The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Ayana Mathis’s debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has received a lot of warm and well-deserved attention since its release in the winter of 2012. The story of Hattie and her offspring unfolds under the narrative of the African-American Migration of the last century, from Southern Jim Crow cities to the great Northern steel towns. Mathis’s eye for detail combined with a strong yet lyrical style makes the work a rich experience.In February 2013, Twelve Tribes was a selection of the Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, a literary distinction prized by publishers and writers alike. Jenine Holmes sat down with the Brooklyn-based graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at the Breukelen Coffee House, to discuss her debut novel, the ever expanding and evolving female narrative, and the craft of writing.
Jenine Holmes (Rail): Congratulations on your amazing debut.
Ayana Mathis: Thank you.
Rail: Was it your goal, as Walt Whitman coined, “to honor the sacred ‘I’” of African-American women in a way that it hadn’t been explored before?
Mathis: Mmm, you know it’s interesting. I think the biggest thing about Hattie—I don’t always completely understand her, she remains somewhat mysterious to me.
Rail: Hattie is a mystery to herself.
Mathis: She really is. So what am I to do in the face of that, you know? [Laughs.] But one of the things I was interested in is—this terrible habit we have lapsed into—the iron, über-strong black woman, you know the long suffering mom and the wife.
Rail: Years ago, there was a great play at the Public Theatre called The Colored Museum, which featured a skit entitled The-Last-Momma-on-the-Couch Play, the last suffering black momma.
Mathis: It is a stereotype, it’s dehumanizing—deeply dehumanizing to not grant someone their doubt and their fear and their pain and their reluctance and their exhaustion. Quite honestly I think that’s what strength actually is. Strength is not an absence of those things. An absence of those things doesn’t even exist.
Rail: What I found insightful and deeply appealing was Hattie’s narrative arc: it was set up in the beginning of the work. The reader discovers early on what broke her. Embittered her. She was broken in such a universal way, a way anyone could understand. Oftentimes, I think African-American narratives are portrayed in such an angry, finger-popping, neck-cracking way—and inaccurately.
Mathis: All of those kinds of layers of false representation are what prevents us from arriving at the humanity. Obviously there are many more factors than that, but we can speak in some ways about literature and about cultural projects in general. The black woman is kind of segregated out of the general woman category because her pain is a kind of “black” pain. She’s been in sorrow’s kitchen and she’s licked the pots clean. “Wow, what does that mean?!” some ask. “We don’t understand that!” Well, her babies died.
Rail: Exactly, a universal pain.
Mathis: There are black artists now who are really able to—in ways that we were not able to do before— really try to make inroads into this notion of a black humanism.
Rail: Your work feels like you’re a part of a whole canon happening in the 21st century with African-American female artists, right beside the work of Mickalene Thomas, a contemporary painter that just had a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum.
Mathis: A great show. I saw it twice.
Rail: Afterwards I thought, “Wow, here’s another woman, like Shoshana Rhimes, who is reframing the narrative landscape.” I know you’ve been on this kind of incredible whirlwind but do you see yourself in that category?
Mathis: I wish I did, as I said before I really do very much write from character and from story, and so there were no considerations about where I would fit in a kind of larger canon of writing. But one of the things very present in my mind—once I realized I had a book—is class. It’s as important to this book as is the Great Migration, this notion of the way, in a pre-civil rights world, where no one had any money, how we decided on class. Which had everything to do with what neighborhood you lived in, or how light or dark you were, and your diction—all these kinds of things. It was the most conscious agenda that I had, and I don’t really do the agenda thing.
Rail: There is a great scene where Bell (a character in the novel) is talking to a woman she works with at the bar, and Bell switches up her diction, her grammar, and my heart broke a little.
Mathis: Actually, that is one of my—it sounds so strange to say—but my proudest moments in the book, because she’s so conscious of it.
Rail: Your work does talk about class in a way that African-Americans shy away from.
Mathis: We don’t like to talk about it, nobody likes to talk about it. The larger world won’t—
Rail: Americans, in general, don’t. Although millions of us are watching Downton Abbey, we don’t want to think we have a class-based society. But we love to watch the English do a class-based society.
Rail: Look at that, the servants know how to serve! And the lords know how to lord! We love it, but only when the Brits are doing it. And it has deeper and wider ramifications for the African-American community.
Mathis: It’s also class in its reverse. Class, of course, is always a reflection of the values of the larger white world, even though we are completely self-contained. In Twelve Tribes there is this larger white world that is exerting a pressure that is reflected in the cruel hierarchies that the people erect themselves, about themselves. But they don’t ever talk about white people.
Rail: It’s a rich concept for a first time novelist.
Mathis:I should say for the record—I’ve kind of being doing creative writing always, but prose kind of started around Jackson Taylor’s class at the New School, writing a memoir that never quite worked for me. Before that, it was poetry. At grad school, I thought I would write some short stories, but I’m not a short story writer by any means. So what I ended up with was sort of a hybrid of poetry and prose. The short stories became the last chapter and the first chapter of Twelve Tribes, but it wasn’t exactly a hybrid. It’s a very loose use of the word hybrid but elements were present of both.
Rail: Before you studied at Iowa you developed a bond with another writer, Justin Torres, which began back in New York City, in Taylor’s class at the New School. Did your friendship help you through the graduate school experience?
Mathis: I think so, but I shouldn’t make out like grad school was really awful. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. After that initial workshop session and Marilynne [Robinson] sort of setting me straight, and everything she said about my work was absolutely true, the most helpful thing in the world. After that I just got into a groove with writing these stories. When I got to about the third one, and I thought, “These are—weird? I don’t know!” And Justin said, “Oh, this is a book!” And I was like, “You’re an idiot!” and then about a week later I said, “I’ll be damned, I think that’s a book!”
Rail: And Marilynne Robinson was enormously helpful.
Mathis: Enormously helpful in terms of, obviously, my career. She helped me along deeply in terms of her understanding of what writing is and what its value is. Her way of talking about it and conceiving of it was a much smarter version of things that I had not been able to articulate to myself. She is deeply honest, incredibly graceful, and incredibly eloquent so she’ll never just say no. But she’ll say something that is so genius and spot on that you gasp.
Rail: What was the toughest part of bringing your manuscript to fruition?
Mathis: Not selling characters short. Making people instead of stereotypes. Making—
Rail: Layered characters? Did your long stint as a tenacious fact checker help?
Mathis: In a certain way. But I had to get rid of my fact checking antennae or limit it to things that really were facts like, Hattie and Lawrence are in a car, would there be a seatbelt? It’s 1951. No. Things like that.
Rail: I loved how your antennae zeroed in on facts that made your narrative richer, the granular details. In one chapter, when you inserted a few lines from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” And it really locked in that era. Even as a child I remember the socio-nuclear bomb quality of that song. Marvin went deeper and he brought the rest of America with him.
Mathis: He certainly did.
Rail: You, like Marvin Gaye, went to Europe. And for five years you didn’t write. Why? Italy is such a rich cultural place.
Mathis: Well, I think I was in a transition phase. I sort of stopped writing poetry and I hadn’t quite figured out how or what prose could ever possibly be in my life. I didn’t know how to write if I wasn’t writing poetry. So, I would have these frustrating experiences where I would try and write poems, but nothing came or something hideous came. And so after a while, I stopped. Also, I was very taken up with other things: learning to speak the language and the culture. For me, Italy was not generative. It was more of a nesting and understanding what was going on around me rather than a producing kind of a place for me. It was all about the three Fs: food, family, fashion, which is lovely. It’s what’s so amazing and unique and beautiful about Italy. But it also can feel a little restricting, after a while, for me anyway. Around year four, I knew I had to go.
Rail: I sense you are essentially a private person, a private person thrust on to the national stage. How are you handling being a buzzworthy writer?
Mathis: It’s strange. I don’t know how to answer that question. I have days where I feel very happy and I’m sort of ecstatic, and then I have days when I feel like I want to hide under the bed—it’s kind of a roller coaster—it’s a very strange transition. And I suppose all transitions have their moments. Overall, I’m really grateful; I’m really humble.
Rail: You’ve been compared to Toni Morrison, and have been brought in that canon of black women writers. What’s your reaction? Do you feel others aren’t seeing the individual works?
Mathis: I think two things. One is it’s intimidating company to be in—you know, it’s like you went to a party with all the smartest people in the world. You walk in and you’re like, “Oh my God. There’s been a mistake.” So, it feels a little bit like that. And then also, of course it’s enormously flattering.
Rail: Any thoughts on your next work?
Mathis: I think I have a pretty solid idea. It’s still very loosely formed, I’m still trying to work it out, and I’ve started it like 16 times, 47 openings, that kind of thing—which is sort of silly actually, because, I don’t think that, in my experience, even with this book, the opening of a novel is never—someone else would disagree—but it’s never the one that you write in the beginning. It’s not the one that stays. In some ways, the meaning of the novel dictates the opening. So, it’s going to change. It’s a very different process. I didn’t sort of sit down to say, “I’m writing a novel now.” The first one, you know. Drum roll, please. I’m beginning. Page one. Word one.