Enduring migrations: A conversation with Writers’ Workshop grad Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis & Marilynne Robinson

Englert Theatre — Friday, Oct. 3 at 3:30 p.m. (Free)

Ayana Mathis
Ayana Mathis will be in town this Friday for the Iowa City Book Festival.– Illustration by Marcus Parker

Literary celebrities come to town for the sixth annual Iowa City Book Festival, Oct. 2-5. Among the greats gracing our fair flyover state is Ayana Mathis, author of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0’s pick, Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

“The spirit of sacred truths just leaped through the pages,” Oprah Winfrey said in while announcing her book club pick. The New York Times reported that this endorsement prompted the Twelve Tribes‘ publisher, Knopf, to increase the print run two-and-a-half fold.

Since it was published in December 2012, the book has been translated into nine languages, and Mathis recently discussed her work on a European book tour.

John Kenyon, executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, says Mathis’s novel is a rare thing: a critical and commercial hit.

“What that means, of course, is that many, many people have read this great work of literature, and that it has broad appeal,” Kenyon wrote via email. “That makes her ideal for the festival, where we try to introduce attendees to the very best writers and expose them to important new work.”

Mathis will take the stage at the Iowa City Book Festival along with Marilyn Robinson, who began as a teacher and mentor and grew into a colleague by the end of Mathis’s time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the event, Robinson will also read from her latest novel, Lila.

Kenyon expects the conversation to “will elicit details that only can come from a conversation between two writers of this caliber.”

“I also am hoping to get a glimpse into the teacher-student relationship, and to learn how that has evolved now that they are peers,” Kenyon said.

Twelve Tribes of Hattie is not a light read, referencing both the heaviness of the biblical tale of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Great Migration—where blacks moved north to escape the Jim Crow South, a period that continues to affect American demography. The book explores family members as they psychologically grapple with their turbulent pasts and persevere through daily challenges.

Another book festival author will be discussing migration in a contemporary context. Robert (Ted) Gutsche received his doctorate in journalism from the University of Iowa after submitting his dissertation research on the movement of blacks from Chicago to Iowa City, as well as the reaction documented through comments on the Iowa City Press Citizen website. He will be discussing his book Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place and the Press in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 4 at 2:30 p.m. at the downtown Java House.

“There isn’t any part of the [migration] story that is old, I don’t think,” Mathis said.

“History is a river … it’s forward moving but still itself, rather than a straight line. Migration and what happens in the lives of migratory people changes in terms of the particulars, but the larger narrative stays the same: Questions of assimilation, the reception migrants receive from the inhabitants in the new place, the daunting task of creating a new life in a new place are always fresh and relevant.”

Some of Mathis’s characters plant roots and others remain their own kind of wanderers. Regardless of—and perhaps due to—their migratory status, Hattie and her children struggle with one tribulation after another, with each of the characters having his or her own battle with love and belonging, and each character having a chapter to explore beauty and suffering.

Criticisms of the book highlight the put-downable aspect of the collection of short stories and the relentless characterization of black males as lacking in moral integrity. Readers who require a cliffhanger to drive them on to the next chapter might be disappointed by the nonlinear storytelling structure in this book.

“The gaps between chapters function, in some ways, like the silences in a piece of music—they are as necessary as the notes that are played,” Mathis said. “I suppose that with that structural choice I risk losing the reader, but at the end of the day, readers are smart and want to be engaged—I know I do when I read—they want to have something more than a passive experience.”

The stories in this book make most modern American lives seem dull. They describe situations where pneumonia and tuberculosis are more common than arguments about the hashtag #firstworldproblems.

Those who know financial, emotional or familial struggle—who feign resilience and strive to persevere—will identify with bits and pieces and hang on for the big payoff in the book’s final chapters. And yes, it does get into that tear-jerking territory; however, the book strives for renewal and rebirth. For each broken relationship, there’s the beautiful autumn leaf that becomes the memory’s emblem of love.

Twelve Tribes of Hattie may seem like a lesson in fatalism, where the pain each child bears with them into adulthood is because of the circumstances at birth, or the coldness felt from their mother, hardened after the unnecessary loss of her firstborn.

Mathis was a visiting instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for the summer of 2013, and she is faculty at the Writer’s Foundry, the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts program and at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York. As far as her writing ambitions go for 2015, she said she is working on a new novel.

“May the force be with me!” she said.

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