One of the most buzzed-about and acclaimed books of the new year since its publication last December, the Oprah Book Club selection The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Knopf) is Ayana Mathis's first novel. Set across the span of the 20th century, it's the multi-generational story of a family's history during the Great Migration — the 20th-century movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North. Family matriarch Hattie moves to Philadelphia in 1932 as a 15-year-old and has twins – succeeding chapters tell the stories of nine more of her children as they seek to make lives for themselves. Mathis, 39, developed the book at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was a student of the novelist Marilynne Robinson.
Why did you decide to write about the Great Migration as a topic?
The book really is about a family. I think the Great Migration is a part of the story. I've heard it put very well, by people other than me, that it was set against the backdrop of [the Great Migration], and I do think that that is a very accurate way of describing it. Certainly the lives of the people in the book are affected by the Great Migration. As I wrote the characters, and their circumstances became more apparent to me, then it also became apparent that the Great Migration had to factor in and did factor in.Hattie starts out the book, but then the subsequent chapters are in the point of view of her children. Why see Hattie through her children rather than the other way around?
Hattie's a pretty complex character. She's a pretty complicated person and I think that one of the best ways to get at her and to her access her was by going through her children. The book is very much about Hattie, but it is also about her tribes. It's about her children and her grandchildren, and it seemed to me that the best way to access and describe her nuances was through the prism of her children's experience of her.
Why not revisit any of the children as time moves forward through the book?
I wasn't necessarily interested in writing a novel that had a conventional arc in any way. I also was very interested in the idea that you meet each of these characters in some critical moment in his or her life, and you zoom in on them and you stay with them at that moment that is so critical, and you see what is most profound in them come into play, their histories and their personalities, in a way that mirrors real life. Most of the time we're all just walking around going to the grocery store or whatever, and all of who we are isn't necessarily in play. Our psychology and our parents, and our economic status and our race, and all of these things, they're with us, but they're not necessarily actively affecting our decisions or our behavior, but certainly in moments of crisis, all of those things tend to rise to the surface. I was very interested in capturing characters at moments in which what is most profound in them would rise to the surface.
, Chicago, Detroit