On this episode of the Lit Show, Deborah Kennedy talks with University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and visiting fiction professor Ayana Mathis about her debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which has not only received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, but was also singled out by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club 2.0 series.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie tells the story of Hattie Shepherd, who, in 1923, flees the violence and oppression of Jim Crow Georgia for Philadelphia, hoping for a brighter future and a share of the American dream. Winfrey has said she picked The Twelve Tribes of Hattie for her much-coveted book club partially because of Mathis’s compassionate characterization of Hattie, an indomitable heroine who does battle with the cruel forces of poverty, prejudice, and heartbreak in order that others might have a chance at something better.
“There were so many other black women like Hattie, who struggled and survived and did the best they could, and made a better life for the people who followed — people like me,” Winfrey said. “And that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times had this to say about Mathis’s skill as a storyteller: “Ms. Mathis has a gift for imbuing her characters’ stories with an epic dimension that recalls Toni Morrison’s writing, and her sense of time and place and family will remind some of Louise Erdrich, but her elastic voice is thoroughly her own.”
Mathis is a native of Philadelphia and the recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner, the painter Nikki Terry, and will read from her work on February 25 at the Englert Theater in Iowa City.