“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.”
A decade after the release of her bestselling debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis makes her triumphant return with The Unsettled, named a Notable Book of 2023 by Washington Post and New York Times and an Oprah Daily Best Book of the Year, affirming her status as a skilled voice in the literary world. Her 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.”
Her latest novel is “a book that will live in resonance long after it’s finished” (Southern Review of Books): The Unsettled, a searing multi-generational novel set in racially and politically turbulent Philadelphia about a mother fighting for her sanity and survival. In 1985 Philadelphia, Ava becomes swept up in a charismatic movement galvanized by a radical vision to destroy systems of racial injustice and bring about a bold new way of communal living. Kirkus called it an “affecting and carefully drawn story of a family on the brink” in their starred review, saying that “Mathis powerfully evokes the heartbreak and ways best efforts are undermined by social and legal machinery.” Oprah Daily proclaimed it one of the “Best Novels of 2023”.
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 Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Financial Times, Rolling Stone, Glamour, and Guernica, and her book reviews frequently appear in The New York Times. Currently pursuing her Masters of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary, Mathis’s recent essays find the author exploring the intertwining of faith and American literature, as in her multi-part New York Times essay series “Imprinted By Belief”. She writes in the introduction: “The essays in this series hold that American literature is imprinted by belief: freighted by ideas about morality, justice and standards for living that are derived from the nation’s Christian underpinnings. Christianity’s imprint on our literature isn’t necessarily about piety or doctrine — though that is sometimes the case. It also trucks in paradox and, at its best, acts as a hedge against over-simplistic and reductive notions of society and of person.”
Mathis has been the recipient of fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, and the American Academy in Berlin. She was the first Black woman to be a permanent member of the faculty at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has taught in MFA Programs at Columbia University and Rutgers. She currently hosts and curates the Black Arts Dialogues series, a conversation series centered around art and Blackness hosted by the African American and African Diasporic Studies Department at Columbia University, and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Hunter College.here.