Ayana Mathis penned debut novel while at UI workshop

Oprah chose well when she selected “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

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March 28, 2014 | 11:35 am

When Oprah talks, people listen. When she chooses books, they read.

She chose well when she selected “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

“The opening chapter just floored me — absolutely floored me,” Winfrey says in an Oprah.com video announcing her book club selection. “And listen to this: It is the author’s first novel. I love it when this happens. ...

“The book touched me so deeply. The spirit of sacred truths just leaps from the pages. Oh my goodness, by the time I got to the last chapter, I was simply silent, so do not skip ahead.

“I knew I was having the privilege of witnessing a great writer’s career begin,” the talk show titan says.

Mathis, 39, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was on vacation when Winfrey called with the news that she was snapping up “Twelve Tribes” for her online book club.

“It was the most shocking phone call of my life,” says Mathis, who is teaching this semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. She graduated from the University of Iowa program in 2011.

An endorsement from Winfrey instantly elevates awareness of a new title — especially one by an unknown author.

“The book has reached a wider readership than it would have otherwise,” Mathis says. “… Oprah’s book club has a great many members. They’re quite devoted to her and to her selections. It would reach some people that otherwise it might not have.”

People who might have passed it by will now pick it up, she says. That’s pure gold for authors.

Book Reading:

  • What: Ayana Mathis, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”
  • Where: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
  • When: 7 p.m. Feb. 25
  • Cost: Free

Mathis finds herself “pretty busy” these days, trying to juggle a book tour and media interviews with her UI duties. After classes end in mid-May, she’ll go back to Brooklyn and focus on the tour.

“I’ll be traveling a lot for a while — I think that’s going to be the shape of my life for the next year or so,” she says. “I have another novel very, very slowly in the works. I’m not talking about it very much, because it’s very new and very fragile. It needs its little time in the dark.”

Her debut novel, however, casts light on a chapter of American history that’s largely been left in the dark.

“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” weaves together the stories of Hattie Shepherd, her 11 children and one grandchild from 1925 to 1980, beginning during the time of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North. Hattie lands in Philadelphia, which is where Mathis grew up.

“The Great Migration is an enormously important part of our American history, which has not gotten nearly the attention that it needs to have gotten,” Mathis says.

The matriarch is “very loosely inspired” by her grandmother. “They’re not the same person, by any means. Hattie and my grandmother are very different,” Mathis says.

The 12 children, however, are fictitious, born from imagination — twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, trumpet-player Floyd, child preacher Six, babies Ruthie and Ella, secretive Alice and Billups, Vietnam vet Franklin, sickly Bell and Cassie, and Cassie’s daughter, Sala. All have inner and outer demons to battle.

“The book is very much about the ways in which people live with their own very particular and strange psychologies and how they confront difficulties not only that come from the outside, but they sort of grapple with their own psychologies and their own way of acting against their own best interest, which I think is a thing that’s quite relatable to everybody, in many ways,” Mathis says.

“Certainly it is also a book about motherhood, because Hattie is a towering central figure. And about her relationships with her children, her relationships to herself — the way she perceived the world as not the kindest place and attempts to prepare her children to meet that. (Also) her successes and failures also as a mother, which I think are pretty relatable not just to mothers, but to parents in general.”

Mathis, who is in a relationship but is not a parent, spent about two years writing the book during her time at the Writers’ Workshop, from 2009 to 2011. She had planned to write something entirely different, but abandoned that project when she recognized the threads running through a series of short stories she was writing, set against a racially turbulent 20th-century backdrop.

Storytellers serve the present by keeping the past alive.

“Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ In particular, we keep repeating things. Not only do we keep repeating things, we live constantly in the consequences and reverberations of the far and recent past. If we don’t think about that stuff, we’re at sea in ways that we don’t have to be,” Mathis says.

“Particularly with regard to the Great Migration, it is a deeply American story which has changed every aspect of the United States. It doesn’t get discussed as much as it ought to,” she says.

Related: Acclaimed novel sheds light on Great Migration (Review: ‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’)

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