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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Vintage; 320 pages; $15.95).

One of my favorite novels from 2012 is now available in paperback.  Trust me–you’ll love it.

Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

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What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

hattie paperbackHattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

ayana-mathis-AUTHORMathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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Interview with Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

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Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

Jaime Boler: Thank you so much, Amy, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Movement of Stars is such a gorgeous novel, and I know readers of all ages will embrace your protagonist, Hannah Gardner Price.  You are a writer and producer and you previously worked for PBS and MTV.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Amy Brill: I did. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was a voracious reader from a very early age. For my 5th grade book-and-author luncheon I was Louisa May Alcott, so I guess I had a latent thing for the 19th century even then.

JB: Your Twitter profile says: “Turned 40, sold book, had baby in car!”  Please tell me more!

AB: Oh, well. You know. Second baby. Things just went faster than expected! If you’re really curious, I wrote about the birth-in-the-car for Redbook recently. You can read it here.  Or did you want to hear more about 40? It’s the new 30. I just cling to that.

JB: For those who do not know, The Movement of Stars is loosely based on the life of Maria Mitchell.  Who was Maria Mitchell?

AB: She was the first professional female astronomer in America. She was born on Nantucket in 1818 into a large Quaker family, and was taught astronomy by her father, who calibrated the chronometers for the Nantucket whaling fleet. She had only a high school education, but she went on to discover a comet and become the founding professor of astronomy at Vassar College.

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JB: You first learned about Ms. Mitchell on a trip to Nantucket in 1996.  What about her captivated you so much that you wanted to write about her?

AB: I was taken by the idea of this young girl who was so dedicated to her passion that she spent night after night up on her roof, in every kind of weather, searching for something as elusive as a comet. I felt compelled to learn more, and more, and more, until I was so immersed in her life and times that I had to keep going.

JB: What prompted you to write about her?

AB: I didn’t want to write a straight biography, I wanted to write a novelized version of her life. It took many years of research and many dry, epistolary drafts before I understood that the story I really wanted to tell existed only in my head, and that Miss Mitchell and the “facts” of her life were only a leaping-off place, not a destination.

JB: How is Hannah Gardner Price different from Maria Mitchell?

AB: There’s certainly no indication that Maria Mitchell had any kind of relationship with a black whaler from the Azores, to begin with. Also, their family situations were entirely different. Hannah lives alone with her father, her twin brother being away on a whaleship. Maria Mitchell had a large family around her. And all of the secondary characters are invented, except the Bonds, the father-and-son team who ran the Harvard Observatory. They were real people and were friends with Maria and her father, though my version of those relationships is invented.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Movement of Stars?

AB: I don’t think there’s any kind I didn’t do, short of navigating an actual whaleship across the Atlantic.

I think I read everything there is to read about 19th century astronomy, New England women and self-fashioning, Nantucket culture, Quakers, and whaling. I was assisted by the many archives and libraries I visited, from the Kendall Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum to the Maria Mitchell Association archives to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, where I was a visiting artist fellow in 2005.

JB: Hannah’s world is so small and fixed in place when the story begins.  She’s bound by her gender and her religion.  Everything changes for Hannah by the end of the book, and her world enlarges in so many different ways.  If Hannah were to spend one day in 2013, what would she say about women’s roles?  How far would she say we still have to go in the Twenty-First Century?

AB: She was hardcore in her beliefs and outspoken about equality for women. So I think she would be be thrilled that women now go to college, work in any field they like, and vote. But I think she’d be aghast that more women aren’t running for office to redress the issues that force families to shoulder the tremendous burden of incompatible work-life policy in the workplace, and to fight for adequate, subsidized childcare and family leave to enable women to actually achieve parity without sacrificing quality of family life. Wow, that was a mouthful.

JB: You set your story in Nantucket in the 1840s, an era and a locale that come to vivid life in The Movement of Stars.  How did you capture the sense of place so well?

AB: I spent a little time there, but mostly through careful research and deep enchantment with the place itself. In so many ways Nantucket today and Nantucket 200 years ago aren’t all that different.

JB: How difficult was it to get inside the Quaker mentality?  Was it hard to write using all those “thees” and “thous”?

AB: I can’t say I was inside the Quaker mentality; that particular, rigid moment in that Meeting was just an isolated sliver of what Quakerism was and is. As for thee and thou and thy and thus… well let’s just say there was a lot more of that in earlier drafts, and we can all be happy that most of them landed in the circular file, i.e. the wastebasket.

JB: What does the character of Isaac Martin do for Hannah?  And what does he add to the story?  How different would Hannah have been if he had not shown up at her door?  Would Hannah have accomplished all the things she did without Isaac?

AB: Isaac is fundamental to Hannah’s growth as a holistic human being, one who understands her own heart as well as her mind. She might have found her comet—she might not have—but she certainly wouldn’t have come to know her own desires, or found her own convictions along the way.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this story?

AB: So many things. I mean, I grew up alongside Hannah. When I started, I was 25, single, clueless. When I finished, I was 40, married, with a child (now two!). So I found my way to the same twin engines that fuel Hannah’s journey—love and discipline—right alongside her.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in The Movement of Stars?

AB: That’s like asking me to name my favorite child. Can’t do it.

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

AB: I like to be outside, in the sun, preferably at the shore, making sand castles with my kids and throwing a Frisbee with my husband. Not at the same time, obviously.

JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are some of your favorite authors?

AB: I love Andrea Barrett, Ann Patchett, Shirley Hazzard. Of my contemporaries, Megan Mayhew Bergman and Elissa Schappell and Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent story collections all blew me away. I see a very female theme emerging here! Sorry, boys. I’ll shout you all out next time.

JB: What is your favorite book?

AB: I love [Ann Patchett’s] Bel Canto. Me and everyone else on earth. It wove a powerful spell.

JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

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AB: My World Domination New England Tour will kick off right after Mother’s Day! I’ll be in Mystic, CT, Worcester, MA, Wellesley, MA, Portsmouth NH, Falmouth, MA, and Sandwich, MA, in May, and then Cohasset, MA, and Providence RI, in early June. Then in Concord, MA, and at the Nantucket Book Festival later in June! I’m probably forgetting some places, but it’s all on my website at http://www.amybrill.com/news-and-events/.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Movement of Stars?

AB: Lots of Kleenex. And a deeper understanding of the nature of human desire, in all its manifestations.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

AB: Always working. Articles, essays, a few short stories, and gnawing on ideas for another novel.

JB: Thanks, Amy, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with The Movement of Stars!

AB: Thanks so much for having me here. My pleasure.

Oprah.com has selected The Movement of Stars as part of its “5 Dreamy Historical Novels” for spring reading!

“These stories take you back to the age of calling cards, carriages and the occasional complex, believable “attachment” also known as love.”

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Movement-of-Stars-by-Amy-Brill#ixzz2RPSGROku

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