’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)

In many ways, if we look at [the] Jim Crow South, that was in so many ways what black people had to do. We had to be concerned with not being murdered, raising our children in some kind of way … and trying to have some sort of scrap of dignity and humanity. Hattie reflects that in a strange way.

Hattie’s evolution is a larger metaphor. By the time we get to the end of the book, it’s 1980 and she has a grandchild who’s set to head down a path that Hattie believes is indicative of the same kind of pain, same kind of wounding that she has been so familiar with her whole life. Instead of allowing her grandchild to do that, Hattie intervenes. That’s kind of a metaphor for the … arc of the migration. That there is something [about] being better. Not being better on the most basic subsistence level, but [that] being better, like [reaching for] a broader humanity, is possible. Hattie is a symbol of that.

TR: Are you concerned about finding common ground, and connecting with audiences not so familiar with black history?

AM: I always write from character. When I started this book, I wasn’t like, I’m going to write a book about the Great Migration. I was like, I’m going to write a story about these people … Good fiction is grounded in the specificity of details of that particular short story or novel, but there is a universality. That’s why we can all read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and … Dickens. It’s accessible because it’s about humans.

TR: I read that you started out writing poetry. How has that helped your fiction writing?

AM: Poetry is all about ear. Some people would disagree, like some “page poets.” But it’s so much about ear and language. [The] biggest [thing] I learned from poetry is sound. Prose, in a different way, has a rhythm. I tend to read sentences and paragraphs out loud so that I can hear them, and that’s how I hear often when something is wrong with the sentence.

You don’t have time in poetry to be messing around, using wrong words … The awesome power of poetry is how it uses language in deeply powerful and succinct ways. You learn power, economy and efficiency.

Brett Johnson is The Root’s associate editor.