During the Great Migration, an estimated six million African-Americans moved from the South to other parts of the U.S., changing their lives and the fabric of the country. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” follows the growth and struggles of one family across geography and time. We talk with Ayana Mathis about her debut novel, and the swirl of interest generated by its recent selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

Guests

  • Ayana Mathis author, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie"

Transcript

  • 13:24:26

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn Ayana Mathis' debut novel "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" experiences large, the death of a child, a disfiguring accident, service in Vietnam, and seemingly small, stopping for a bite to eat during a long drive, a chance encounter in a department store and a half day at school shape the lives of the Shepherd family in profound and lasting ways. Theirs is a story rooted in the great migration when millions of African Americans left the South to start anew in cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit and, in this case, Philadelphia. But at its core it's a story that takes on universal questions about identity and about family.

  • 13:25:04

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help introduce us to Hattie and her twelve tribes is Ayana Mathis, first-time novelist whose book was published last month. She joins us from studios in New York. Ayana Mathis, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:25:17

    MS. AYANA MATHISThank you. What a pleasure to be here.

  • 13:25:20

    NNAMDIBefore we get to the book itself let's talk for a second about this little sticker on the cover. It was already getting a lot of buzz from early reviews but that buzz rose to a roar when your novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club. How did you find out that it was chosen?

  • 13:25:36

    MATHISI was on vacation and they have this really elaborate ruse because Oprah really likes to apparently -- as I learned after all of this happened, Oprah really likes to call the people that she's chosen -- the writers of the books she's chosen for the Book Club. And so it becomes a whole big surprise. And so they told me that Oprah Magazine wanted to do just a small review of the book and that they needed a quote. And so I was really excited and my publicity team was really excited. Everyone was really glad about it.

  • 13:26:08

    MATHISAnd they basically set up -- I was on vacation and so they set up this call that I was supposed to get from the book's editor at O Magazine. So there I am. I'm waiting for the phone to ring. I was -- actually happened to be away. I was in Paris and the phone rings and I pick it up. And this voice says, this is Oprah Winfrey. And I said, no it isn't.

  • 13:26:27

    NNAMDIYeah, right. And that's how it began. After...

  • 13:26:33

    MATHISYeah.

  • 13:26:34

    NNAMDI...that's funny, she never called me. After being selected the book's publication date was moved up and your life became, it is my understanding, a bit of a whirlwind. How have things changed for you in the month or so since?

  • 13:26:46

    MATHISWell, I do things like come on "The Kojo Show," which certainly wasn't happening before.

  • 13:26:53

    NNAMDIIt would have anyway.

  • 13:26:54

    MATHISYeah, well, yes, one likes to think. But it certainly...

  • 13:26:57

    NNAMDIWe actually chose your book as part of our Winter Reading List back in the last part of November, yes.

  • 13:27:03

    MATHISOh, you see. So it would've happened anyway. I did not know that.

  • 13:27:06

    NNAMDIThere you go.

  • 13:27:07

    MATHISThat's a very exciting and wonderful thing to know.

  • 13:27:08

    NNAMDIWhat else has been happening?

  • 13:27:10

    MATHISLots of press in various other kinds of ways. Tons of newspaper coverage, lots of interviews. And the pres -- you know, the life that a writer has, I kind of like to say that you put on different hats. You know, when you're a writer you're kind of sitting around in your pajamas drinking tea and knocking your head against the wall about sentences that don't work. And then at a certain point you have to put on this author, a capital A hat and go out and talk to people and do readings. And so certainly all of that was going to happen anyway.

  • 13:27:43

    MATHISBut in this -- because of what's happening with Oprah, it is on just an unbelievably large page.

  • 13:27:49

    NNAMDI...times a thousand, yes.

  • 13:27:51

    MATHISYeah, exactly. Exactly.

  • 13:27:52

    NNAMDIYou wrote the book at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. How did your time there influence your writing and ultimately lead you to the subjects you take on?

  • 13:28:02

    MATHISThe Iowa Writer's Workshop really changed my life entirely. I had been -- I've been writing all my life but kind of taking it more and less seriously, being more and less committed to it, being more and less afraid of it. And at Iowa it really made writing the absolute focus and center of my life. And it also gave me the support financially and in terms of kind of craft knowledge and all these kinds of things, as well as just the time to really make writing the center of everything that I was doing.

  • 13:28:36

    MATHISAnd so -- and that's two years, you know, and I wrote the entire book while I was there. And it was these two years that were sort of entirely dedicated to it. It was really very magical and completely and utterly life changing. And I met obviously really incredible people there, particularly Marilynne Robinson who is a massive influence on me, both as a writer and also as a person. And I think when I went to Iowa I was working on a different kind of project. It was a sort of fictionalized memoir. And I had to abandon it because it was bad.

  • 13:29:08

    MATHISAnd so I started kind of working on something else and -- but the funny part of it is that I was really sort of spurred towards working on something else because I took a bit of the fictionalized memoir into my very first workshop at Iowa, which was with Marilynne. And Marilyn is deeply kind and deeply generous. And so, you know, we read my piece. It was maybe 25 pages, something like that and my classmates talked about it. And there was even various comments were made and suggestions, etcetera.

  • 13:29:40

    MATHISAnd then Marilynne sort of very quietly at the end of all this says, well it is true that the characters are not sufficiently complex to the situation in which you've placed them. Which can maybe sound not the most horrible thing but it's devastating. Devastating.

  • 13:29:58

    NNAMDIIn other words, it's bad.

  • 13:29:59

    MATHISBasically it means everything's wrong.

  • 13:30:01

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Ayana Mathis. She's a first-time novelist whose book "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" was published this month. If you've read "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" and have questions for Ayana Mathis, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.

  • 13:30:24

    NNAMDIThe family the book follows is full of complex flawed characters, Hattie the matriarch, chief among them. But I wonder which of these characters came to you first?

  • 13:30:35

    MATHISI--it's so funny. I keep kind of going back and thinking about them. Hattie did but in a very, very different much more minor form. As I said, when I was -- put aside my botched fictionalized memoir, the next thing that I wrote was a kind of a hybrid of the very first and the very last chapters. Nothing really like the way that they actually appear in the novel But Hattie was present, as was her granddaughter Sala (sic) in much more minor, much less fleshed out kind of a form.

  • 13:31:05

    MATHISAnd then the second I think really full chapter that did make it to the novel almost entirely intact was Franklin, who's the chapter about the veteran -- or he's not a veteran at the time. He's actually a soldier in Vietnam.

  • 13:31:17

    NNAMDIWhile the great migration may serve as the backdrop for the action, your intent was not to write the definitive novel of that era. And this is really a book about family. But I guess I wonder, what drew you to that time?

  • 13:31:33

    MATHISWell, I think a couple of things. One, my own family is really quite -- I make this joke -- they're really quite old. You know, my mother had me -- I'm 39, my mother had me when she was 40, so she's 79 now. My own grandparents, my grandmother died in 2007 at 97 and my grandfather died in 2004 at 95. So I grew up with people who are very much of the generations that are discussed in the novel. And it’s not so much...

  • 13:32:00

    NNAMDIYeah, I was wondering about that when I saw that Hattie had a child at liked 46, but go ahead.

  • 13:32:04

    MATHISYeah, well, that happens, you know.

  • 13:32:06

    NNAMDIYes, apparently.

  • 13:32:06

    MATHISI mean, people end up with strange surprises, you know? But I think it was really sort of in the ether of my childhood, not so much in the terms of very specific stories but a kind of very '50s and '60s sensibility that I grew up with, both in kind of cultural references, in music and all kinds of things like that. And I had never really thought of myself particularly as a person who was studying or particularly enamored with that time period. But when I began to write just very organically, that's what came out. Those people were living in that time period.

  • 13:32:42

    NNAMDIThough your intent was not necessarily historical fiction, it's my understanding that your experience working as a fact checker came in handy in writing this book. How so?

  • 13:32:53

    MATHISWell, it's -- I don't tend to do an enormous amount of research before. I get a little stymied I think if I try to stick too closely to a set of facts. It seems to somehow hamper my imagination a little bit. But what I do is I'll write whatever scene or chapter I think is -- you know, is coming out and then I will go back and fact check. I have a really good antenna I think from so many years in kind of journalistic environments for picking out things that I think look like they might be facty in a suspicious way and could easily be wrong.

  • 13:33:28

    MATHISSo it came in enormously handy in that way. I was really good at being like, um, that looks like I could absolutely be wrong about that, or I need to check that out.

  • 13:33:37

    NNAMDIFacty in a suspicious way? Okay. One good passage that I think illustrates this point -- and I'd like you to read, if you will, turn to page 112 -- is when Hattie thinks back on the actual journey from Georgia to Philadelphia. Could you read starting with, there were no bathrooms in the Jim Crow train cars?

  • 13:33:59

    MATHISCertainly. Certainly, my pleasure. "There were no bathrooms in the Jim Crow train cars when Hattie and her sisters and mother left Georgia in 1923. And many of the southern stations didn't have negro restrooms so they had to go outside. Three stood watch while the fourth relieved herself. The first time Hattie couldn't go for the shame of it. Her mama went last and the white conductor yelled at them from a few yards up the track, 'y'all better come on if you're coming.'

  • 13:34:29

    MATHISWhat an outrage it was to see her mother, who was never without her hair done up in a bun, who could've passed for white but wouldn't, who was more mannered and proper than the Queen of England squatted in the kudzu with her skirt around her waist and some white man bellowing at her. That same conductor stood waiting for them at the entrance to the negro car a few minutes later. He had his hands in his pocket and swayed on his heels watching them walk along the track toward him. He winked at mama. He pressed his body into theirs as they climbed up into the car. Hattie's mama said nothing but she flushed crimson at her neck and her breath came in angry bursts.

  • 13:35:09

    MATHISAfter that, they'd gone to the bathroom only when one of them was nearly doubled over from the pain of holding it. It was a terrible trip though something astonishing had happened. Hattie awoke in the middle of the night to the clack of the wheels on the train -- on the track and the rain rapping against the window, the opaque purple sky a dome against which the trees pressed. The journey had lifted her out of the plainness of her life.

  • 13:35:34

    MATHISIn Georgia, she was one of many, undifferentiated from others even in her own mind. But on the train to Philadelphia she became acutely aware of what was inviolate in her. She felt herself a single red flower in a field of green grass. If Hattie and Ella ran away they could be like that all the time, two red poppies. Ella tried to fit a silver dollar into her mouth. It was 11:30. Hattie mashed up some peas and put them in a yellow bowl. She spooned the green mush into Ella's mouth while the baby trilled like a bright little bird and grabbed at the spoon. Hattie kissed the top of her baby's head and wept. She'd have to remember to tell Pearl that Ella liked peas."

  • 13:36:15

    NNAMDIAyana Mathis reading from her debut novel, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie." Several things strike me about this. A, the beautiful writing is one. B, you started out wanting to be a poet. And I'd like to talk about how that affects your writing now. And C, it's my understanding that you still like to read your sentences aloud before you decide that they're, well, okay.

  • 13:36:39

    MATHISI do. I do indeed. It's sort of my test of whether a sentence is working or not, at least on a sound level. And I still read also quite a lot of poetry. I realize that that is not where my talents lie, I don't think. And I'm not sure why it changed. I wrote poetry for most of my life until I was about 26 maybe. And then it sort of dried up oddly enough.

  • 13:36:59

    MATHISBut poetry teaches you a great deal about how to use language. It teaches you about the power of language. It teaches you how to select just the right word, and that you can never ever be haphazard about any of the words in any particular sentence. And of course in poetry it's because you have so little space. And so much must be expressed and accomplished and felt in these very few lines. And so certainly, of course, in a novel you have much more space and room and time but the importance of each and every word and also the sound of each and every word is no less important.

  • 13:37:32

    MATHISAnd that's why I read aloud because I can hear the rhythm of the sentences. And I find -- and when I've taught I also tell my students, read everything aloud because where you stop or where you stumble is probably where the fault is in the sentence.

  • 13:37:44

    NNAMDIAre you going to read the audio book yourself?

  • 13:37:47

    MATHISNo, I'm not. It actually exists and an actress has read it, probably far better than I could.

  • 13:37:53

    NNAMDINo, you do pretty well yourself. You hear every word clearly...

  • 13:37:55

    MATHISOh, well, thank you.

  • 13:37:56

    NNAMDI...when you read it. You take on a lot of taboos and emotional minefields in this book, many of which people would find difficult to talk about even today, never mind 60 years ago. How does the inability or unwillingness to articulate feelings and experiences build up the sense of isolation for all of these characters?

  • 13:38:18

    MATHISOh, enormously. You know, it's one of -- and it's very true and astute to say that it builds up that isolation for every single one of the characters. And it is, in fact, also I think Hattie's legacy to her children. She is the first one who is unable to accept help, unable to talk about things, unable to accept her own pain and unable to accept the fact that there might be someone else in the world who can share it with her. Even if it were just a simple thing, a cup of tea, a pat on the shoulder, she just won't do it.

  • 13:38:46

    MATHISAnd she passes that isolation, the sense of, oh you shouldn't talk about things, that sense of, there isn't anybody here who could really help you, she passes it on to her children. And they all suffer, I think, exponentially more because she does that. And it's interesting because I think that they don't just -- they don't just decide to not be communicative about things that are taboo. They won't even be communicative about things that are wonderful. They don't share their joys. They don't -- they won't share anything. They grow up very much in a culture of silence.

  • 13:39:19

    MATHISAnd I think that has to do both with the family culture -- because this is, as you pointed out earlier when you were introducing the book -- this is very much a book about a very specific family. So that habit of silence is certainly a part of that family culture. And I think it is also a part of a larger culture at the time, which was among a certain class of black people at a certain time. You just really didn't talk about your dirty laundry. If something was going on and it wasn't quite toward, you just kept quiet and kept moving. And I think that's very much reflected in the book.

  • 13:39:57

    NNAMDIWell, we've solved that problem. Called reality TV now.

  • 13:40:00

    MATHISYeah, perhaps not the most dignified of manner, but we have solved it.

  • 13:40:06

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Ayana Mathis about her debut novel "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie," and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you found greater understanding of your own family through a novel? What did it show you that you couldn't see before? 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. We're going to take short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Ayana Mathis. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:42:18

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Ayana Mathis joins us from studios in New York. She is a first-time novelist whose book "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" was published last month. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Did your ancestors moving during the great migration? How did that time shape their lives and yours? 800-433-8850. Ayana Mathis, very early in this book Hattie's babies, twins named Jubilee and Philadelphia, die.

  • 13:42:47

    NNAMDIAny parent who has experienced that pain will tell you it never leaves you. Is that -- could that be the heartaches from which all the others stem?

  • 13:42:58

    MATHISI think it is quite enormously. Hattie never recovers. She's a child herself when that happens. She's 17 years old, and she's utterly unprepared to metabolize it, to understand why it could have happened, to know what to do about it or what to do with her feelings, and she also is at that period pretty isolated. Her own mother has died, so there isn't really anyone that can guide her through that pain. And she doesn't recover from it, and she in many ways becomes -- her understanding of how to parent and of how to love becomes completely divorced from affection.

  • 13:43:36

    MATHISShe begins to understand because she has lived the very real event of the deaths of not one but two children. She begins to understand that the way that you can love someone is to keep them from dying. And so it's, you know, she doesn't love her children any less I don't think, but she certainly doesn't see room or space for a lot of affection and hugs and kisses and things like that.

  • 13:44:00

    MATHISShe also begins to think that the world is a pretty cruel place, and very quickly, you know, when she arrives in Philadelphia, she's filled with promise and with hope and she kind of can't believe how different it is from the Georgia that she'd left, and then this happens, and all of that in one fell swoop is taken from her -- all of her sense of promise and of hope. And I think the other thing that's happening is that these characters are all in a certain kind of way suffering from a certain sort of existential ennui, let's call it.

  • 13:44:32

    MATHISHattie, even inside the icy sort of cage that she builds up around herself, she is still whimsical, you know. In the passage that I read a little earlier when she was on the train and she talks about having felt herself -- felt what was inviolate in her, what was not like other people, and I think that that she also feels that that, as by the events of the death of her children, has been stamped out somehow, has been compromised in a certain kind of way.

  • 13:45:02

    MATHISBut she goes on to be -- in these isolated moments, she goes on to continue to have that whimsy. And so some of what she's suffering from is also a kind of purely human sense of yearning for something that is not exactly what she got, and a yearning, I think, that goes beyond the fact that she's going through incredible economic privations and that her children have died. There's another kind of real human yearning, you know, that sense of -- that something's missing sense that you get that you can't put your finger on and that nags at you, that I think is very familiar to all of us. I think most of the characters in the book are suffering from that as well.

  • 13:45:43

    NNAMDIOnto to the telephones. Here is Patricia in Silver Spring, Md. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:49

    PATRICIAGood day, Kojo. I am a long-time listener to you, back to the HUR days. Ms. Mathis, unfortunately, I have not read your book, but I'm adding it to my 2013 book reading list.

  • 13:45:59

    MATHISThank you.

  • 13:45:59

    PATRICIAYou mentioned the workshop you attended in Idaho or Iowa.

  • 13:46:03

    NNAMDIIowa.

  • 13:46:04

    PATRICIAIowa. How important is that? I am an up-and-coming writer, and I wanted to join Marita Golden's workshop, but they're just so expensive. But could you just touch briefly on what you learned at the workshop and how important it was to your actual final manuscript and masterpiece, and again, congratulations on that.

  • 13:46:26

    NNAMDIDid you hear that...

  • 13:46:26

    MATHISOh, thank you.

  • 13:46:27

    NNAMDIDid you hear that, Marita? Here's Ayana Mathis.

  • 13:46:30

    PATRICIAIs she on the line?

  • 13:46:31

    NNAMDINo. Marita's a regular listener though. But go ahead please.

  • 13:46:33

    PATRICIAI know she is.

  • 13:46:34

    NNAMDIGo ahead please, Ayana.

  • 13:46:35

    PATRICIAThank you.

  • 13:46:37

    MATHISThank you so much for your question. So the workshop that I attended was not sort of a workshop in the traditional sense of a weeklong or two-week long thing. It's actually an MFA program. It's a master's of fine arts program, so it lasts for a full two years. So you have this kind of amazing opportunity to spend two years working. And, I mean, the things that I learned there are inestimable. I learned an enormous amount about craft, about truth telling in fiction.

  • 13:47:02

    MATHISI learned how to use some of the tools that fiction writers have at their disposal, you know, from -- everything from, you know, perspective to the use of time, all kinds of things like that. And I think -- I really do recommend workshops, even if it can't, you know, a lot of people, obviously, don't have the luxury of taking two years out of their life to attend an MFA program, but certainly, you know, if there's a month long or a week long program that's available in your area, I certainly do consider -- or do urge aspiring writers to do such things, if for no other reason that you find community and you find readers for your work which is extraordinarily important.

  • 13:47:37

    MATHISAnd by readers, I just mean your own peers that you can sort of send an email to with a couple of pages you've written and who have the time and the space to talk to you about it. And also, you know, it sets up a -- it sets up a real sense of expectations, you know. If you've got to go to a class once a week for six weeks, you've got to get some work done so that you can bring it to that class. I took a lot of classes like that myself before getting an MFA, and I always found them to be extraordinarily generative and extraordinarily helpful.

  • 13:48:06

    NNAMDIPatricia, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. We interviewed on December in 2011, Danielle Evans, who was also an alumnus of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and we talked to her about her book "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." Patricia, thank you once again for your call. Religion, Ayana Mathis, is a subtle theme throughout this book, and I understand that you have an avid interest in theology. How does that interest influence your work?

  • 13:48:34

    MATHISIn the most obvious way I suppose it influences the title, because the title is a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel -- the biblical 12 tribes of Israel. I think in many other ways, you know, in a certain kind of way the novel is -- I sort of used it to explore my own mixed and conflicted feelings about the religion with which I grew up.

  • 13:48:59

    NNAMDIYeah. I could see that in the last chapter, but go ahead.

  • 13:49:02

    MATHISYeah. Yeah. And I also sort of used it to understand my -- or to explore my larger theological interests. And I'll use -- just as an example of that, I'll use that last chapter in which there is a -- Hattie and her grandchild are in church and there is a preacher who he preaches a sermon about Job -- about the book of Job. And most obviously, of course, Job is enormously about virtue and patience in the face of suffering, and the idea kind of being that, you know, if you sort of are virtuous and pious even during your suffering there will be some reward.

  • 13:49:41

    MATHISAnd so I supposed in a certain kind of way that could be applied to Hattie. But one of the things that I'm most interested in about theology is the way that it explores, through the divine, the whole notion of suffering and what it means to suffer, and in larger notions why are we here, what are we doing here, what is the nature of evil? What is it to be a human being? And Job is certainly one of the greatest of our literature, taken not necessarily only as a sacred book, but simply as a book of literature, the book of Job is really quite incredible.

  • 13:50:14

    MATHISAnd it poses some questions that it doesn't answer, as I suppose one can't necessarily answer, about the nature of suffering. And I thought about very specifically when I got to that last chapter, because in the book because Hattie has been through so much, and one could sort of turn around and look at all that has come before and say why have I been through this, why has this happened to me, why do these things happen? And I don't know that there is an answer, but certainly theology raises some very interesting questions and attempts to answer the question in really interesting and fascinating and profound ways.

  • 13:50:52

    NNAMDIOnto Jean in Silver Spring, Md. Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:57

    JEANHi, Kojo. I love your show, and I'm looking forward to reading the book. I had two questions actually. I wondered if the author's family themselves migrated from the south to the north, and also, very little is written about the existing African-American community that was in the north in the first place in the 1800s, and even prior to the Civil War, and it always seems to be focused on coming from the south to the north. But there is another community that was already there in the north.

  • 13:51:33

    NNAMDIJean, if you don't mind, because our time is quickly running out, I'm going to ask if I can make this a two-part question, because what you should know is that in this book, for the Shepherd family, race is a factor in their trials, but not all of their woes can be attributed to race. Here now, Ayana Mathis.

  • 13:51:52

    MATHISYes. There absolutely are. I think it was one of the reasons that Philadelphia is particularly interesting to me. Philadelphia was certainly a community in which there were an enormous number of free -- well, originally there were slaves, but then certainly there was an enormous free black community that was there. And I hope one day that somebody will explore that. For myself, that wasn't my way into this book. My own grandparents did indeed come from Virginia, not from Georgia, in the very, very early part of the 20th century, and established themselves in Philadelphia.

  • 13:52:24

    MATHISAnd, you know, you bring up a really interesting point. I hope very much that somebody kind of will write -- will explore a little further the number of free black communities that there were. It certainly has been done, but not in enormous detail.

  • 13:52:37

    NNAMDIJean, thank you very much for your call. What do you want readers to take away from the time that they spend with this family, and people may have heard you talking about the last chapter and saying, oh, she's giving it away, but they should understand that in this book each chapter deals with a different character in the book.

  • 13:52:54

    MATHISYes.

  • 13:52:54

    NNAMDIAnd you can almost read them as individual stories. But go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:57

    MATHISThank you for that. It is true. I feel like I -- whenever I talk about the different chapters, I feel like someone expects me to go spoiler alert, but really there aren't -- it's kind of hard to have a spoiler in this book. I think two things. First is that we -- it really is a book about what it means to attempt to love and to love in some sort of limited means, but to fail. And that probably in some ways can sound not like the most uplifting thing in the world, but I think it is one of the most deeply human things in the world that I know, you know, that people attempt to love, that they attempt to do the right thing with and for the people that they love, and they fall down in various ways.

  • 13:53:38

    MATHISIt seems to me to be an incredibly common and almost universal kind of a human experience. So I hope that people will take away from it that, you know, the ways in which families can let each other down in a certain kind of way, at the same time that they also bolster, you know. These kids receive from their mother a great legacy of strength. They, you know, they certainly encounter lots of problems, but they also have a great legacy of strength. They keep going and -- which is what Hattie herself does.

  • 13:54:10

    MATHISAnd I think the second thing that I hope that all readers will take away from this is that as you so eloquently said a little bit earlier, certainly race is a part of this book, but my -- one of my hopes was that -- I've said before that I think that it is a book about pre-civil rights subject matter written with a post-civil rights sensibility. And what I mean by that is it is very much my hope that these characters are not defined purely by race.

  • 13:54:40

    MATHISThat they are allowed to have their ennui for whatever reasons they have it, that their humanity is, of course, inclusive of race because they are black people, but that they are given a full range of humanity that isn't tied so very specifically to race. As the stories move forward in time, as we get further away from the 1925 of the first chapter and move toward the 1980 of the last chapter, their problems do indeed become less and less yoked in very direct ways to their race.

  • 13:55:13

    MATHISAnd so there is an attempt, I think, to establish a wider black humanity I suppose. And again, what I mean by that is one that -- in which the characters are allowed to be sad or happy or miserable or desperate or whoever the heck they are, and however the heck they are, and that has everything to do with all of the sort of total sum of who they are, not only to their race.

  • 13:55:42

    NNAMDIWell, you won't say it, but I will. What makes fiction great is not only the specificity of the characters, but their universality, and that's what you'll find in the characters in "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie." But with Hattie looming so large in the novel, one cannot help but wonder what's your own mother like?

  • 13:56:00

    MATHISOh, it's so funny. My mother couldn't be more opposite. My mother is -- she's very warm and loving and kissy and huggy and always had time, and she sort of does the opposite, you know. There's a section in the book very near the one that I read in which August laments the fact that Hattie prohibits her daughter Cassie from playing the piano.

  • 13:56:23

    NNAMDIAugust is Hattie's husband, by the way. Go ahead.

  • 13:56:25

    MATHISHattie's husband, August, yes. And August thinks, my God, you know. We did all this moving and what have we done any of this for if a poor child can't just play the piano because she likes it, even if it has no pragmatic use in her life. My mother was the opposite, you know. I would have these little books of poems when I nine, and she would, you know, sort of sit down and pretend she was an audience. You know, I mean, it was -- it's really pretty funny.

  • 13:56:49

    MATHISI mean, I think Hattie is somewhat, although certainly not directly, she's more similar in temperament to my own grandmother in the sense that she's sort of stoic, you know. My own grandmother I don't think was anywhere near as angry as Hattie is, but my grandmother was certainly more stoic. So that quality of stoicism I think also comes from my own grandmother more than my mother.

  • 13:57:10

    NNAMDIAnd finally, since there is no rest for the weary, or in this case the successful, we have to ask, what next?

  • 13:57:19

    MATHISWell, there's a novel in, you know, sort of flitting around in the back of my brain. The idea is there, but I've been making a joke that if it were to be exposed to light, it would just kind of completely crumble and fall. So it's there, certainly, and I'm excited to get back to it, obviously -- for obvious reasons these days I haven't been working on it very much. But it certainly is there. There will be another. I don't think it will be these characters, but there's another one hanging around back there. Set in Philadelphia though, I think, because I seem to be obsessed with it.

  • 13:57:50

    NNAMDIShe seems to look forward to the isolation and the keyboard, even though it's my understanding that the first draft of this book was written in longhand. Is that correct?

  • 13:57:58

    MATHISYeah. Yeah. I write longhand. There's something about writing a first draft on a computer that looking at it on the screen makes it feel sort of official, like it's supposed to be "right," quote, in a certain kind of way. And when it's just in longhand it feels like I'm just taking notes and I have the freedom to do anything with it that I want to.

  • 13:58:18

    NNAMDIAyana Mathis is a first-time novelist whose book "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" was published this month. Thank you so much for joining us, and continued good luck to you.

  • 13:58:27

    MATHISOh, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to be here.

  • 13:58:29

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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