The novel tells the story of Hattie Shepherd, who leaves Georgia for Philadelphia in 1923. Her 11 children and one grandchild are Hattie's "12 tribes"—whom we meet sequentially in 12 distinct narrative threads. While the paths their lives take are all very different, they share the scars inflicted by a mother who long ago lost the ability to be tender. I went to bed after reading the chapter about Hattie's eldest surviving son, "Lady Boy Floyd," and woke up the next morning thinking Floyd was a real person. The book's ending is the most perfect ever. I was silenced by it. When I finished it, I had to be still for a moment.
Beginning with Ayana's description of Hattie's desperate efforts to save her twin babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee, I was completely with Hattie, in her house in Germantown, Philadelphia. I wanted to know Hattie, to understand her, and to be introduced to everyone in her life.
The book is set against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the nearly six decades starting around 1915, with six million black folk migrating north to escape the terrible hardships of the Jim Crow American South. But there are echoes of Ayana Mathis's own life, too. Her grandparents, with whom she lived from time to time as a young girl while her mother struggled with mental illness, were among those who took part in this exodus to what they hoped would be a kind of promised land. When Ayana was 10, a rift developed between her mother and the rest of the extended family. From that time on, the two were on their own. As her mother's depression deepened, she spiraled downward; mother and daughter moved from place to place, rarely staying anywhere for long. When Ayana finally left to attend college in New York City, she began to suffer from depression herself. Though all of that is behind her now, and her mother is in good health, you can feel a young girl's sense of isolation inhabiting all of the book's characters.
When I first spoke to Ayana, she was vacationing in Paris. I called her there one morning from California to tell her how much I loved her book, and I got to hear a little about her writing process, too. Listen in and meet an extraordinary writer....
Next: Read Oprah's full interview with Ayana Mathis
Oprah: Hi. Ayana?
Ayana: Yes, hi.
Oprah: Hi, it's Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah: It's Oprah Winfrey. I'm calling you because I have some news and I wanted to be the one to share it with you. I love your book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, so much that I'm choosing it as my new book club selection.
Ayana: Really? This is really Oprah Winfrey? No, it's not. Is this a joke?
Oprah: No, it's not a joke. [Laughing.] It really is not.
Ayana: I can't believe my book actually got into your hands. And that you like it.
Oprah: I more than like it. I think you were born to write. And now that I have you on the phone, you have to tell me how this remarkable book came to be.
Ayana: Well, I've been writing since I was a little girl, but in my wildest dreams I never imagined I could earn a living that way. In fact, I spent more than a decade doing everything from waitressing to working with the homeless to working as a fact checker at a magazine before getting accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Oprah: That's a very prestigious program. Did it all just click when you got there?
Ayana: Not at all. I was working on another book—a fictionalized memoir—which was stilted, and wrong, and ridiculous. I brought it into the workshop, and everyone discussed it, but at the end, Marilynne Robinson, who was my first workshop instructor, said, "It is true that the characters are not sufficiently in the situations in which you've placed them."
Oprah: Uh-oh. That doesn't sound good.
Ayana: It wasn't. Of course, I was completely devastated, but I thought, "Okay, I'll just write some short stories in a different way," never realizing that those stories would become the beginnings of this novel.
Next: What it was like for Ayana to publish her book
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.
More on Oprah's Newest Book Club 2.0 Pick, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie