by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn
Ayana Mathis has an innocence about her that makes it hard for other writers to envy her success. Unlike other writers who list names of literary journals they’ve published in, Ayana quietly worked under the radar, and her first book has quickly become an overnight sensation. The Iowa Writing Workshop MFA graduate who had once considered a career as a baker could not believe that Oprah Winfrey of all people sniffed her book out from the thousands she comes across each year to be in her book club.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has garnered major attention, receiving two magnificent reviews in The New York Times as well as a myriad of articles in other media –including the magic touch of Oprah Winfrey. However, after reading Ayana’s book, it’s evident that she did not need any magic. Her lyrical prose, which reads like poetry, captures the life of Hattie Shepherd and her eleven children and one granddaughter; hence the book’s title. Twelve Tribes is a fearless work that not only tackles The Great Migration, but also reflects on issues such as abandonment, depression, sexuality, and religion. I read the book in two days, and so deep were the characters’ resonance that I found myself stopping in the middle of daily routines to conjure a line, a description, or the souls I met on those two hundred and forty-three pages. Their stories continue to haunt me. Long after reading you will sit with it for a good long time, just to allow your mind time to ruminate through the doors it will open inside you.
I could not wait to discuss this breathtaking book with the mastermind behind it. Given her hectic schedule, (She was still in the midst of the Oprah Winfrey hurricane) Ayana agreed to a morning phone call. Our past conversations had been less structured, more like a mentor/mentee dynamic where I sought her advice about writing, agents, and anxiety over getting published. My role as interviewer was new. By now every journalist has asked their questions; she’s spoken of her writing journey, which entails work as a fact checker at New York Magazine, and living in Italy where she did no writing at all. She has even talked about her childhood where she recalled living with a mother who suffered from depression.
What was unique about this conversation was that, Ayana must deal with a success few first-time authors receive and I wanted to know what this success means. Has she processed it all? A few days after our conversation I attended the launched of her national book tour at Brooklyn’s Greenlight bookstore. As I waited for her to walk to the front of the crowded room, I could not help but observe how humble she was about this experience. Before she read, she took a deep breath. The room was still. All eyes were on her. As her voice filled the quiet room, Twelve Tribes’s characters Hattie, August, Pearl, Benny and Ella floated around us. They moved chairs and made their way around the room, captivating what seemed like hundreds of people who turned out to get their books signed in the small independent bookstore.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: What made you decide to start the novel with Floyd—well after the twins died—as opposed to the other siblings?
Ayana Mathis: Some of the considerations in the book were chronological—some of stories were written in other time periods. And when I was putting it all together, Floyd was not the second story. I forget where he was in the line-up. In some ways I wrote the story where they move forward through time. But the actual years in which they took place, quite literally, were assigned after the fact. In a couple of cases I knew. With Franklin for example, with the Vietnam War, I knew for sure what year that was. But some of them were kind of an ethos of a time period. And later, I kind of went back and put them in order. Floyd ended up being second because he fit in the birth order. And in certain ways—there was a lot of what I like to call novel mass where you have to figure out the ages of people, their relationship with Hattie, the year they were born—[Laughter]
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I know! Oh my goodness!
Ayana Mathis: Very convoluted!
Ayana Mathis: So a lot of it was novel mass. And some of it was because I wanted Floyd to have a very special relationship with Hattie. And I didn’t see how he could’ve had a special relationship with her had he been born later after her other children, at which point she was incapable of forming singular bonds with anyone. But she could do that with Floyd. That’s why Floyd came second.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: You touched on something with Floyd that resonated with me, which was Floyd’s attraction to men in an era when it was frowned upon. I think you captured his internal conflict beautifully. As a Jamaican lesbian who had struggled with my sexuality while growing up as a teenager in a homophobic country, it definitely resonated with me. I was like “Wow! She got it!” Can you talk about that a little?
Ayana Mathis: Certainly I had motivations in writing Floyd. I wanted there to be a gay child because it would’ve not been representative—it seemed unrealistic to me to have that many kids and not one of them turn out to be gay. There were a lot of gay men in that period living very closeted lives and it seemed very important that one of Hattie’s children would be gay. In terms of how he was created or inhabited, those things remain kind of mysterious. Certainly, one of the goals of fiction is always to tunnel as deeply into a character as possible so that one can write as truthfully as possible about them. But where one’s conception of them or where their thoughts might be, one can draw from imagination, things you read, things you’ve seen, and all of that. But the kind of act, or pure imagining, is kind of mysterious to me—to all writers, it’s a bit mysterious.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I love the way you challenged religion in the book with Six, a young preacher who struggles with his own connection to God and thus uses his talent as a good orator to get him through sermons; and again in the end when Hattie surprised us in the church scene, snatching her granddaughter away from the altar. Those scenes were hilarious but definitely laced with truth. Was it a decision on your part to poke fun at religion or did it just happen?
Ayana Mathis: I think in certain ways, this is the autobiographical part of the novel—not so much the actual conversion, or the church scene at the altar, and certainly not being a child preacher [Laughter]—but I did grow up in the church. I think certainly some of my own grappling with what it means to grow up or move with a kind of deeply religious sentiment with its own beauty and its faults is something I think about a lot and grapple with a lot. And in some ways, it came out in the book.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: You had mentioned in several interviews that you were raised by a single mother who struggled with mental illness. In your novel you touched on mental illness, particularly depression and in one case, schizophrenia—
Ayana Mathis: Uhm-hmm.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: [The character] Cassie.
Ayana Mathis: Yeah.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: And how her daughter, Sala, was affected by her mother’s mental state.
Ayana Mathis: Joy—yeah.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: So has your life story informed your novel in any way?
Ayana Mathis: I think that certainly all writers draw on a kind of well-spring of personal experience and also of everything we’ve read and people we’ve known and that kind of stuff. So in that sense, certainly, yes. But Cassie and the other characters are purely fictional. They’re not autobiographical stories.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: OK. All the children were affected in significant ways by their mother, Hattie, which is by far, one of the most beautiful and complex character I’ve ever seen. Well not since Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I was in love with her as well. What was it like writing Hattie on the page?
Ayana Mathis: It was an interesting thing. You kind of have to—for me—she was so complicated that in many ways she was just very hard for me to understand. Some of the ways that I could sort of get at her and flush her out were really through—kind of—well the best way for me to write her or to get at her was through the sort of prism of her children’s experience of her and her children’s relationship with her. Just because she is so kind of multifaceted and larger than life, you know. She would’ve been very difficult to approach head on, I think. Also because her life is so difficult that, had I approached her in a more linear narrative kind of way, I think it would’ve just become a list of terrible woes, you know what I mean? [Laughter]
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. Absolutely.
Ayana Mathis: Not settled at all. And almost sort of unreadable. I think.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Wow. It was brilliant.
Ayana Mathis: Thank you.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: What are your hopes and fears about what you want your work do in the world?
Ayana Mathis: Great question. I think my hope has always been that Black women, in particular, would read the book. I think it has something to offer, to be said, or some kind of familiarity –especially to Black women of a certain generation. And at the same time, my sort of equal hope is that everyone would read the book. It’s really difficult the ways in which cultural products become segregated. So people see literature that is written by people who are not white, and sort of think “Oh that’s not for me,” and “Oh I can’t access that,” or “Oh that doesn’t have anything to do with me”. And certainly this is not something we do with literature written by White people. So I think my twin hopes, obviously, are that Black women read the book, but also that it is seen and perceived as literary work that display certain aspects of the human experience, and so is accessible to everybody.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: What does it feel like now that you’ve made it as a writer?
Ayana Mathis: To me, there is no such thing as making it as a writer. I think you always are sort of aware of the ways in which the book maybe didn’t quite live up to your sort of goal and ideal of what it would be. And then of course, there’s always the next book. So I don’t really think there’s such a thing—at least not in my conception as making it was a writer. Each book is its own independent thing. And so, the next book has to be written—[Laughter]—and that’s it own sort of journey, and its own sort of standard that is completely different from this one. So I think it’s always just sort of a progression as opposed to thinking “I have arrived” or something like that.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Wow. Beautiful. Did you think Hattie would’ve been this successful? One thing that struck me was your command of storytelling and lyricism. So, what was the real surprise for you when Oprah Winfrey called? I can’t imagine you ever doubting this book would have gotten this far.
Ayana Mathis: I mean it’s just a shocking thing, you know—[laughter]—you can’t ever possibly expect it, I don’t think. But yeah—just a completely—not a thing you can plan for or ever anticipate. Just a complete x-factor out of nowhere.
Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at CUNY and the College of New Rochelle. Her work has been awarded Honorable Mention for the Hurston Wright Award for College Writers. She is currently at work on her first novel, Run Free.