'It still doesn't quite seem real'
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The telephone rang, and with four words, writer Ayana Mathis was transported from a Paris vacation to a whole new world:
“This is Oprah Winfrey.”
The call was part of a conversation to inform Mathis, an alumna of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was the latest selection in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
“I was stunned,” says Mathis, whose interview with Winfrey will air on Super Soul Sunday at 10 a.m. CST Sunday, Feb. 3, on the Oprah Winfrey Network. “I got the call from the people at O Magazine, telling me they needed a quote for a review in the magazine. I was expecting a call from the books editor. I'll never forget it: at 2:12 the phone rang and there was a voice saying ‘This is Oprah Winfrey.’
“It still doesn't quite seem real. Whenever I think about it, it's as though it's a story about someone else's life.”
The story of the titular character’s life prompted immense change in Mathis’ life. Through the life of her unforgettable heroine, Hattie Shepherd, the author tells the story of the children of the Great Migration, a story of bitterness and love and the promise of a new North, built on the backs of Hattie's children.
The story is not short on loss or struggle. In 1923, a teenage Hattie flees Georgia for Philadelphia, where, though her first two babies die because she can't afford medicine, she keeps nine children alive with old southern remedies and sheer love. Saddled with a husband who will bring her nothing but disappointment, she prepares her children for a world she knows will not be kind to them. Their trials are the trials on which the history of America was forged, a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, and a force stronger than love or trouble, the determination to get by and get through.
The story of human persistence in the face of insurmountable adversity resonated with critics. The Publishers Weekly starred review surmised, “Mathis weaves this story with confidence, proving herself a gifted and powerful writer.” And Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winner and a mentor to Mathis during her time at the Writers’ Workshop, says of the debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a vibrant and compassionate portrait of a family hardened and scattered by circumstance and yet deeply a family. Its language is elegant in its purity and rigor. The characters are full of life, mingled thing that it is, and dignified by the writer’s judicious tenderness towards them. This first novel is a work of rare maturity.”
And Winfrey’s statement about Mathis’ work included the following: “The opening pages of Ayana’s debut took my breath away. I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”
When Oprah is putting your work in the same stratosphere as Toni Morrison, can the moment be comprehended?
“That stuff is impossible to process!” Mathis says. “Toni Morrison is my literary hero and so I am deeply flattered. It's a great deal of pressure too, though I don't take the compliment to mean that my work is comparable to Morrison's, but that I am coming out of a similar tradition of post-Civil Rights literature with black women as subject.”
Undoubtedly, Oprah’s showering of praise has given Mathis’ work a much bigger stage than it would have had otherwise. “Though this novel really is about family and about very human things we can all understand and access, I think there are readers who might have decided that the book couldn't or wouldn't speak to their lives,” Mathis says. “The Book Club has an uncanny way of breaking down some of those barriers.”
Ayana Mathis will read from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, in the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. The reading is free and open to the public.
Although Mathis has written throughout her life, she says she never really thought writing would be her career. “I thought that I would always write, and publish a book at some point, but I assumed that I would always have some other means of making a living and that I'd write on the side,” she says. “I did lots of things, from waiting tables to fact-checking and freelance writing for magazines in New York. But life has a strange way of leading you where you need to go—at least sometimes it does—and I ended up in a great writing class where I met an incredible teacher and the person who was to become my best friend. He came to the Writers’ Workshop and a year later I decided to apply as well.”
It was at Iowa where Mathis was able to put writing at the center of her life, in every way. She had time to write; she had financial support; she had exposure to great contemporary writers, studying with Robinson (“she taught me so much about being a writer and a human being”) and Lan Samantha Chang, Paul Harding, and Allan Gurganus. “Learning with them made me want to be better, to do better, even when it was hard,” Mathis says. “Especially when it was hard.”
And now, as the spotlight shines bright, Mathis is back at the workshop, serving as a visiting faculty member for the spring semester. She filmed several shots around campus that will be used during the Oprah interview, and looks forward to being back in an environment meaningful to her development as a writer.
“I arrived in Iowa City, dumped my suitcases, and I went to the Dey House,” Mathis says. “It was about 7:30 in the evening and the building was empty. I stood in the Frank Conroy Reading Room and nearly cried! I hadn't expected to be so emotional about it.”
So how does a writer move forward after experiencing this emotional whirlwind?
“I suppose that in order to be able to continue to write in the long term, one has to shut out some of the accolades,” Mathis says. “That's easier said than done, especially right now that I am in the middle of all of this mind-boggling good fortune and generosity toward the book.
“But at the end of the day, I still see its flaws and shortcomings in the way that I did before all of this happened. I think my relationship with the book is different from the public's relationship to it.”