’12 Tribes of Hattie’ Scribe Talks Oprah

First-time novelist Ayana Mathis tells us what it's like to be selected for Winfrey's book club and more.

Author Ayana Mathis (Elena Seibert); cover of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Alfred A. Knopf)
Author Ayana Mathis (Elena Seibert); cover of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Alfred A. Knopf)

(The Root) — To say that Brooklyn, N.Y., author Ayana Mathis has made an auspicious debut with her critically lauded novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a gross understatement. In addition to stellar reviews, Mathis’ book, which traces the struggles of a mother (Hattie Shepherd) and her children from the Great Migration era through the 1980s, was picked by Oprah Winfrey as one of her book club selections.

For someone who never thought she’d become a full-time author, it’s an admitted “great start.” But Mathis, who spent two years completing the novel while a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said she’s not taking the attention for granted. “This is all really amazing, [but] it has no bearing on what will be written in the future, which is its own rigorous and difficult standard,” Mathis, 39, told The Root. “In fact, it makes it even more difficult to rest on your laurels — the expectations, more pressure to be better and do better.”

We recently chatted via phone with Mathis, who started writing short stories and poetry as a youth, to get a sense of how she’s handling the kudos, how she hopes the book resonates for mainstream audiences and how she finds the rhythm in her words.

The Root: Oprah has put her weight behind your debut novel. Has it been hard to stay grounded?

Ayana Mathis: It’s hard to stay grounded, this swing between being elated and being overwhelmed, then being completely elated and being completely overwhelmed. You go back and forth. The business of being a writer and [the] business of being an author [are] very [different], even in normal circumstances.

Being a writer is a quiet, solitary affair, and being an author is a very public thing, and after this thing with Oprah, it’s a massively public thing. So you go from being in your pajamas on the couch, trying to pound out a book, to suddenly being on this huge public stage.

TR: What do you hope Hattie’s story illuminates about the experience of African Americans during the Great Migration?

AM: When Hattie arrives, she has her children and is filled with hope and promise. [When] those children die, something dies with her. She becomes a woman who has a hard time with tenderness and affection and showing love. I don’t think she has a hard time with love. She just has a hard time showing that love in any way that’s not barebones, pragmatic … like, “I am going to keep you alive,” “I am going to feed you,” etc.