“Mathis writes with blazing insight into the complexities of sexuality, marriage, family relationships, backbone, fraudulence, and racism in a molten novel of lives racked with suffering yet suffused with beauty.”
Ayana Mathis’s stunning debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was hailed by critics as marking the arrival of an incandescent literary talent. The book was a New York Times bestseller, a 2013 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Boston Globe Best Book of the Year, and an NPR Best Book of 2013. It was longlisted for the Impac Dublin International Literary Award, nominated for a 2013 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and selected by Oprah Winfrey as the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the multi-generational story of one family, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans who left the South to escape hatred and oppression and seek opportunity in the North. An intimate portrait captured in twelve luminous narrative threads, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie opens in 1923, when fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. That lack of love, as well as other travails, causes suffering to ripple through the generations.
Isabel Wilkerson, writing in The New York Times, writes that though the Great Migration forms the backdrop for the plot, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is really the story of “a mother’s loss and the toll it takes on her and her children, their feeble attempts to escape their lives and the costs borne by every one of them.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Mathis worked as a waitress and magazine fact-checker in New York. She lived in Florence, Italy for five years before a writing class in 2006 spurred her to apply to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was there she abandoned a memoir—in her words, “snippets of my life that never jelled”—and began writing what became her novel. “I had this idea that to be a good writer you wrote these pretty sentences,” Mathis told The New York Times. “The biggest thing I learned at Iowa was that being a good writer has everything to do with telling a truth about what it means to be a human being.”
Mathis’s nonfiction has been published in the The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Financial Times, Brick, Glamour, and Guernica. From 2014-2017, she was a New York Times Bookends columnist and her reviews frequently appear in The New York Times. Her essay “On Impractical Urges,” about the intersections of race, class, sex, and ambition, was included in the anthology Double Bind: Women on Ambition. Mathis also contributed an essay to Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process.
Mathis has been the recipient of a 2014-15 New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Fellowship, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy. She has taught creative writing at the Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn. She is the first Black woman to be a permanent member of the faculty at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she teaches English and creative writing. She is at work on her second novel.