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Ayana Mathis: “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

2018-12-17 | 🔗

New York Times best-selling author Ayana Mathis discusses her sweeping debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.” The book tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one indomitable heroine, Hattie Shepherd, and her unforgettable family. Ayana shares her thoughts on the book's soul-stirring themes, including parenting, loss, survival and redemption. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Ayana opens up about how she overcame criticism and self-doubt and went on to create her critically acclaimed first novel. She divulges who from her own life inspired the book's heroine, and how she developed each human character. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
I'm over Winfrey welcome to supersede conversations the podcast. I believe that one of the most valuable gives you can give yourself is time. In time to be more fully and present Your journey to become more inspired and connected to the deeper world around us starts right now, it's hard to believe It is true that the twelve tribes of Hattie is gonna Matheson, first novel it setting is Philadelphia over the course of five decades. This powerful book tells a story of Hattie a strong, complicated woman whose difficult life takes its toll on her and her children. When I read the characters, just let from the pages and I knew almost instantly that this would be our next book. Selection. Deanna math is grew up in Philadelphia the daughter of a single mother who stilled in her a fierce love of reading by the time
was nine. Ayala began writing stories of her own. She says words have been dear companions to her all her life. Eventually, her talent led her to the prestigious Iowa writers Workshop, it's an, cetacean, whose graduates include a multitude of port Laureates Pulitzer Prize is a national book award winners. It was there and at story place that she conceived and wrote the twelve tribes of Hattie Wealthy you offer joining we. I am so happy to have our book club author, a Yonah matters. You were this on Super Sunday, so happy about this book. I think that I feel strongly that you're one of the next big voices you are indeed- and I can't believe that this is your first book yeah- that citizens,
I can't wait either, but- and I started slowing myself down in the latter chapters. When I got to Bell, I started slowing myself down because I knew it was going to come to an end and I didn't want it to best compliment writer can get you start. I've started reading more slowly and taking my time I didn't want to do and how did it? How did this come about? I had been working on a completely different book. I thought so new defection writing, which is very strange, and I had been working on what I thought was going to be a memoir, a fictional eyes, memoir, and it was dreadful with a big capital d and and- where it in strange and I took it into. I got an accepted to graduate school to thy writers workshop, and I took it into my first workshop. Let's say the hour riders up.
All writers wish tat. He accepted the wonderful it's a really wonderful, generative place and the whole point is to help you become a better right. Exactly are you sort of you sit there? People of Reggio manuscript already and your silent while you're being workshops is what we call it. These are taking notes and everyone is making comments about your workin etc, and it's very humbling it can be an enormously fruitful in terms of being a learning experience can also be sort of devastating its evidenced units. It sort of your heart can out there on the table. Are everyone criticized looking at it? In your words? Yes, so I brought it in feedback from my classmates was sort of middling.
But fine, and then Marilyn Robinson who it was leading my workshop Pulitzer Prize winning Marilyn Robinson Juliet Juliet and Housekeeping yes housekeeping. Yes, as those so she said, wait, she tends to wait until everyone's finish talking and then she makes her comment. So there's a little silence because everyone could tell their own was about to speak in Maryland, said well. It is true that the characters are insufficiently complex to the situation in which is placed them. No, not sufficiently complex. At least I know that might not sound that bad. Yes, but if you are a writer and I write entirely from character, that is a sort of start to finish and what I believe. I really believe that I'm putting a person on a page That is one of the worst thing that you could ever possible here that insufficiently complex, insufficiently complex, ok and that is Maryland ever gracious and so associates. You sort of puts things that way
you can read it. You interpret that to me who is not good enough bottom were met and the characters weren't they weren't, they weren't flashed out enough. There was something very superficial about the work on that fictional eyes memoir. So I had a big kind of crisis about a real crisis, a kind of What am I doing here while I got this workshop, like a guy crisis, o ugly cry, crazier, massively ugly cochlear for a couple of weeks, even owners right, but the schwaiger yes and then I thought: okay well, either I'm gonna stay here and and figure this out or I'm gonna go back to New York, and obviously I wasn't.
Go back to New York. So I thought well alright, some short stories and I started writing. They should stories in the first short story that I wrote was a kind of strange hybrid, of the first chapter in my book philadelphian. You believe, and the last chapter Sala very different from the way they appear in the novel, but a kind of hybrid, and I brought that in to class and it and it changed everything Marilyn's whole sort of reaction to it was different, my classmates who was different and were myself, I knew that there was something right about it. It's not what ended up in the book, but I knew that I was on the right track. That's why I love you great writers, because you sort of you conjure magic through words I just and fascinating that they just you know the characters kept appearing and where are they? where are they? I dont obey the ether there in your head, obvious coming through their coming through from something it's a very mysterious thing. You know I've never been a writer
It talks about channeling, Tejano writer s out, and I felt taken over I, the muse and I channel. My writing process tends to be the every word is a horrible struggle. But but when I look back on the work collectively, I will find phrases or sentences that I couldn't say exactly where that came from and I feel sort of the same about the characters in general. I think Hattie is my own. Grandparents were great migration- people, yes, and so had. He is very loosely inspired by my grandmother: she's not like her, because had he is money sort of em harsher enraged full in certain ways than my grandmother was, but certainly they share. They share this suit, this migratory history and they share also having been, I think, very, very heroic women. So, ultimately, this is a story of the great migration of our people, yeah from the south to the
north absolutely, there was a period of decades where people were just you know. My mother and my cousins in my arms were all a part of that great migration from Mississippi to Milwaukee to Chicago go and everybody has family members. It came everybody who's up here, family members who are now mare and at some point, moved up here- That really is this story. It's astounding, when I think about it, I mean people came with nothing. Certainly, people are in different circumstances when they left the science. There were so many people that came with of an address scribbled on a piece of paper. You know a few dollars in a pocket enough food to serve last whatever, however long the journey might have been and it and these people we found it a very much. We founded a nation in the north, and it's astonishing. You say on page ten, oh my gosh, you write like Velvet Hattie clambered from the train, her skirt still him.
With Georgia Mud the dream of Philadelphia round as a marble in her mouth and the fear of it, a needle in her chest and everybody who got off those strange got off those buses I mean I hadn't thought of it in that way before, and I need a red mini stories on the migration the promised land years ago and that beautiful book that caused you to have the app the warmth of others, that war bothers shears Isabel workers than the rising in a genius. Yes, but when you think of it and when you think of the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are coming up from the south with this house, and this desire for a better life and not really knowing what their stepping into when their stepping off those trains with their with their chickens? Jews and devil their eggs in the box, and all that you know absolutely intolerable. I mean there's a: is it not the sort of wax
grand, but nobody, I think it's appropriate. There's there's a Martin Luther King quote that says M the the arc of human history is long, but it bends toward moral justice and There is something about that bending and then more justice that I think speaks deeply to what is whatever it is. That's inside us that is That is divine here and I don't mean necessarily divine. I don't mean it in christian sense. I don't mean it, but I mean do whatever does tags That is exactly where the meagre d, with a big big old d, whatever it is, that includes all of the religions, and all of you have asthma and the doctrine, and all of it all in that. There's that there's that there's a theirs, I often will just sort of simply call it humanity which has come to be kind of a word We that we sort of how and why I like ice yeah I've also most mingled, strange, powerful, muscled thing. Why
China out your ear. Thirty, nine years, all how you know about this. Read a lot and I think also a real sense of the past was always very present with me. I think partially, because mothers, age and because also my grandparents were quite old. They never talked about the south. There was never a part of anyone's discussion, but you know there's it sort of in the EU. There's a there's, a sensibility about things that I think was translated to me absolute. It's the reason why, in this amazing review and the New York Times, I mean, I would say in views on both unbelievable by machine, go cock, Tawny who doesn't like a lot of things. And to get a review like this in your times, I nearly wept for you I was shaking when I was reading like ok, and then that paragraph it now that better. But what she says about you, MRS Mathews, has a gift for imbuing her character stories with an epic dimension. That recalls Tony
Orisons writing and I know you and I both bow at the altar of Tony turning Morrison and her son the time and place in family, will we mind some of Louise Ergic, but her elastic voice is thoroughly her own. Don't go anywhere or to come after this short break is episode, is supported by hallmark cards. We say I love you too. The people we care about all the time so much so that sometimes it can start to feel a little bit like a habit. If you're, king for a way to make those three little words mean a little more this Valentine's day. Try sing them with a hallmark card, because when you share your love in a hallmark, hard you're taking that everyday reminder and turning it into the kind of love they can hold on to that stays with them. Long after Valentine's day since Hallmark has so many kinds of Valentine's day cards. You can find one for every important relationship in your life this year,
for every Valentine's day cards you buy hallmarks, give a card to someone who could use a little love up to a million cards. Valentine say, is Friday February, Fourteenth keep the love going and visit hallmark, dot com, Slash super saw two fine Valentine's day cards for everyone, you care about and useful, Imo Code, super soul to get twenty percent off your card purchase. Your mother, I know she's been a great driving force in your life. Tell us about her, My mother is extraordinarily she seventy nine now which reaches and one of the knowledge red people. You know you tell my mother's incredibly, while she is better in the classic. Specifically, I think she's better read than I am and she's just extraordinarily she's she's knew I'd it's hard to begin to describe because So particularly herself to the very moral person which which I feel like the word moral has come to be kind of a bad thing, but I mean it em in the sense of a person who ten
toward good judge the really honestly, and and not only to do the right thing, but to think the right thing, which is really something you know, because we it's easy to sort of make a show, sometimes and doing the right thing, but to think the right thing is really something she was always extraordinarily encouraging of of my writing. When I was a little girl, she was deeply encouraging and we, I grew up with. We had very, very, very, very little money when I was growing up, When I went to high school, I was able to sort of test into a good high school, but when I was in elementary middle school, I couldn't test into a schools who is neighbourhood, schools or bust kind of thing. And so my mother, I think, endured really a lot of sacrifices. Living in neighborhoods, where we couldn't really pay the rent and was good. In the social area you. What do you mean Ashura gave me everything that you had in what she had with an awfully long,
yeah, I'm not going to get into it cuz. I know you don't want to talk about it. Cuz. You said you were too definitive piece in glamour about your mother's, your sprinter, your mother's mental illness. I just want to say I know. But it's over everybody's like why didn't you ask her? How I know about it? You don't want to talk about it. I respect that. Thank you. I love what you said about Lawrence on page, seventy four. This is when you know who is going away with him Lawrence. Wasn't a man who got hung up on ideas or lofty sentiment. It live pragmatic As far as is emotions were concerned, yet a car nice, it's in the end, only infrequently work for white men, he left family behind in Baltimore when he was sixteen, and he built himself up from nothing without any help from anyone and it had not been able to save his mother from becoming a mule. At least he'd never been one himself. The most of his life does. It seem like the most important thing not to be anybody's mule. I just think that
young people. Reading this will get a sense of history. In a way that perhaps maybe they they dont nor have experienced. Did you feel a sense of a great sense of responsibility in writing this? Could you knew that this would be another one of those books? It would carry the story. The story, the great migration that worry our story are family story forward. I did I did. I felt it is one of the ways in which also character comes in, because when I really understood that this is what this was about, I wanted to be. I wanted to give these people as much sort of breath as I possibly could, and I wanted to basically right a novel about the kind of free civil rights world with a post civil rights sensibility,
so the arc of the novel you nursery starting the ninety twenties. In the end, in the ninety meters, in one of the things that I had hoped to accomplish, is that as the time moves forward, and then the characters get further and further away from the move from the south, the sources of their problems become less specific to race and though they are certainly, one virus. Clearly, yes, but there also. They also begin to have these sort of wider kind of human problems and that we should have done on purpose. I think because I wanted them to be. I really do think that one of the great scope of the great migration, and also one of the great hopes of of the civil rights movement was for black people for us to have our humanity and our humanity means that we do not have to be defined solely by raise. It does not mean that it has to be a complete ident,
it doesn't mean it means we are allowed, a breath and scope and a large enough- and I hope that my my attempt was that, as the characters me further away, that they that their their difficulties and strength would expand in in a certain kind of way, you said that beautifully, but there's some people who still even attached to it, you think he's still have to be completely define. Yes, yes, it is literature, so anybody who loves words and language will appreciate it. I was so stunned when I first did the bluest I as a book of selection and the multitude of women, over the world all different races, the colors, who responded to be called a breed, love story. I thought it was just a black woman story, but it was really every moment. It's our! Isn't that what you re Literature- and that is what you know- that's what is wonderful about books. Yes, what it's? What is wonderful about books, the characteristic so real to me. I said this to you when I interviewed you for
magazine. I would wake up in the middle of the night. I would say God when we're Floyd is as yet there is it. What's he doing and then I realized there. Hey there isn't a flight, that's just a character can forget about that. Go back to sleep, you got it to their souls. You really did where did that come from how does one get into the soul of a character at very high in question I think it has to do very much with intention. I think that one of the things or perhaps the thing that I think is most important about my job as a novelist. That is my job, which are now I consider it to be sick, you just know. Let yourself feel that fully Korea is you are a novelist
I really think that I am like. I think that this is my life's work and I am very happy to have discovered it. What do I do? I honestly believe it's mine, but I think that, in terms of tension. What I understand to be my job is to put a real flashed out dimension a human being on a page, and there is Oh other way to do that, then, to channel into that human being as deeply as you possibly can. I wouldn't know any other way to go about it and my interest in creating characters to spend as much time as humanly possible inside their minds, and in that way I can begin to understand them more and they can begin to seem full and so they do become real to you, the characters. Since they think I'm real to us. Absolute does the reader do they? dictate what happened to them or do you it's buddy is there that we mention Teddy Worth and earlier Terry worse, it has a funny
sort of misquoted, but she said something to the effective you know at times you have to say to her character. Pipe down I'm right in this book. Not you haven't written and- and I think I think there were moments when I had an experience where I thought the character was sort of going off the rails or taking going into places where I didn't want them to go. Inspired by e on his grandmother had he is strong and mysterious and complicated, and her forces felt on every single page of this novel. I think also happy with await a sort of imagine what my grandmother would have been lost, and she was very hard to read my grandmother. Very stow is always Meyer, Nick Enigmatic, yes, love. I love within your time.
Says about you cheeks. She writes that had he knew her children did not think her kind woman. Perhaps she wasn't, but their hadn't been time for sentiment when they were she had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there had been any thing to put in their bellies? I think that's essentially that generation right, I'm gonna get. If they didn't understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them. The world will not be kind that to me is the essence of whom she was really because she is a deeply loving. Energy loves those children, yes and she, but she just she really honestly she would be doing them an enormous disservice if she coddled them.
Shouted at another time. Yarly is actually quite busy making sure that these kids don't starved to death or that more of them don't die. It's everything I think there's a whole generation of people who were raised that we absolutely and everything that had he is very am I wanted her to be. I think we have a lot of stereotypes about strength is yes and we have a lot of stereotypes, particularly when we talk about the black women strength. You know, which is this sort of like iron, willed person, who just plows through no matter what who doesn't doubt who isn't afraid who isn't all of these things that are, of course enormously humor to be yes, and so I wanted this woman to be strong and other getting one can deny that had. He is very, very strong, but she's also deeply flawed. She's also afraid she's also vulnerable justice suffers from D out she suffers from so many things. I wanted to sort of grant her a kind of
all our humanity. Obviously, when you finish the book, you know at the top twelve tribes of Hattie means in terms of this book, but whether the title come from isn't biblical it is. It is a direct reference to the twelve times of Israel. Yes, and I was very interested in these kinds of metaphors of delivery from bondage, and things like that, because I think the book is a lot about nation building yet well, and so that metaphor seems particularly apt so first book he loved the first book that I love like when I was a kid or learn later loved them organs later Facebook, you loved insecurity, but I love, I think, it's a tie. There is a wrinkle in time by Madeline Lingo, which I kind of still and read it when I was an anonymous being link eat or something The other one is role of thunder. Here, my cry. I remember weeping. I remember reading it and being distorted just like me,
whole body, hence my entire of every muscle, rigid and then getting to the end and like falling out on the floor weeping I remember very well. I heard that that's what happened to you after beloved beloved, did man not the first time. I read it, the first time I read it. I was too young to really fully absorbing digestive to read Oliver stuff more than he really do with depression. I read it was either eighteen or nightmares really. I was reading a class and I think maybe I was twenty eight countries The third reading I was in my early twenties and I kept her put it down, and then, when I finally finished it, I just couldn't get myself together. I think I cried for four hours I couldn't get myself together. I happened to be too with beloved and also than to me with a known world. I think it is by Edward Jones. I put that Bulgaria yeah. I was out that did that to Iraqi Rex, your books. It is astounding in that, in that story,
We absolutely I love talking about this. Okay, so as as a writer writing this first time novel. What is it you wanted the world to know about most I wanted people to encounter a fully fleshed out black humanity. That is what I want That was why, and I, which is why I think that the care that I keep going back to this whole notion of character, but why it is so important was important for me to tunnel in is deeply as I could into these people's brains and spirits here, because then, because they are just opened out and they become fully human and they have a full range of of their humanity,
and then I dont think. I hope that that when people encounter the book they do not, they dont sort of encounter a person with an adjective in front of them, but they meaning a black person, an african american person, though, of course they are that, but what they encounter is a full. Human being in the way they consider themselves to be fully human journey. We have a lot of trouble understanding people are as human as we are. What I one was people to encounter black human beings who are under probably fully human? You did that, thank you know, and you did it from the first page and the first chapter, because one of the things that I've said. Using the platform of the opera show in the magazine, in my view, this in any way than I could that I've tried to express equally as you are, is that all payments, the same
and that when the mother loses her child in the middle of some country, you ve never heard of. She feels the same as you feel when your child is sick. She feels the same, and I think we experience that from the first page members chapter I hope that we do you did it. You jerk Alaska, does a strange as in so many ways. I still think of this book is my word document. Every I really do like it's my word document I have my tea and minus whether my hair is all you know, and it's my word. Yeah, it's just you and I are no its, not baby out there in the world which are lifelike. After all of this it's been exhilarating. It's been stunning just sort of permanently stunned. You know that, if I am,
the kind of compose my faith cut them on tv, but really late, though just kind of hadn't like enormous. I know a great deal of gratitude, a great sense of responsibility. You know, I think, a great sense of responsibility. I think it would seem to me that if one is given a gift like what is happening to this book, that one doesn't get the gift necessarily because one deserves. But why? But if one receives the gift, you have to go about the business of deserving one das. Getting because one deserves it. I'm sorry you tell us about it. I want one has got at it because one did it or that one has got lead, because one has written an extraordinary, debut novel, really thinking. I know that you read a lot of theology. My interest in theology has very much to do. The fact that I think that one of the most
profound ways to to think about ourselves. Evolution. The evolution of human thought is to look at the evolution of our relationship to the divine and what people have said about. It in written about it and thought about it. I love what you say on page two hundred and thirty six. How do you believe in God's might, but you didn't believe in his interventions at best he was indifferent, God wasn't any of her business and she wasn't any of his. You think that that's unusual to believe in God to might not, as interventions I don't think it's unusual or didn't seem unusual to me. There are not very many bits of a Yonah in that book. I think that is one. Sometimes I was going to ask them everybody ass, how war you and the boy exactly characters. Eighty one does that. Thank you for sharing that its. Yet they bits of my sort of ways of thinking about things slip into people
at certain points in that, and that, I think, is one of them. I think I m, although it wobbles and my own comes question of faith- is wobbles back and forth constantly. I don't. I don't think that it is that unusual to think that there is a powerful mighty being, but that doesn't necessarily have a sort of data day interact with our, but I think that you have said to the producer you, too. I think it's Thomas Aquinas that you thought was had the best theory. Tat was a kind of has really have very very which is why there are two that got us all life. They got his I've. They did that, God that God is all things often so that all things are sort of are imbued with, with with the Spirit of God,
Therefore, life becomes very Sacramento here in all aspects of life become very Sacramento. It's really fascinating in it and fascinating too, because, if you think about God being in offering a group in the church, the very religious upbringing and when I sort of had mice refusal of the church, which happened when I was around fifteen- and I was abominably behaved do my mother would take me to church- and I would sit in that muttering about things. The minister was that we hold a carbon until then she stopped making. We go through so badly behave, but one of the things I think that was as that was a struggle for me, then, although perhaps not article eight it, but it certainly is now is that I didn't it. It seems to me that to be a person of faith meant that I had to deny reason and that I had to deny being a rational person and one of the things that really
just think about. Thomas Aquinas is that, if God is in all things, then there is also God in our in all of our human capacities, one of which is of course reason and so that we can approach God in some way also through reason which it, which is a really, which is a really kind of mind, boggling concept and one that I find really love I was interviewing rain Wilson recently, my here onto Purcell Sunday, and he said that there is no difference between art in prayer and when I finished the twelve tribes of Haiti, it felt like a big prayer and offering. I think that I think that experiences and I'm not talking about men book but just in the art in prayer thing. I think they'd encounters
with a profound truth or something that is profoundly beautiful, does feel prayerful yeah think we know you're just a dozen poetic music, the skills prayerful. It feels into meant it feels it stirs something inside you that makes you could make you feel more connected to ought not just the characters, but it makes you feel more human. So, thank you, the twelve tribes of having oh boy thank you, at our pleasure, I'm over Winfrey and you ve been listening to supersede conversations the pod cast. You can follow superficial on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook if you haven't yet go to apple, podcast, unsubscribe rate and reviews. This pledge gas join me next week for another supersede conversation. Thank you for listening.
Transcript generated on 2020-01-15.