Oprah Talks to Ayana Mathis About Her Breathtaking Book, The 12 Tribes of Hattie
Ayana: I had the 12 tribes idea in my mind, but I had trouble coming up with 12 distinct stories that seemed meaningful enough and able to inhabit the novel.
Oprah: Speaking of the 12 tribes, is the title a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel?
Ayana: It is. The metaphor is about getting out of bondage and into freedom, which goes hand in hand with the whole notion of the Great Migration.
Oprah: The Great Migration is almost another character in the novel. Did you read Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns?
Ayana: Yes—it's incredible. I knew I was writing about the Great Migration, but I didn't completely understand until someone gave me a copy of her book.
Oprah: I've got to tell you, I can't remember when I've read anything that moved me this way, besides the work of Ms. Morrison.
Ayana: I worship at her altar.
Oprah: We all do. I was haunted by the book. Haunted, haunted, haunted. When you sent the manuscript off, was it like saying goodbye to all your characters, like pushing them out into the world, north, on a migration of their own?
Ayana: It's weird. When I sent it off, I was in a period of creative and physical exhaustion, so it didn't fully register with me. I think when I did begin to feel a sense of loss was during the editing process, because edits happened about five months after I submitted the final draft. I had such a different relationship with the characters by that point, there was a sort of mourning. Now they feel close to me again—not like I made them, but like people who are close to me.
Oprah: Wow. Well, you have a very long career ahead of you. I believe any one of these characters could become a novel unto themselves. Really, there's much more for us to ponder about each of them. I am still thinking about the characters as if they are real people. I'm wondering: Did Floyd ever come out? Is he ever going to admit he's gay? No, the times won't let him. What's going to happen to him? I felt that way about every one of the characters. As if they are real people. It's my honor to talk with you, Ayana.
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