Oprah and Ayana Mathis


After reading the first chapter of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,  Oprah knew she had found her second Book Club 2.0 pick. On yesterday’s Super Soul Sunday, she sat down for an interview with author Ayana Mathis.

Ayana started by describing her experiences at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Grateful for this opportunity to work with Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson and other up-and-coming writers, she talked openly about the hopes, dreams and frustrations that lie behind those hallowed walls. When she arrived at the workshop, she was working on another book, a fictionalized memoir. At one critique session, Robinson suggested that her characters were “insufficiently complex.” Ayana took the criticism to heart, had her ugly cry and then turned to writing short stories. Her first story was a hybrid of the first and last chapters of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

Inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Ayana set her book against the backdrop of the Great Migration.  Starting around 1916,  over six million African Americans migrated north to escape the poverty and hardships of the south. The main character, Hattie Shepherd, is a strong but flawed woman who fiercely loves her eleven children but cannot demonstrate that love. While each chapter focuses on a different child, Hattie is the glue that holds the book together.

In writing this novel, Ayana wanted her readers to encounter a fully, fleshed out black humanity. To that end, she got into the soul of each character and spent as much time as possible in their minds.

When asked about her childhood, Ayana admitted that there was little money and she and her mother often lived in neighborhoods where they couldn’t afford to pay the rent. In spite of their limited circumstances, Ayana was given an enormous amount of freedom and chose her own life path.

Extremely grateful for the success of her debut novel, Ayana admits to being permanently stunned. She still thinks of the book as a Word document.

Quotable Quotes…

Our humanity means we don’t have to be completely defined by race.

We find companions and mirrors in literature.

There is an arc of human history that bends toward social justice.

Character development is a process cultivated over time. Reward comes from reworking.


The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

hatti2The novel opens on a positive note.

Hattie Shepherd and her newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, are dozing in the shade on the porch.  The scene is an idyllic one. “The neighborhood rang with birdsong. The twittering lulled the twins to sleep and put Hattie in such high spirits that she giggled all the time.” The proud young mother was deeply in love with her first-born children and had given them “names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

Unfortunately, Hattie’s optimism is short-lived.

During a brutally cold Philadelphia winter, money is scarce and the furnace breaks down. Hattie struggles to keep her twins healthy, but they die of pneumonia. Hattie never recovers from this tragedy. She goes on to have nine more children, but fails to establish a strong, maternal bond with any of them.

In the remaining self-contained chapters that cover the years 1948 to 1980, author Ayana Mathis reveals the extent of Hattie’s grief through the eyes of her other children and a grandchild. Thrown in the middle of their lives, we watch as they wrestle with their inner demons.

We meet Floyd, a talented musician, who struggles with sexual confusion and shame.

Hattie’s son Six alternates between bouts of violence and Bible preaching.

We can feel Bell’s ambivalence toward her mother as she lies dying of tuberculosis in a run-down apartment. She actually fantasizes about her mother’s soup: “Hattie had kept them all alive with sheer will and collard greens and some southern remedies. Mean as the dickens, though.”

While Alice appears to be the most successful and upwardly mobile sibling, she cannot release memories of the childhood abuse that she and her brother Billups endured.

Bits and pieces of Hattie’s life emerge as each child’s life unfolds. We can feel her frustration and anguish as she wrestles with her husband’s womanizing and the circumstances surrounding the births of Ruthie and Ella.

At times, it was hard to keep track of all the characters. Personally, I would have preferred more depth and  the use of, at most, four different voices.  I found Hattie, Bell, Floyd and Six to be the most compelling of the characters. If  Ayana Mathis decides to continue this saga, I hope she considers writing Bell’s story.

Note: Oprah will have an exclusive television interview with Ayana Mathis on Super Soul Sunday–February 3rd at 11:00 a.m.