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.”