Ayana Mathis and the Transformative Power of Fiction

Interview by 
Yvonne Robertson
Ayana Mathis

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. 

Photo Credit: Elena Seibert

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.

After completing her Master of Journalism at UBC, Yvonne Robertson worked as a journalist and editor in Vancouver. She also created and facilitated a writing workshop for homeless and marginalized youth. Now in Toronto, she works as a policy analyst and research communicator. 

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