Ayana Mathis and the Trans­for­ma­tive Power of Fic­tion


Ayana Mathis is an Amer­i­can au­thor and grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop. Born and raised in Philadel­phia, she has taught cre­ative writ­ing at the Writer’s Foundry MFA pro­gram at St. Joseph’s Col­lege in Brook­lyn, and is cur­rently an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of English and cre­ative writ­ing at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop. Mathis’s de­but novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hat­tie, was a New York Times Best Seller, a 2013 New York Times No­table Book of the Year, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013, and was cho­sen by Oprah Win­frey as the sec­ond se­lec­tion for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. She is also a re­cip­i­ent of the New York Pub­lic Li­brary’s Cull­man Cen­ter Fel­low­ship for 2014–2015.

Ear­lier this year, I spoke with Mathis about The Twelve Tribes. With a po­etic hand, and the Great Mi­gra­tion and prom­ise of a new Amer­ica as a theme, Mathis writes a cap­ti­vat­ing story about moth­er­hood, vis­i­bil­ity, and the re­silience of the hu­man spirit. We had an en­gag­ing and in­spir­ing con­ver­sa­tion about cre­ative writ­ing, iden­tity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, fam­ily and re­li­gion, and the trans­for­ma­tive power of fic­tion.

ROOM: Much of the novel is about the Great Mi­gra­tion. That’s some­thing that we’re not as fa­mil­iar with in Canada; it’s not as much a part of our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

AM: It’s not a part of ours ei­ther [ laughs]. I mean, I’m older, so maybe it’s get­ting bet­ter for younger peo­ple. But I’d never heard of the Great Mi­gra­tion un­til I was in my twen­ties and ac­tu­ally study­ing African-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture.

ROOM: How much do you think, whether you learned about it or not, it in­flu­enced your ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in the States?

AM: It’s pretty to­tal­iz­ing in terms of the way it changed the United States. Cer­tainly, my fam­ily is a Great Mi­gra­tion fam­ily. Most Black peo­ple who are in the North are, in some way, shape, or form, prod­ucts of the Great Mi­gra­tion. There was slav­ery in the North­ern states and there were Black peo­ple liv­ing in the North­ern states for a long time, but when the Great Mi­gra­tion be­gan, which was in 1917, roughly, some­thing like ninety per­cent of Black peo­ple in the U.S. lived in the South. And by the time it was over, that statis­tic changed en­tirely.

The sig­nif­i­cant Black pres­ence in any part of the coun­try that isn’t the South is a di­rect re­sult of the Great Mi­gra­tion. Even though I didn’t know the term for it, I knew that my grand­par­ents had come from Vir­ginia, for ex­am­ple. My mother was born in Philadel­phia, as was I.

It’s pretty in­escapable as a phe­nom­e­non. It changed ev­ery­thing, not just de­mo­graph­i­cally, but cul­tur­ally as well. If there were no Great Mi­gra­tion, it’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say we wouldn’t have jazz, the blues, and most African-Amer­i­can mu­si­cal forms be­cause they wouldn’t have been able to spread out­side of the South. The civil rights move­ment wouldn’t have hap­pened, and on and on and on . . . Seg­re­ga­tion was so to­tal­iz­ing in the South that part of what could give [civil rights] sup­port was this heavy Black pres­ence in the North. So ar­guably, that may not have hap­pened had there not been a Great Mi­gra­tion.

ROOM: Why did you want to write about it?

AM: I didn’t start from the place where I thought, “I’m go­ing to write about the Great Mi­gra­tion.” It’s al­most like, by re­verse en­gi­neer­ing my char­ac­ters, I re­al­ized that was a big part of it.

When I re­al­ized that it wasn’t just about [the chil­dren] and Hat­tie was their mother . . . then I started to ask ques­tions about where she would have come from. As I un­der­stood her to be this aloof woman who was dif­fi­cult, not big in the ten­der­ness depart­ment, I had to un­der­stand who she was and why she was that way.

It was a process of go­ing back­wards, re­ally. Then I had to start ask­ing ques­tions about who those peo­ple would have been. Who would Hat­tie and Au­gust have been? Were they born in Philadel­phia? His­tor­i­cally, prob­a­bly not, so then what does that mean? It was this process of go­ing back.

And as I started to do this, the Great Mi­gra­tion be­came much more prom­i­nent in my thoughts. I re­al­ized these chil­dren were them­selves, not sym­bols. I was try­ing to make some state­ment about this first-gen­er­a­tion mi­grant fam­ily that was like every fam­ily in my mind, even though they’re not.

ROOM: Part of me was read­ing it al­most as an al­le­gory of a Black Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence—mi­grat­ing in search of iden­tity, be­long­ing, vis­i­bil­ity.

AM: I think now, we dis­cuss these things in terms of be­long­ing and vis­i­bil­ity. But in re­al­ity, very of­ten peo­ple were just try­ing not to die. It wasn’t just about iden­tity, but very ba­sic ques­tions about not be­ing mur­dered, and be­ing able to make a liv­ing in a way that you could eat and live—along­side, of course, ques­tions of iden­tity and all those sorts of things.

That’s re­ally im­por­tant to say, be­cause the fur­ther we get away from that his­tory, the more it be­comes sub­ject to a lens that soft­ens it.

I set out to cre­ate char­ac­ters that were fleshed out and full with their per­son­al­i­ties. But, at the same time, as I wrote fur­ther into the novel, I be­gan to re­al­ize that there were a cou­ple of things I was re­ally in­ter­ested in. The ti­tle came re­ally early— The Twelve Tribes of Hat­tie is an al­lu­sion to the Twelve Tribes of Is­rael. I was in­ter­ested in this ob­vi­ous metaphor of the Is­raelites of the Old Tes­ta­ment in the Book of Ex­o­dus, com­ing out of bondage in Egypt and wan­der­ing in the desert and head­ing to­wards the Promised Land, which is a metaphor that’s very pre­dom­i­nant in pre–civil rights African-Amer­i­can church cul­ture for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. I was in­ter­ested in that as a metaphor for the char­ac­ters and their sit­u­a­tion and for the book in gen­eral as an [over-arch­ing] metaphor.

There’s this very in­ter­est­ing scene in Ge­n­e­sis in which the fa­ther whose sons be­come the Twelve Tribes, he gath­ers them around his bed­side when he’s dy­ing and blesses/curses them—it’s ac­tu­ally kind of a funny scene. At the mo­ment when he gath­ers his sons around his bed­side, they have no idea of what they will be­come. What­ever is in them, this na­tion-ness that’s on its way is en­tirely nascent in them at that mo­ment and they have no idea of it.

I was very in­ter­ested in this idea of these kids as peo­ple who would come into the North, who would be, as a first gen­er­a­tion would, the fathers and moth­ers of a na­tion, though they would have no idea that that was the case. And they would be en­ter­ing into this “Promised Land” that would be very dif­fer­ent from what they ex­pected. That cer­tainly is the case with Hat­tie and Au­gust. And for their chil­dren, they have no road map. Hat­tie and Au­gust don’t talk about the South, they don’t dis­cuss it, and there’s a lot of si­lence around what the South was and what it meant and there­fore, where they came from, what their his­tory is. So these peo­ple are mak­ing this life in an en­tirely new place with no road map, no guide­post, noth­ing. Yet, the face of the United States—the re­al­i­ties of the United States—is go­ing to be changed en­tirely by the fact that they’ve come, and that they’re mak­ing life in this place.

ROOM: How im­por­tant do you think it is for peo­ple to know where their par­ents came from? How much does that in­form the road map of their lives?

AM: I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant. I would like to be so naive to say that we learn from our mis­takes and don’t do them any­more, but that’s not true [ laughs]. But I think that it gives peo­ple a con­text and some sense of them­selves beyond wher­ever they hap­pen to be stand­ing at the mo­ment they hap­pen to be stand­ing there, which seems to me to be aw­fully im­por­tant and root­ing.

We’re hu­man an­i­mals. We’re crea­tures of be­long­ing, that’s what we do. So to be given a con­text of your­self beyond your im­me­di­ate cir­cum­stances seems in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant cycli­cally, and spir­i­tu­ally, and all those sorts of ways.

In the case of Black peo­ple, or peo­ple of colour in gen­eral, there’s so much that is re­ceived re­gard­ing race that is wrong and damn­ing and dam­ag­ing, and it sort of gets in you. If you have no way to com­bat that, if you have no way to con­tex­tu­al­ize your­self or your his­tory or any­thing else, then that stuff holds sway. So I think it’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant.

ROOM: I re­ally liked how you ex­am­ined the role of moth­er­hood through­out the book, par­tic­u­larly with Hat­tie.

AM: It’s not a di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence. My mother, for ex­am­ple, was the po­lar op­po­site of Hat­tie in many ways. Some­times you’d be like, “Don’t say you love me any­more, I’m just try­ing to eat my ce­real” [ laughs]. So my mother was very af­fec­tion­ate and lov­ing. But her mother was not.

Hat­tie is not my grand­mother, but I think Hat­tie might be a weird at­tempt to imag­ine my way into what my grand­mother could have been, but ex­actly wrong. I wasn’t try­ing to make her, I was try­ing to imag­ine some­body like her. My grand­mother was re­ally un­know­able. She was re­ally in­scrutable. There are lines in the book, things like Hat­tie was like ice, and ice would creak and groan but it wouldn’t break. My grand­mother was like that—she was very re­served, very quiet, you had no idea what she was think­ing. My mother was one of many and my grand­mother raised them with an iron fist . . .

When I re­al­ized that Hat­tie was a big part of the whole book, then I had to un­der­stand, what could it do to a woman [to lose a child, as she does her first two at the be­gin­ning of the book]? What could hap­pen? This cer­tainly isn’t the only thing that could hap­pen, but one of them could be that you could be­come a per­son who loved your chil­dren very much, but ceased to have ac­cess to ten­der­ness.

The most hor­ri­ble ab­strac­tion in most par­ents’ minds is that “My child could die.” What does that do to you when that’s not an ab­strac­tion, when that’s a re­al­ity? Would you be­gin to think of these chil­dren in terms of sur­vival, and that a way you showed your love was keep­ing them alive?

She loves those kids des­per­ately, but she can’t be huggy and kissy, she can’t be af­fec­tion­ate. It’s closed off to her, un­til the very end. So her love is ex­pressed by mak­ing sure they’re fed and clothed and they sur­vive, be­cause it’s not an ab­strac­tion to her that her chil­dren [may not sur­vive], be­cause her first two didn’t.

ROOM: The way you wrote the char­ac­ters is so real—how did you cre­ate them?

AM: Imag­i­na­tion is a very pow­er­ful thing. Writ­ing fic­tion is some kind of mid­dle ground be­tween get­ting out of your own way, mean­ing shut­ting down your in­te­rior

ed­i­tor voice, and lis­ten­ing to what your imag­i­na­tion and mem­ory have to tell you. There’s some­thing about the no­tion of lis­ten­ing. I’m very in­ter­ested in char­ac­ter. When you asked me about the Great Mi­gra­tion I said, yeah it was im­por­tant, but I back­tracked to it. And I back­tracked to it through char­ac­ter rather than con­cept or theme.

So, I start with some­one in their barest of cir­cum­stances—I know these five or three things about this per­son and then write my way into them, but I’m very in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing a be­liev­able be­ing on a page. I’m very, very in­ter­ested in that. Other writ­ers have dif­fer­ent senses of their re­spon­si­bil­ity, but for me, that feels like the thing I’m most re­spon­si­ble for and to. I feel like that can’t be done un­less you are em­pa­thetic to the peo­ple that you are mak­ing. I don’t mean sym­pa­thetic. Hat­tie doesn’t re­ally have an easy time of it, none of these char­ac­ters do, I prob­a­bly treated them pretty badly [ laughs], but I wanted them to be full.

These are all Black char­ac­ters, prob­a­bly all my life I will write about Black char­ac­ters. I can’t imag­ine do­ing any­thing else and have no in­ter­est in do­ing any­thing else . . . be­cause I’m re­ally re­sis­tant to re­duc­ing peo­ple, to stereo­type or to just mak­ing them small [men­tally]. I’m su­per at­ten­tive to it and re­ally con­cerned with it. I think about it a lot, and prob­a­bly in part, be­cause I think about peo­ple like these, or my grand­par­ents, whose sto­ries would have prob­a­bly been un­re­marked, or con­sid­ered un­re­mark­able, and re­duced to this easy nar­ra­tive when in re­al­ity they’re not.

The imag­i­na­tion is re­ally some­thing; so is mem­ory. I dis­cov­ered that you know and think and feel a lot more about things than you re­al­ize. And if you can get out of your own way, you can ac­cess quite a lot that was al­ready there, you just didn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­al­ize you were car­ry­ing it around with you.

ROOM: I’ve heard of writ­ers talk­ing about char­ac­ters do­ing things that were beyond the writer’s con­trol . . . it was al­most as if the writer didn’t agree with what the char­ac­ter was do­ing, but the char­ac­ter had to do it?

AM: It’s a su­per weird process [ laughs]. Writ­ing fic­tion is re­ally bizarre. That hap­pened to me a cou­ple of weeks ago. One of my char­ac­ters did some­thing and I thought, “Oh, I didn’t know she was like that,” and I re­ally didn’t know that she was that way or that kind of per­son. It’s re­ally bizarre.

Toni Mor­ri­son has this great quote about how when you’re writ­ing a book, at a cer­tain point, you have to ex­ert your mas­tery over these char­ac­ters. You can’t just let them do what­ever they want—be­cause they will [ laughs].

It’s very strange, and I don’t know how it hap­pens or why it hap­pens, but at a cer­tain point, they cease to feel like you made them and they start to feel like ac­tors in the world in this strange way.

ROOM: Your writ­ing’s been com­pared to Toni Mor­ri­son—is she an in­spi­ra­tion of yours?

AM: She is. But, I think that com­par­i­son is su­per weird. It’s like a mar­ket­ing com­par­i­son, be­cause you have to, es­pe­cially with a de­but novel, com­pare it to some­thing. But then beyond that, I don’t think it’s true at all.

First of all, Toni Mor­ri­son is a ge­nius and I am not. The sec­ond thing is I think it’s like low-hang­ing fruit. It’s a re­ally easy com­par­i­son to make. “Oh, look here’s a Black woman writ­ing lit­er­ary fic­tion, here’s an­other Black woman writ­ing lit­er­ary fic­tion, they must be sim­i­lar.” Not at all—not on a lan­guage level. I mean, I guess the only thing would be, Toni Mor­ri­son writes books in which Black women are very cen­tral and so do I. But peo­ple do that all the time, and peo­ple aren’t like, “Faulkner and John Irv­ing are ex­actly the same—they both write books about white dudes.”

It’s very flat­ter­ing, the com­par­i­son, but it’s not true.

ROOM: As a woman of colour, do you feel you have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to write about cer­tain sto­ries, or rep­re­sent cer­tain char­ac­ters?

AM: No, I don’t. And that’s sort of easy for me be­cause what I want to write about is Black peo­ple and very specif­i­cally about Black women. When I think about peo­ple, I think of Black peo­ple. So that’s who I write about. In a cer­tain sense, it’s easy for me to an­swer that ques­tion about rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­cause I don’t feel par­tic­u­larly bur­dened by it be­cause it’s my nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to write about Black peo­ple.

But beyond that, also, no, be­cause we had a civil rights move­ment, and years be­fore that, we had peo­ple dy­ing in the streets and Jim Crow and all these things so that peo­ple could be free. And that doesn’t just mean free in terms of be­ing able to

vote, that also means free. That means free [men­tally] and free emo­tion­ally, which we are not, but in any case, much was sac­ri­ficed to at least get us a bit fur­ther along.

So I cat­e­gor­i­cally don’t be­lieve that the Black artist has to write about X, Y, or Z. It’s my choice. It is my predilec­tion, aes­thet­i­cally as well; I’m in­clined that way. But if I weren’t, I cer­tainly wouldn’t want any­one say­ing that I had to. And I teach writ­ing, and I don’t do that with my writ­ing stu­dents of colour ei­ther. You have to write what you want to write.

ROOM: Do you find that there are any over­ar­ch­ing themes or ques­tions that con­tinue to emerge in your writ­ing?

AM: I’m al­ways ask­ing the same se­ries of ques­tions, sort of ob­ses­sions. I think most writ­ers have ob­ses­sions that keep get­ting ex­pressed in their work.

Cer­tainly, black­ness, enor­mously. Enor­mously, marginal­ity. Not just marginal­ity vis-à-vis race, but marginal­ity also vis-à-vis class. I grew up re­ally, re­ally poor. That in­formed my vi­sion of the world in a cer­tain way. Liv­ing on the mar­gins in var­i­ous ways is in a cer­tain way a source of pride and end­less source of in­quiry.

Men­tal ill­ness and men­tal health. And also re­li­gion, enor­mously. There’s a lot of re­li­gious stuff in Hat­tie. That’s a big source of in­quiry for me, and a kind of font of in­spi­ra­tion. I’m not re­li­gious, par­tic­u­larly, but all my ques­tions around re­li­gios­ity, par­tic­u­larly Chris­tian­ity, par­tic­u­larly the fun­da­men­tal Chris­tian­ity that I grew up with [is] a very mixed thing. In some ways, I’m very amazed by it and I love it. And in other ways I’m very off-put and hor­ri­fied. But that con­flict­ual re­la­tion­ship with it is a con­stant source of in­quiry. It doesn’t go away.

James Bald­win has said won­der­ful things about it and one of the things he said is the church is in­deli­ble in him. He’ll never get over the beauty and the drama and the hor­ror of the church, and that’s ex­actly how I feel about it.

ROOM: And I have to ask, how did it feel to be picked up by Oprah?

AM: It was very sur­pris­ing—very shock­ing to say the least.

ROOM: How did you find out?

AM: She calls you. You get this weird phone call, like Oprah calls you. It’s a very strange and sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence.

She called me and said, “Oh, hi, this is Oprah.” And I lit­er­ally said to her, “No, it isn’t.” And she had to say, “No, it is.” [ laughs] Then I thought, “Calm down, you have to act like a per­son now and have a con­ver­sa­tion with her.”

I was ex­pect­ing a call be­cause I was on va­ca­tion and we’d got­ten the very good news that [ O, The Oprah Mag­a­zine] was go­ing to do a lit­tle re­view of the book. We were all very ex­cited. Then they said, “We’re go­ing to do a longer re­view,” and they wanted to ask me some breezy ques­tions. So we had set up a time for a fif­teen-minute in­ter­view. There was a whole ruse set up. So I was ready for a call—I thought it was go­ing to be the ed­i­tor or some­thing—but when I got the call, it was her.

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