Oprah's Favorite Passages from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
December 06, 2012
The opening pages of Ayana Mathis's debut novel took Oprah's breath away. Here, she reveals the lines that moved her from start to finish.
Philadelphia and Jubilee: 1925
...Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren't already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching-forward names, not looking-back ones.
Oprah's note: The sentence speaks for itself so eloquently. In this one sentence I could feel Hattie's hopefulness and anticipation for a better life, that she was claiming the future for herself and her children, a future that was shared by all who were a part of the Great Migration to the North which began around 1910.
All over Philadelphia the people rose in the crackling cold to stoke the furnaces in their basements. They were united in these hardships.
Oprah's note: I love that line because it gave me a sense memory of the feeling you get when everybody in the community is united. I remember that myself from when I was growing up. I also remember leaving the community where we had been united and being surprised to later learn that we were considered poor. Because when you're united in your hardships, poverty doesn't feel so poor.
All of those souls, escaped from the South, were at this very moment glowing with promise in the wretched winters of the cities of the North. Hattie knew her babies would survive. Though they were small and struggling, Philadelphia and Jubilee were already among those luminous souls, already the beginning of a new nation.
Oprah's note: Here it is again: the resonating theme of new life and new beginnings in the North. This sentence speaks not just to Hattie's hopes for her babies Philadelphia and Jubilee, but to everybody who held that hope in embarking on that migration.
Next: The stunning description Oprah lovedHattie clambered from the train, her skirt still hemmed with Georgia mud, the dream of Philadelphia round as a marble in her mouth and the fear of it a needle in her chest.
Oprah's note: GORGEOUS! Gorgeous description.
The doomed roof arched. Pigeons cooed in the rafters. Hattie was only fourteen then, slim as a finger.
Oprah's note: Again, Ayana's use of description just takes my breath away.
She smelled the absence of trees before she saw it.
Oprah's note: Very much how I felt when I moved "up north" and very much how I feel when I go into a big metropolis: New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago. I miss trees. I love this passage so much I starred it three times.
It's the simplicity of her descriptions—so ordinary in some ways, but so lifted above ordinary. Great writers do that.
She called them precious, she called them light and promise and cloud. The neighbor woman prayed in a steady murmur. She kept her hand on Hattie's knee. The woman wouldn't let go, even when Hattie tried to shake her off. It wasn't much, but she could make it so the girl didn't live this alone.
Oprah's note: When I read those words I tear up at Hattie's sense of helplessness, yet also at the generosity of the neighbor.
She felt their deaths like a ripping in her body.
Oprah's note: Which is also how a woman gives birth, with a ripping in her body.
His heart pinging in his chest from the bennies that kept him awake from one gig to the next, he'd fly along the roads, pressing the accelerator and feeling himself unhinged from the reasonable desires.
Oprah's note: I thought: what does that mean, unhinged from reasonable desires? I think it's such a loosening of routine, and ordinariness, of what is expected, of what you're supposed to do. It's being unhinged from reasonable desires. I had to stop and repeat that a couple of times. It struck me.
He'd come down here to play the jukes and jazz joints, but he was three months into this shabby little tour and felt like a kite broken off from its string.
Oprah's note: Floyd really does feel unhinged. It's a repetition of the unhinged theme. This passage just reminds me that I can't wait to read Ayana Mathis's next book. I want to know more about these characters.
The boy's cool hand warmed against Floyd's chest, fingers twitching slightly. Floyd leaned into him. With these small gestures they were agreed.
Oprah's note: What a line..."They were agreed." You don't need to know more.. That is an amazing sentence. Only a definitive writer could do that.
They had reached an accord, and now Floyd's anticipation swelled to fervency.
Oprah's note: I wrote that line down too, but "with these small gestures they agreed"— there's that moment when you know. You don't have to ask "what does she mean?" Everybody's been in that moment; first kiss, first sexual encounter. It's just agreed; it's going to happen.
Music was the only way he could step into the current of their experience.
Oprah's note: I love this one. I love the description and also the suggestion of music, and the people, and the flow of it all being a transcendent spiritual moment. That's what that says to me. "Hot diggity. Ayana Mathis is the bomb-diggity."
Six took Coral's hand, and they kneeled together on the packed dirt floor. It was only in church that he felt compassion for anyone beside himself. Something happened to him when he looked at Sister Coral. When he was preaching about Jericho, strength built in his body, rising in Six until it spilled over the edges of him.
He had so much power that he could afford to share it, had to share it, or it would explode in him. He could be kind, if only for that hour, because he was, if only for that single hour, strong.
Oprah's note: That's my favorite passage in the chapter. Just unbelievable. I think I understand Six. He had the gift, but he didn't have the belief because he was so tortured by his own disability. He was so tortured that he couldn't see beyond all of that to the gift. He knew he had the gift but wasn't really sure why he had it, and because of his own dysfunction, he abused it.
The townspeople said Six had the gift, and now he tried to direct it, to wield it over Rose's mother like a magic wand. He wanted Rose to see him heal her. He wanted to be an instrument of God, even a ruined one.
Oprah's note: Mmm. I love the fact that Six is conflicted. I think it's so interesting and unexpected that he has the gift and is conflicted by it.
A cloth satchel sat on the floor next to her: embroidered, somber hued, faded.
Oprah's note: That description is almost painterly, so much so that I felt like I could pick up that satchel. I know exactly what that satchel looks like.
Lawrence wasn't a man that got hung up on ideals or lofty sentiment; he had live pragmatically as far as his emotions were concerned. He had a car and nice suits, and he had only infrequently worked for white men. He left his family behind in Baltimore when he was sixteen, and he had built himself up from nothing without any help from anyone. And if he had not been able to save his mother from becoming a mule, at least he had never been one himself. For most of his life, this had seemed like the most important thing, not to be anybody's mule.
Oprah's note: I love this because it summarizes his character so brilliantly. POWERFUL!
What if he went to the bathroom and then she followed to wash her face and she smelled his smells? They would be stripped to their odors and sounds and habits.
Oprah's note: LOVE this because it's a common thought rarely articulated. Nobody ever speaks about it. "Scuse me, uh if I were you I wouldn't go in that room just yet."
They were, most of them, perpetually donning and polishing their northern-city selves, molting whatever little southern town they or their families had come from five or ten or twenty years before, whatever red dirt roads or sharecropped fieldsor bragging about their families' wide porches in whatever good Negro neighborhood they'd lived in, which was just a roundabout way of demanding that Philadelphia give them their due.
Oprah's note: That is a power-packed sentence filled with so much history.
I go down that yard every day, and every day they say, 'Nothin' for you.' I come home singingyou damn right I come in and bounce them children on my knee and try to make them laughI ain't got nothing else to give them. And then hers:
I don't want to hear your sad stories when I have Miss Prisby looking in my drawers and cupboards every week. You wonder why I don't smile at you? You're lucky I don't stab you in your sleep. A better woman would." I'd like you to end with, " You ain't never tried to understand what it is to be a man out in this world.
Oprah's note: I love this argument between August and Hattie. All couples argue about things they're not really arguing about. Beneath the surface of all arguments is what is really going on and that's why I love this passage so much. Amazing.
I'm getting chills right now reading it again. This book gets richer the more you read it and this is one of the reasons why. Because nobody is ever arguing about what is real. "That is an argument about my pain and my suffering and you don't see me nor understand what that's like." That's what both of them are saying. "You neither see me, nor hear me, nor understand what it's like to be me."
That man spent so much time with dead people that he hardly knew how to be with the living.
Oprah's note: I just love that sentence.
I won't stand here and tell you what you should do but I want you to know that this ain't that. Ella ain't suffering and she ain't dying. We had that pain, Hattie, and we'll have this too, but you got to understand it ain't the same thing.
Oprah's note: Woo-hoo!
Pearl stood and took a step toward Benny, but he was sitting with his head in his hands and did not look at her. He won't love Ella, she realized. She had fooled herself into thinking that he would. "Oh!" she said aloud and sank down onto the couch.
Oprah's note: I love this realization; that "aha!" That's how all "Aha's!" come to us. It's sort of a whisper. It forces you to, inside, go, "Oh!" or "Hm".
In that moment it was no consolation to think he was doing the right thing for her child. Best not to think at all, best to move, because if she didn't, she would fall down and she wouldn't get up again.
Oprah's note: I highlighted that sentence because growing up... through history, through reading, through an association with great strong women, I recognize that feeling of needing to keep pushing, because if you ever stopped once to think about it, you wouldn't be able to move.
The butterflies were still alive in the Mason jar. August turned to her and said, "We gon' make it through, Hattie." She snatched the jar from the table and hurled it at the wall behind August. The two of them watched the butterflies, stunned and struggling in the broken glass.
Oprah's note: I love the use of butterflies as a metaphor for beauty and freedom in that moment.
Alice knew these things were coming, and she rested her head on her brother's chest. She wished the man outside really were Thomas, so she and Billups could again have the same enemy and the same fear.
Oprah's note: This is the strangest chapter in the book, or at least it was one of the strangest to me. If we can't be friends at least we can have the same enemy.
One time a guy bet his sister. What the fuck kind of world is this, I thought, but I won that game and took my prize.
Oprah's note: Another statement of character. It's such a quiet sentence, but again, it packs such a punch.
It was cold, but she was sitting out on the stoop in her coat. She saw me before I saw her. She cursed me and all my ways.
Oprah's note: So visual. So descriptive.
I got down on my knees. It wasn't an act to win her back; I would have laid on the ground in front of her if there had been room on the stoop. I told her I loved her and that I'd do better and all of the other things men say when they don't deserve forgiveness. I meant every word, but she wouldn't have taken me back. You can't let somebody like me off so easy. I don't know what's wrong with me. It's not like I don't know what I'm doing wrong or like I'm powerless to stop myself. I just do what I'm going to do, despite what it'll cost me. After, I'm truly sorry. I regret almost everything I've ever done, but I don't suppose that makes any difference.
Oprah's note: You wake up thinking about these people. You think you know them. The author's character descriptions cut to the marrow. He knew he would fail her. A prophecy self-fulfilled.
We ate in near silence, like a rich couple in a movie...A crease in her brow looked as though it had deepened, and I noticed that she had put on rouge and lipstick. I didn't like that. I wanted us to be husband and wife again with no pretenses between us, nothing for show. She hadn't worn makeup since we were dating, and it made me feel like a man she didn't know and who didn't know her. I wanted her to walk around in her slip like she used to, with her hair in pin curls tied up with a silk scarf.
Oprah's note: That's such insight into the way a man thinks. It just made me think about why Stedman prefers me with no makeup. And most men I would say prefer their women with no makeup, without all the fancy stuff. How Ayana got into the mind of a man is almost supernatural. I thought, "Wow, that's why they don't like it." It was my "aha!" All that stuff makes us look like we're not real, like you're putting on a show. Stedman will tell me when I'm all made up: "You look nice," but when I'm not made up he'll say, "You look beautiful. What a beautiful girl you are." And I'm like, what are you, crazy? You nuts? I don't have on any makeup! That's been going on for over twenty years. For the first time I understood that.
Bell's moths beat their knife wings in her chest. The pain was astonishing. Her limbs went slack and her eyes close, and she was suddenly thrust into a sludgy half-conscious darkness from which she was sure she would not return.
Oprah's note: This whole chapter on Bell took my breath away. I was so enraptured by her words it made it almost impossible to highlight just one or two passages.
Hattie came every day.
Oprah's note: What a simple powerful sentence, speaking to the fierce love and forgiveness that Hattie had that we hadn't seen since Philadelphia and Jubilee.
I hear everything now: the kitten's shallow breathing, the men bending over the ditch, the cars whooshing by, the tree branches crackling in the woods, the tires against the road, the birds tweeting, the sandpaper sound of the air against my skin, the grass blowing, my labored breathing. All of it rushes at me, horribly articulated. I put out my hand to steady myself against the onslaught.
Oprah's note: I love that crazy Cassie, and you can sense that the author has had firsthand experience of mental illness with someone. She's been in there, dealt with it somehow.
Hattie put her arm around Sala and pulled her close; she patted her granddaughter's back roughly, unaccustomed as she was, to tenderness.
Oprah's note: I have to tell you, that last sentence—It silenced me. Right now, rereading it, I want to cry again. You know why? Because it says it's never too late to change.
After all that hardness, all of that repression, depression, oppression—there was still room for a little piece of light in the form of a granddaughter.