still an assumption among many people that to be black is to be lower class. In the last fifteen to twenty years, perhaps even further back than that, there’s also been an explosion of a very wealthy black class in the United States, but those people are often treated as special cases: they’re athletes, entertainers. Jay-Z. Basketball players. The country metabolizes the fact these rich black people exist, but it seems only to reinforce the idea that every other black person is limping along in poverty. There is a forgotten black middle class in America—a group which is huge but underrepresented in the media and in art. It’s difficult to talk about these things, because it forces one to talk in generalities, but that’s my view. I do think the idea of a blanket class for black people is unfortunately still present.
Guernica: Commentary about the novel often labels you as a black writer. I don’t know whether you think that’s a helpful label or not.
Ayana Mathis: I think a lot about race and the burdens of representation. There’s an idea that because I’m writing a book set around the time of the Great Migration, and happen to be black, I’m trying to write a definitive account of the Great Migration, the so-called “black experience.” That’s not what I’m doing, and it can be frustrating.
I had hoped to write a black female matriarch who wasn’t reduced to her iron will or her capacity to endure hardship. This is a caricature, and I was writing against that kind of thing.
Guernica: In your interview with Oprah, you said that one of the things you wanted to do with this book was to challenge stereotypes about strength. The conversation then moved on in a slightly different direction. I wondered what you meant by that.
Ayana Mathis: It’s linked to the idea of nation-building, I think. If there had never been the Great Migration there would never have been jazz, there would never have been Michelle Obama. A lot of amazing black people exist in this country because of the Great Migration. That’s nation-building. There is also the fact that the kinds of racial terrorism that were in place at the time my book is set were corrupting for everyone, not just black people. Racial terrorism affects the lives of white people and black people and everyone, everything. Racism is contaminating. It can affect the dogs in the street. So the process of beginning to rid the country of prejudice was in itself a kind of nation-building.
My book has a pre–civil rights setting with a post–civil rights sensibility. I believe less and less that there is something called “The Black Experience,” though undoubtedly there was one once. In the book I have a character called Lawrence say that he doesn’t want Hattie to be just another downtrodden black woman, and I think what he’s getting at with that statement is the idea of individuation. There’s a stereotype that to be a strong black woman is to be strong about being black. Hattie is a nuanced character. She makes terrible mistakes, she is prone to longing and yearning and whimsy. She is also a sexual being. I had hoped to write a black female matriarch who wasn’t reduced to her iron will or her capacity to endure hardship. This is a caricature, and I was writing against that kind of thing.
In America, and no doubt elsewhere, we have such a tendency toward the segregation of cultural products. This is a black book, this is a gay book, this is an Asian book. It can be counterproductive both to the literary enterprise and to people’s reading…
Guernica: I don’t think it’s a secret that you’re gay, but I haven’t seen you labelled as a gay writer. Why is that, I wonder? People might say it’s because your novel is about race, and therefore the fact you’re a writer of color comes up. But actually it’s a book about sexuality, too. You paint a great portrait of Floyd, a character, creative in temperament, who is struggling in some ways with his sexuality.
Ayana Mathis: It’s difficult. I’m wary of being put in boxes. But at the same time, it’s important that I embrace my identity as a writer who happens to be gay, and in my own way I do that. In America, and no doubt elsewhere, we have such a tendency toward the segregation of cultural products. This is a black book, this is a gay book, this is an Asian book. It can be counterproductive both to the literary enterprise and to people’s reading, because it can set up barriers. Readers may think, “Oh, I’m a straight man from Atlanta and I’m white, so I won’t enjoy that book because it’s by a gay black woman in Brooklyn.” They’re encouraged to think that, in a way, because of the categorization in the media.
As for Floyd, he’s certainly a very important character in the book. I couldn’t imagine a book with this many characters in it and one of them not being gay. It would have felt like a glaring and problematic omission for me. But I also wanted to write him as a person, not just a gay person. I found his chapter one of the most difficult to write because I seemed to be tempted to write some kind of coming out story. Many people have done that far better than I ever could, and I found I was relying on reductive tropes—what I was producing was boring, predictable. I had to think about the fact that first and foremost Floyd was a guy, a guy away from home for the first time. I had to resist the temptation to define him as gay. I had to tell his particular experience in a very particular set of circumstances. My friend Justin Torres [author of We the Animals] helped me see this. He read early drafts of that chapter and shook his head and said, “Uh-uh. This isn’t working.”
Guernica: At what stage in the writing or planning of Twelve Tribes did the structure come to you? The idea of homing in on different family members at different moments in their lives.
Ayana Mathis: I started writing the book without realizing I was writing a book. That sounds stupid, but it’s true. I’d been trying and failing to make a different manuscript work, and I thought I was just taking a break by writing some short stories. I’m not a very good short story writer—the amazing compression that is required for short stories doesn’t come easily to me. But anyway, I thought I’d try to write some short stories. And a structure took shape—I stumbled upon it. I’m very slow on the uptake, you see, and it took me a while to think “Oh, this is so funny. All the stories so far are set in Philadelphia, and I keep being drawn back to the ’50s.” And then Justin read some of what I’d written and said he thought there was a book there.
Guernica: And you said that when you began Twelve Tribes you’d been struggling with a different manuscript. What was that about?
Ayana Mathis: The only thing I know to call it is a memoir, but I’m not sure it really was a memoir. It was, I guess, a collection of strange, language-driven vignettes. Taken on its own terms, as a series of language-driven vignettes, it was probably fine. But there was no real way to make it into a book. I was a poet for a long time before attempting to write prose, and those pieces were maybe closer to poetry. My impulse was to be super language-focused, and to write about my experiences from a very emotive place. The more I tried to shove the vignettes into a narrative structure, though, the more they became flat and lifeless. I had to abandon the work. When I started the stories that became Twelve Tribes, I began writing in a different way.
Guernica: Are you able to put your finger on what the difference of approach was?
Ayana Mathis: When I worked on the stories that became Twelve Tribes, I became more and more led by character. Everything came from a desire to be true to the characters. That was the shift, and in a way I was going back to the kind of prose I wrote when I was nine years old. These stories about a little girl in a treehouse. A little bit of the last chapter of the book came from the poetic vignettes I’ve mentioned—a sensibility, or the seed of an idea, maybe just that. Everything else was new.
Guernica: In the last chapter of Twelve Tribes, Hattie thinks to herself that—although she gets a lot of comfort from the Church—she could give it up if she had to, and wouldn’t look back. She seems to take comfort in the idea of escape. I wondered if that’s a quality you share with Hattie. You went to NYU, and then Temple, and then the New School, but am I right in saying that the MFA at Iowa was the only one of these college programs you finished?
Ayana Mathis: Yep, I went everywhere. [Laughs.] I like to say I had a very varied undergraduate education. I was an English major first, and then at the end of my college career I decided I was interested in urban planning. I became an urban studies major, with a minor in poetry. I don’t think I knew what I was looking for in my early twenties, but I know I kept not finding it. I think if I’d gone to Iowa when I was twenty-two or three or four, that wouldn’t have been good for me. There are of course lots of people for whom that’s the right time to enter the [MFA] program, but I don’t think it would have been profitable for me. I wasn’t ready. And even when I did eventually get to Iowa, I was at first working on that series of vignettes that didn’t go anywhere. It takes a while to find what it is you want to write about.
Guernica: I wondered if religion was one of the things you wanted to write about. It feels important in that last chapter, and throughout.
Ayana Mathis: Yes. A lot of the places in the book where I deal with religion are places where I was, through writing, working out my own position in relation to issues of faith. I grew up in a Pentecostal family. That background has stayed with me in profound ways. There’s an essay by James Baldwin called “Down at the Cross,” which I like. Baldwin was from a very religious Pentecostal background. He had a conversion experience when he was, I think, fourteen years old.
Guernica: He was a child preacher?
Ayana Mathis: Yes. And later on he moved closer to a kind of atheism, but he used to say—and I’m paraphrasing—that the Church never left him. I feel a bit like that. A belief in God may not be fully within me anymore, but there’s still a belief in belief. The high drama and power of the Church has stayed with me. As a child in church, I saw grown men at the altar crying out for God’s mercy. And the idea of someone doing that has become a joke in the popular culture, but when you are there and you see it, you experience—for a moment—an incredibly raw, honest, strange insight into what it means to be a human being. Those experiences don’t leave you. Whatever you think of them, they are powerful experiences. The ways in which theological constructs pose questions about what it is to be a human being on this earth are deeply elegant and deeply interesting to me. I may not always agree with the answers religion offers, but I take great interest in the questions it poses.
Faith is a strange and wonderful thing. You come up to a kind of wall of unknowing and instead of turning back in despair you leap over it into something else. The Church isn’t why I’m a writer, but it’s probably a part of it.
Guernica: Do you think your Pentecostal background has anything to do with you actually becoming a writer? The sense of mystery, of performance, instilled in you at an early age?
Ayana Mathis: Perhaps in some ways. Certainly I had from an early age a sense of the power and beauty of religious texts—the awesome magnitude of the Bible stories I was reading as a child. The hymns. The sermons. I can still vividly hear the sermons and the pieces of soft piano music played after them, the preacher asking if anyone wanted to come up to the altar and accept Christ as their savior.
Guernica: Were there moments in those years when you questioned your faith?
Ayana Mathis: I went through the requisite stages of doubt that being a young person in a religious environment involves. By sixteen I thought, “Ah, this is all crap, you’re all sheep, I’m not going to church, leave me alone.” And then at a certain point in my teens I started to go to Catholic churches, by myself. Not because I wanted to be Catholic, but because I wanted to light a candle and say something like a prayer and just sit there. There was something I was missing or trying to reconnect with. But it was a secret at the time. I’d developed this cynical persona and the last thing I wanted to admit was that I was skulking around churches in my spare time. And at some point I just acknowledged, at least to myself, that I had a great deal of respect for people of faith. Faith is a strange and wonderful thing. You come up to a kind of wall of unknowing and instead of turning back in despair you leap over it into something else. The Church isn’t why I’m a writer, but it’s probably a part of it.
The Oprah Book Club breaks the barriers down, I think. It breaks assumptions down, and that side of it is helpful.
Guernica: We’ve talked a little bit about labels in relation to race and sexuality. I’m curious how you feel about the label “literary fiction,” as opposed to so-called “genre writing”? Is it helpful to categorize books that way?
Ayana Mathis: I have a similar feeling. The same desire not to be categorized. My book’s selection for the Oprah Book Club has been such an eye-opener. She picks a really wide range of books—some that I like, some that I don’t like, but there’s a very wide range. And one of the things that happens is people who may normally say they only like to read mysteries, or they only like to read thrillers, or who may be intimidated by this strange “literary fiction” label, may pick up a book and enjoy it without worrying about how it’s categorized. The Oprah Book Club breaks the barriers down, I think. It breaks assumptions down, and that side of it is helpful.
Guernica: How did you feel when you heard the book was going to be picked for the Oprah Book Club? You must have realized, at that point, that it would sell a lot of copies.
Ayana Mathis: I have a friend who likes to joke that most people have high hopes for their book, and that I had low hopes for mine. The friend likes to say that I have low esteem when it comes to my writing.
Guernica: Is that an accurate summary?
Ayana Mathis: In a way. It wasn’t that I had a lack of ambition for the book. It’s just that mainly I wanted it to do well enough that when I handed over my second book they wouldn’t laugh at me.
I had no idea that Oprah was reading my book. Thousands of books get sent to O Magazine, and all I knew was that O Magazine was reviewing it. My publicist heard that news—that we were getting reviewed in the magazine—and everyone at Knopf was really happy, because of course it’s good coverage to get. And then we were told by the magazine that the piece was going to be slightly longer than an ordinary review, and that they wanted to get a quote from me to include with it. I heard this from my publicist, but at the time I was in Paris on vacation.
All this happened in October last year. I was told that I should expect a call at about 2:00 p.m., from the O Magazine books editor. It was the only day I’d been in Paris where it had been really nice weather, a bright sunny day, and I had a diva moment at 1:00—moaning to my partner about having to go back to the hotel for the phone call. But I went back, and 2:00 came and went, and then 2:05, and 2:06, and I was thinking “Why am I sitting here?” And then at 2:12 the phone rang, and I picked up the phone and a voice said “This is Oprah Winfrey.”
Guernica: And you believed it?
Ayana Mathis: No. No way. There was no way I believed it was Oprah Winfrey calling me up. So we went through this long back and forth where I said “no it isn’t” and she said “yes it is” and that went on for a while. Eventually I realized it really was her.
She started talking about my book, and saying how much she loved it. She started quoting me lines from it, and also quoting lines from Toni Morrison’s Sula. We talked about a lot of books, and it was clear that language really resonates with her, and that she’s a very literary, passionate reader. I knew that she read a lot of books, of course, but I was still a bit surprised by the literariness of her viewpoints. And even at that stage of the conversation, all I was thinking was, “Wow, how amazing, Oprah just calls people up and tells them how much she likes their books!” I hadn’t yet realized what the call meant: that Twelve Tribes was going to be a Book Club pick, and she was going to have me on the show.
Guernica: That’s a big phone call. Did you get straight on the phone to your publicist, afterwards? To your family? Friends?
Ayana Mathis: No, because Oprah told me it had to be a secret. I couldn’t tell my agent or anyone at Knopf. But I didn’t have to wait long. Oprah’s staff got in touch with Knopf fairly quickly after the phone call to me took place. Which is good, as it’s a bit of a strain keeping a secret like that.
Guernica: Could you perhaps talk a little about the Rita Dove quote at the beginning of the book? I wondered about its relevance. “The house, shut up like a pocket watch, / those tight hearts breathing inside— / she could never invent them.”
Ayana Mathis: I’ve loved and admired Rita Dove for some years, and that bit of the poem is taken from a collection—Thomas and Beulah—which won the Pulitzer in 1987. It’s a collection about the poet’s grandmother and her part in the Great Migration, and I love it. Whenever I need a shot of beauty I look at it, so as soon as I started writing my book I knew I wanted a Rita Dove quote at the front. That was one reason. And then, more specifically, there’s something about that phrase “tight hearts.” I couldn’t tell you exactly what is meant by that, but as with a lot of the best poetry, there is something elusive and special about the phrase, and it seemed entirely appropriate to apply it to Hattie’s story. She does what she needs to do to bring up her children. She does it with love but a woman in her situation, trying to raise healthy children and provide for them, can’t afford to be sentimental.
Guernica: The last few words of the quote are “she could never invent them” and, as you say, the poem is partly about the author’s grandmother. I guess I harbored a shaky theory that putting it at the front of your novel was a nod to the reader, a hint that Hattie was partly based on your grandmother.
Ayana Mathis: It’s a good theory! And Hattie is, in a very loose way, based on my grandmother. But that isn’t what I was getting at with that quote. The applicability to the novel was that Hattie’s had all these children. They’ve all come from her. But she could never have predicted their personalities, the way they form in the world. She was a point of origin but they have their own lives.
My own grandmother had a lot of children, and did come from the South to Philadelphia in the early part of the twentieth century, and I think her influence in terms of Hattie has to do with the fact my grandmother was a very enigmatic, unknowable woman. Very stoic, very quiet. I could never ever figure out who she was, and I’m not sure my mother could either. And I think that mystery, combined with the magnitude of her achievement in bringing up so many children in difficult circumstances, found its way into Hattie. She’s been dead for six years. She lived to be ninety-seven. I had a lot of admiration for her, and I kept wondering about her. It wasn’t until I was about three-quarters of the way through the book that I realized I was in part writing about her, my grandmother, and that I’d spent most of my life being curious about her thoughts and feelings.
Guernica: Your life has changed quite dramatically in a short space of time. I’m curious about your feelings on that, your thoughts. A few months ago you were a debut novelist hoping her book would do okay. Now your book is a bestseller that’s landed on the cover of of the New York Times Book Review.
Ayana Mathis: It’s amazing how strange the whole process has been. It’s really been a kind of miracle for me. I wouldn’t change any of it, but that doesn’t mean certain elements haven’t been overwhelming and destabilizing and bizarre.
I think of my success as a kind of fluke. How else could I possibly think of it? And although it’s a banal thing to say, I wrote this book because I was writing this book. At first I didn’t know I was writing it, and one of the amazing things that happened as I was putting sentences down on paper is that some of the things that are most sacred and important to me rose to the surface of the prose. I started writing about the subjects that really matter to me, and if the book has any merits, I think they’re because of that. It’s a book that comes from my deepest personal obsessions and mysteries, and if I’d been writing with a specific audience in mind, or worrying whether publishers would like it, then I don’t think I would have finished it, let alone created something that did well. Whatever people say about it, I think my novel is a sincere, honest book. And I don’t think it would have been sincere and honest if I had let myself worry about its fate in the world.
You have to find away of shutting the future out and focusing on the writing. One of the problems I’ll have with writing my second book is getting back into a situation where I think about the words on the page rather than the publishing industry, or success, or any kind of readership I may now have. I’ll have to do what writers do, which is focus on the story and nothing else.
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