ayana mathis

Ayana Mathis didn’t know that her first novel would catapult her to immediate success. After receiving a call from Oprah Winfrey that her book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, had been tapped for the media moguls’ re-launched book club, Mathis’ success seemed to be one that came to life overnight. However, few would know that Mathis’s road to success was long and arduous one as she struggled with keeping faith in her writing abilities.

Mathis told CNN that she emerged from a low-income background, raised by as single mother in Philadelphia. Growing up with little around her, the thought of a stable career always seemed to beckon in the back of her mind of what she thought her mother would want her to do. Her mother, however, did the opposite – she pushed her to pursue her talent of writing.

“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,” the 39-year-old author said.

In her twenties, Mathis took up poetry, however, her motivation to keep toiling with words didn’t last for long. She had a day job as a waitress and worked as a fact-checker at a magazine, while she continued to write in her spare time. When she felt like she couldn’t write poetry anymore, Mathis gave up on writing and years passed before she would pick up the pen again.

“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.”

It wasn’t until she visited friend and novelist Justin Torres at the Iowa Writers Workshop that she felt the tug to submit to her true calling: writing. Mathis wouldn’t strike gold with her writing until her late thirties.

Her book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is emblematic of the great migration story for African-Americans. As a fictionalized memoir, it follows the life of Hattie Shepherd as she flees Georgia in 1923 for a better life in Philadelphia. In an interview with NPR, Winfrey described why she chose the book after reading just 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.”

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is available in bookstores and online.

  • http://gravatar.com/missinformation7 Ms. Information

    I love stories like this…congrats to her!

  • AM

    So happy for her. There is a great lesson to be learnt by all of us, never give up, keep striving and pushing. Success may not come now, but eventually it will, when it’s time.

    I’m not into 1800/1900 fiction at all, but I’ll support this sister.

  • Cocochanel31

    While I enjoyed the book , she is great at painting a story, there were so many unanswered pieces, that left you wanting more. I wanted her to delve deeper into Hattie moreso than her children. It was kind of disjointed. She can actually write spin off books about alll of Hattie’s children, I definetly see how she started off doing short stories, since each chapter is a seperate short story and doesn’t have anything to do with the next chapter.

    I still encourage all to buy the book and support her though. Good job for her first novel.

  • LadyP

    This is a great success story. Sounds like victory at last. My grandmother’s name was Hattie Mae. Quite naturally, when I saw the title – it was a “must-read” for me. So glad I decided to. I really enjoyed reading this book. It left me wanting more and more. As Cocochanel31 stated, so many spin-offs can derive from this ONE book. If she could continue with the story of Six, that would be great. To hear the stories behind the making of his babies, his spiritual journey, demons is a year’s worth of literary entertainment. Six is just one example. I’m sure whatever she decides to write next is going to be just as successful. I’m looking forward to. Great job, Ms. Ayana!

  • Cocochanel31

    Yes LadyP!!! I was shocked to learn about Six’s “ways” after he got older..I wanted more on Floyd too. The most touching chapter for me was Belle. I was also dismayed to not hear anymore about Ellen? ..baby girl sent down south. Hopefully there was a method to her madness and it will be revealed in another book..this almost could be a trilogy of some sort.

  • GlowBelle

    What an inspiring story and congrats to her! As an aspiring novelist, this is just the push I need to know not to give up on my dreams and to not listen to people when they say I’m wasting time and try to tell me to do something more “practical”.

    I have ‘Twelve Tribes of Hattie’ on my already jammed packed to-read list, but I think I’ll move it up on the list after hearing this!

  • LadyP

    Yes, a trilogy would be perfect! Starting with Floyd…

  • Misty

    I just finished it last night. Beautiful read, and very much reminiscent of greats like Toni Morrison. It’s one of those books that I didn’t want to end, was almost mad about being done with it. Love how she tackled some really complex subjects, and the ending just broke all kind of typical black/Af-Am/religious/cultural convention. Loved her for that! I’m inspired even more by Ms. Ayana’s personal story of keeping at it as a writer and a believer in her dream. Please read this one Clutchettes.

  • naysue

    I just started this book and I’m excited to see where it goes. I hope to finish it quickly since it’ll be book 2 of my Goodreads 50 Book Challenge.

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