Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, has achieved the type of overnight success that most new authors dream of. In the current climate of the industry, many publishers are not investing in new novelists — and some believe this hesitancy is even more acute regarding African-Americans. Yet, Mathis has overcome all obstacles to produce a work in just under two years that is so compelling that Oprah Winfrey has given it her stamp of approval — inclusion in her revamped book club.
Ever since The Twelve Tribes of Hattie became the second selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, Mathis has seen the title shoot up various bestseller lists and larger crowds at her signings. After she talks with Oprah about her sudden success on the hit Super Soul Sunday series on February 3, we bet this book will garner even more buzz. On the eve of the airing of Mathis’ interview about her debut novel, she chatted with theGrio about how Oprah’s attention has changed her life.
theGrio: As a former poet, how did it feel to have your first novel selected by Oprah as the second book in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0? How has your life changed since making this creative transition and receiving her seal of approval?
It’s stunning, a life changing event in every sense of the word! And certainly, the book is reaching a wider readership than it would have otherwise. In terms of being a poet, that transition to prose happened five or six years ago, after a fallow period in which I wasn’t writing very much at all. I was delighted to discover, when I began writing Hattie, that fiction really is my medium.
In her review for The New York Times, author Isabel Wilkerson describes the characters in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie this way: “The aching question of where they belong lurks under the surface of things, the quiet desperation of dying spirits too tired to dream anymore.” This is a very moving portrayal of how many African-Americans have likely felt during our collective struggle towards greater equality. Were you seeking through your characters to expose some of the emotional scars of slavery that have been passed down through the generations?
No, not at all. I think that this book is a great deal more contemporary than that. Of course, the reality of African-American life has been influenced by the terrible legacy of slavery, but that wasn’t what I was trying to explore with this book. Hattie is, first and foremost, a book about a family; it wasn’t my intention to write a kind of definitive work about the black experience. It’s really about this family’s experience, though of course they are influenced and shaped to some extent by the larger racial and social circumstance at the time.
With the success of the movie Django Unchained, many are musing on the possibility that more untold black stories from various epochs in our history will be brought to life. What was your attraction to The Great Migration? In addition to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, do you believe there are even more stories from this time period to be told, and will you tell them?
There are as many stories to be told as there are people; each experience is individual and unique and rich in its own particular way. I remain fascinated by the period, but I don’t know yet whether or not I will continue to explore it in my work. I suppose it really depends on what comes.
Although The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been nearly universally lauded, some have taken issue with the depiction of black men in the book, which some see as unilaterally negative. What would you say to those who may find this portrayal unfair? Was there a narrative intent in painting these characters in this fashion that readers should keep in mind?
It isn’t the case that all of the men are depicted negatively. Billups is a strong character; he saves his sister Alice who is increasing fragile. August himself — though he’s very much a cad — he is also the only source of laughter and tenderness in the lives of his children. (Hattie loves them, but she’s almost entirely incapable of affection.) Secondly, in many ways, my book is about people struggling with their limitations and failures. Everyone in the book, regardless of gender, is flawed. The title character is perhaps more flawed than anyone else. The men, along with the women, are dealing with their own psychologies and personalities and proclivities, as well as the difficulties of displacement and terrible economic privation.
What’s next for you? Do you have a new book in the works?
I do have a novel idea that I am nursing. It’s pretty new and fragile, so I’m hesitant to talk about it, and at the moment things are so busy that there isn’t much time for writing, but I am excited to go back to it.
Oprah and Ayana’s discussion of The 12 Tribes of Hattie will air on Super Soul Sunday, February 3, from 11 a.m. to noon ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb