A gritty tale of race and exodus catapults first-time author to fame
Ayana Mathis's debut book, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie," gained instant fame after Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club.
December 30th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

A gritty tale of race and exodus catapults first-time author to fame

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Ayana Mathis' story seems one of overnight sensation.

It begins like this: She was on vacation in Paris and was expecting a 15-minute call for a couple of quotes about her first novel.

She picked up the telephone to hear the voice of none other than Oprah Winfrey, who'd tapped Mathis' debut work for her book club.

And whoosh! She was off.

Publisher Knopf sped up her publication date by six weeks and increased the initial print run to 125,000.

Mathis' face appeared in magazines and newspapers along with profiles and a glowing review in The New York Times.

It was, she said, stunning.

She felt like a pendulum, swinging from elation one moment to overwhelmed the next.

She always thought of her writer hat as being quiet and solitary. Now she was wearing the author hat - author with a capital A. This was a public enterprise.

"When it happens this quickly and with this much force, it certainly takes a minute to grasp," she said.

There is no doubt that "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie" is destined to become a bestseller.

No doubt that readers will come to know Hattie Shepherd and how she fled Georgia in 1923, hoping for a better life in relatively free Philadelphia, gave birth to 11 children and suffered through a world that was not kind.

But Mathis' success in her telling of this fictional Great Migration story did not come without her own trials and tribulations, of years of experimenting with writing and wrangling with faith in her own abilities.

She was only 9 when she began writing short stories. She showed them to her mother, who raised her by herself in a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia.

"We didn’t grow up with very much money at all. In fact, very, very, very little," said Mathis, 39.

One would think her mother, in the Hattie Shepherd style of things, would have pushed her only child in a direction of stability and wealth.

"The pragmatic thing to do was for her to go: 'OK, I have a relatively intelligent child. I am going to encourage her to be a lawyer or a doctor.' Instead she was the first person to enormously cheer me on for my little book of short stories."

But Mathis' mother was well-read in the classics, and when she was pregnant she read aloud to her unborn daughter. She was her daughter's biggest supporter.

Later, when Mathis was in her 20s, she took up writing poetry until one day when all she could muster was, in her own words, a watery, clunky mess.

"I never thought of writing as a career goal," Mathis said. "I thought of it as a thing I would always do because I loved to do it."

So she had a day job - as a waitress, as a fact-checker for a magazine. After her poetry stopped flowing, Mathis gave up writing altogether. Years passed before she felt the tug again. This time, she took up a different form of writing: a fictionalized memoir.

She had culled snippets of lives from speaking with people in Philadelphia whose families were part of the Great Migration. She began to document who some of these people were. Who they might have been.

Between 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million African-Americans moved from Southern states into Northern cities like Philadelphia as well as those in the Midwest and West, a migration documented in Isabel Wilkerson's groundbreaking "The Warmth of Other Suns."

"That's a lot of folks who left the South," Mathis said. "It absolutely and utterly changed the United States - demographically, culturally, politically, artistically," she said. "But it's surprisingly undiscussed."

Few in America, she felt, knew about this exodus.

Then friend and novelist Justin Torres, whom she had met in a New York writing class, was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She went to visit him there and felt a calling.

She submitted her fictionalized memoir chapters as part of her application to Iowa. She came out of the program with "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie."

The book is loosely inspired by Mathis' family. Hattie was part of the Great Migration just as Mathis' own grandmother had been. But mostly, the characters evolved from Mathis' imagination.

Hattie's firstborn twins die of pneumonia; she has nine more children. Each chapter of the book advances the family story through their eyes. Each is like a mini-book within the book that accrue as a novel to reveal Hattie's personal journey as well as that of an entire people.

"Hattie's life is unrelentingly difficult," Mathis said. "I think that sort of approaching her in a more conventional way would have made her one-dimensionally full of suffering. This way, Hattie is constantly being refracted through the prism of her children."

Mathis said she discovered the complexities of Hattie along the way, as she wrote each chapter. She understood her through the children she created.

"Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman - perhaps she wasn't but there hadn't been time for sentiment when they were young," Mathis writes towards the end of the book. "She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn't been anything to put in their bellies?"

Mathis said she still doesn't know if she fully understands Hattie, the depths of her bleakness and the heights of her courage.

It's not hard to figure out why this book appealed to Winfrey, who has invoked author Toni Morrison's name in her description of Mathis.

Winfrey told NPR that she wanted to choose the book for her relaunched book club after reading the first chapter.

"They say you can't tell a book by a cover, but I just saw the title, 'Twelve Tribes of Hattie,'" Winfrey said. "My grandmother's name was Hattie Mae Lee and so I picked it up because of the title, and opened to the first page. I saw Philadelphia and Jubilee. You know that's some black people. So, I thought, let me get in here, see if I know these people, and in five pages, I did."

Mathis is now a beneficiary of the "Oprah bump."

She's taking it all in stride and has even started to think about her next novel, the idea for which is still "delicate."

"It's in a dark sub-basement. It's down there," she said.

She knows what it kind of looks like but it will have to come out, she said.

After Mathis' first success, the world will be waiting.

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Filed under: Black in America • Literature • Who we are • Women
soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. BO Lies

    Oprah who

    January 15, 2013 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  2. julia brown

    What about all those WHITE Authors that Oprah made into multi-millionairs? where those disgusting haters?for heaven sake, get a life and something good, if will make your life more meningful, get out of your dungen of hatered while you stuck there the Author and Lady O; will be smiling all the way to more riches, and you'll be still be hating,poor and doomed.think about it!

    January 9, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • lionel

      Thank you Julia. This is a good news story and I am happy that others see it that way. I will certainly read this book.

      January 14, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Nnamdi

    To Heimdall, Alumette, and Fundipmj, you sound like people that only show some intelligence when they shut up. I dont care about Oprah nor her opinions, but when someone ,regardless of skin color, does something praise worthy, praise them. This Aurthur has done what none of you can do.....make intelligent statements in her book. All you can do is hide behind your computers you probably got as Christmas gifts and complain about some one who dares to do what you can't.....SHUT UP AND LET IT GO.
    Now to the one that called himself SPENT.....your name says it all...You have nothing to give....You are spent,empty so SHUT UP and stop thinking until you get used to it !

    January 9, 2013 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  4. T.A. Kemp

    How wonderful to learn of Ayana's early self doubts and waitress careers. Makes her perseverance all the more satisfying to those of us who will likely read her book.

    January 7, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. QuietStormX

    Wow, nice story. It's great that a Sista got toughed by Oprah for her book club and fire for her story. Hope she dose well in her next book. People will be watching and reading.

    January 1, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Khalia Wilkinson

    Way to go Ayana! That's what happens when you follow your passion! :). I too am a writer and this encouraged me. Way to go!

    January 1, 2013 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  7. SingAPsalm

    @Heimdall, I'm sure the Native Americans are probably thinking the worst mistake ever made was letting the Europeans get off those ships and set foot on their land. If this hadn't been done, how different would their history be.....

    December 31, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • fundipmj

      Sure,go toa modern day indian reservation..you will. Move to africa andtakesome with u. Save our system from abuse. If u dont love it leave it alone. U wouldnt have had to write this if they didnt. And yes africa would have been a republic of china. And yes making ricepatties for free. Think about it.

      January 9, 2013 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  8. alumette

    sounds like a potential " purple color" saga. It was great but maybe we need to move forward instead of constantly digging in the past.

    December 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • yevettej

      If you do not remember the past you are doomed to repeat it. We have a lost generation of African American children who don't know who Martin Luther King Jr is because talking about him has be relegated to one month and the shortest month of the year. We are a strong people who grew out of the blood sweat and tears of our ancestors. We don't ask Jews not to tell their story. We don't stop talking about how George Washington chopped down a cherry tree...we have to tell our stories loud and proud so we can stand taller in the future.

      January 1, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
      • Louis

        Thanks for your comment so tired of these young African Americans with no repect for each other due to not knowing much about thier back ground. We need to teach and preach every day. Can't wait to get her book.

        January 5, 2013 at 8:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. mizh

    I'm looking forward to reading Ms. Mathis' book, it sounds amazing. Best wishes to her and her continued success!

    December 31, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. teachmiiz

    You Angry Birds are obviously interested in Oprah's book selection too. In order to see the article, I made a decision to select the link first, then I made another decision and decided to post this comment. Both were my decisions.

    Those of you not interested in Oprah and complaining about the book intentionally selected the same options I did. Why is that?

    December 31, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Donna Chasser

    Warning–The 12 Tribes of Hattie is one pessimistic downer of a book. Hattie is a miserable soul and not one of her surviving children turn out well. The ending is especially disheartening.

    December 31, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • yevettej

      But it is a story that is true, honest and eye opening. Every story doesn't have a happy ending. Sometimes we have to read to learn and not read to be entertained.

      January 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Heimdall

    The worst mistake that has ever been made in the history of the North American continent (other than George HW not using protection – twice) is the importing of Black Africans as slaves.

    If this had never been done, how different our history would have been...!

    December 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Daniel

    No thanks. If Oprah likes it I am certain I will not. I don't dislike the woman, and I'm not hating. Let's just say I'm over her pretentious self-indulgence.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cindy

      Well Daniel, as long as Oprah's floor is your ceiling, I suggest you get your hush on and take notes instead of sipping on the Haterade.

      December 31, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
      • Linda

        I don't understand a word of what you just said.

        January 3, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
      • Linda

        Perhaps you could clarify?

        January 3, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. spent

    Maybe obama can influence the Nobel Peace Prize committees to give her the prize, both not proving and one still has not been and never will be.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • ComeOnMan9

      Baby it is clear you are hatin' just to be hatin'. President Obama is still your President for 4 more years. The will of your people.

      January 1, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • lionel

        Amem. The KKK is alive and well in the USA and is hiding your the veil of the NRA and Repubicans.

        January 14, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. RTW

    I read the book and found it very moving and well-written. Hope to hear more from this talented writer.

    December 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Joyce A

    I think the article said it was "fiction:. The definition of fiction is.........

    December 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  17. empresstrudy

    One of my relatives wrote a best selling book about a black woman back in the 70's. Happens he used a pseudonym and was white.

    December 31, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  18. jerryswinger


    December 31, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Lola

    For those that doubt the power of Oprah, this is proof. The woman is still the Queen.

    December 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • GRS62

      So Lola say she's the queens and that's the proof? Lola who?

      December 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  20. GRS62

    Come on, how much credibility are we giving Oprah as a literary critic? How many diets/diet books did she push to number 1 throughout her career, only to pack on the pounds yet again before the next big diet revolution? I know this book does not fall in to that particular category but so much of Oprah's hype is centered around her alleged expertise in finding "must read" literature when in fact it is simply marketing.

    December 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Oprah's opinion about a book has nothing to do with literary criticism. It is simply what Oprah thinks her flock will enjoy reading. Nothing wrong with that.

      December 31, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  21. helensadornmentsblog

    Ca't wait to read this one. Always love a good book recommendation, thanks Oprah.

    December 31, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  22. vaugn obern

    Reverse-racism at work again. Famous for being black and whining about it Pathetic.

    December 31, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • ericgoestoholland

      Think about european jews coming to terms with the mass slaughter of their people during the holocaust. Now what's the real difference between the jews and the plight of blacks during slavery and the long journey out of it? Some histories can take generations for people to collectively come to terms with and authors such as this one are a part of that particular literary tradition. Almost all groups of people, cultures, races, whatever, have a branch of writing along this vain. There are thousands of black American authors out there; this author was chosen because her writing is especially good in the eyes of Oprah, who is a black woman and probably finds the subject matter personally relevant. So there. By the way, there's no such thing as "reverse racism," as if white people have a monopoly on judging others by their skin color. Racism is racism.

      December 31, 2012 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
      • Dave

        >>Now what's the real difference between the jews and the plight of blacks during slavery<< Well, for starters, 6 million backs were not systematically murdered during slavery.

        December 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
      • jerryswinger

        "Now what's the real difference between the jews and the plight of blacks during slavery and the long journey out of it?"

        1. The plight of Jews in Europe lasted a few decades.
        2. To this very day Germany is still making monetary reparations to Jews.

        Not trying to open a can of worms but atrocities meted by governments haven't always been reconciled effectively.

        December 31, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
      • Kelley

        Dave said: >>Now what's the real difference between the jews and the plight of blacks during slavery<< Well, for starters, 6 million backs were not systematically murdered during slavery.


        True. 6 million Jews died during the Holocaust AND more that 2 million Africans died/were killed during the middle passage, before even reaching America, not to mention those who died/were killed in slavery. The Holocaust and slavery are both atrocities in human history.

        Also, how is telling a story complaining? It's her story to tell, and your choice whether or not to read it. How far back is considered HISTORY? Is she not allowed to write a story about her ancestors six generations back, her parents, or her own childhood?

        December 31, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
      • PC

        The bigger question is why is that ugly black dude wearing lip stick.

        December 31, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
      • Will S

        If you read the article, you will see that she was chosen because she was smart enough to name the book after Oprah's grandmother. Flattery will get you everywhere, apparently. Maybe I should name my next book "Three Cheers for Oklahoma Polytech, O.P., O.P. Rah Rah Rah."

        December 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
      • vaugn obern

        You don't know what you are talking about. "Reverse racism" is an accepted term designed to point out that blacks, who are always screaming "racism," have themselves become racists of a kind. Winfrey would not have seleted this book had it been written by a white (and there have been such books: see other comments here).

        January 1, 2013 at 6:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Pthomas

      I am just curious have you ever once considered it racism for a white person to endorse a book written by a white author? So if an African American reads a book by an African American author it could not be the quality of the writing only the authors skin color that would lead to a positive reaction or review?

      December 31, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
      • vaugn obern

        The problem in your reasoning here is that you omit the fact that whites have often praised books by blacks about white people; contemporary blacks rarely, if ever, praise books by whites about blacks. Winfrey would not be talking about his book had it not been written by a black.

        January 1, 2013 at 6:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Ailey

      It's for the good of those who lack social empathy that historical novels should be written. Stop being a hater, Vaughn, and just give the book a chance. You're painting with a broad brush.

      December 31, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  23. RG

    Mathis is not a benefactor of the Oprah Bump- she's a beneficiary.

    December 31, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  24. heliocracy

    People still listen to Oprah?

    December 31, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • DasAtuobahn

      Do not underestimate the power of Der Fuhurer

      December 31, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
  25. reluctantpilgrim

    Thanks for highlighting Ayana Mathis' story. It's wonderful to learn about this new book!

    December 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |