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Ayana Mathis: 'Twelve Tribes of Hattie' Author on the Life Choices We Make

01/01/2013 11:13 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015

As told to Leigh Newman

Ayana Mathis, author of the brilliant The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, explores a few of the decisions so many of us confront.

1. The Choice To Be Strong And Weak
We tend to think that strength is [a] static, constant quality. We think that if somebody is strong, they are always strong. This comes up a lot with black women, especially. In books or on TV, we often see the portrait of the Strong Black Mother, an iron-willed figure who never suffers. This is a kind of stereotype, I think, and a limiting one.

Real strength is not the absence of weaknesses or fear. It’s not the absence of doubt or anger. Real strength includes all of these emotions. It’s when you’re afraid and risking something, not when you’re afraid of risking something. For example, the main character of my novel, Hattie, is deeply flawed. She’s afraid; she is wounded; she’s prone to fits of rage; she doesn’t necessarily understand how to raise her children, but no one would deny that she’s strong.

When you see someone as a person with no weakness, you deny her her full humanity. Nobody goes through life never being afraid, and never doubting, and never being angry.

2. The Choice About Algebra
When I was in high school, English came pretty naturally to me. Math, on the other hand, didn’t. My senior year, I was having trouble with elementary functions -- which is some kind of advanced algebra -- and basically I said, “I hate this; this is useless for my life; I really don’t need to be bothered.” I was in [a] very angry phase and instead of dealing with my difficulties, I told myself I was not interested.

So... I was failing the class. Luckily, I had an incredible AP English teacher, Ms. Johnson. One day she called me into her classroom and told me to close the door. “Look,” she said, “you need to get yourself together with your elementary functions or I will fail you in my class too.”

“But you’re my English teacher,” I said. “You can’t fail me in math!”

“I can and I will,” she said.

Ms. Johnson was an amazing woman but not somebody you wanted to mess around with. She scared the bejeebers out of me -- so I started working on my math grade. It was a great lesson. Life isn’t only made up of the stuff we’re good at. At some point we have to decide to tackle the difficult and the trying or we’ll remain stuck. (By the end of the semester, I had pulled my grade up to a B.)

3. The Choice To Keep Going
In Catholicism, despair is considered a mortal sin (I’m not Catholic or necessarily Christian, but I read a lot of theology) because it implies that God is powerless to effect change. Religion aside, the concept is still a good metaphor. If you’re in a state where you think even the gods can’t help you, it’s very, very difficult to recover. True despair is an absolute and utter bleakness. This state is different than the various darknesses that most of us experience over time. It’s not just sadness or discouragement or even mild depression. Despair implies a kind of ultimate emptiness, something like a grave -- its opposite is life. Triumph over despair is survival.

In my novel, Hattie enters into some very trying places. Her children die. There’s really not a darker place than that, but she chooses to keep going, to keep living, to be among that first generation of people who migrated North and raised their families.

4. The Choice About Eggs
I grew up poor. My mother was incredible and well educated, but it was just the two of us, and circumstances were such that we were barely scraping by. Mom, however, believed that when there was some money, no matter how little, you should do something nice for yourself. Sometimes all my mother could afford was a Happy Meal. Sometimes our “something nice” was free; for example, she’d figure out the day at an art museum when we didn’t have to pay.

Of course, I am not a little girl anymore and I’m in a better financial place. I’m still frugal, though. But one day, I was at a friend’s house. She made me some scrambled eggs. They were just simple, plain eggs, but they were so fresh and buttery, the way eggs tasted when I was a kid and spent time with my grandparents in rural New Jersey. My friend had found them at a farmers’ market nearby, from a woman I started calling the Egg Lady. A dozen large eggs cost $5, which is really just ridiculous. But I paid it, and I keep paying it. Every once in while it’s okay to forgo the practical in favor of the joyful and delicious. It’s okay to allow yourself that moment of pleasure.

5. The Choice To Hear That Brutal Truth
At the age of 36, I applied to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and, to my complete surprise, I was accepted. At the time, I was working on a novel that was really a thinly disguised memoir. My first instructor was Marilynne Robinson, a writer whom I hold in the greatest esteem.

In the workshop, you bring in a portion of your manuscript and everyone discusses it. You’re not allowed to speak. You simply take notes. As my classmates reviewed my pages, they were relatively gentle with me. At the end of the class, there was a long silence, and finally Marilynne spoke. “Well,” she said. “It is true that the characters are not sufficiently complex to the situation in which you have placed them.”

To someone who’s not a writer, her comment probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it basically means that your characters are a mess -- and if your characters are a mess, then you have nothing. It was devastating. I don’t know how I got through the rest of the class. I went home and cried for days and days, thinking “What am I doing here? I can’t write. I am a sham and a fraud.” After a few weeks, I got myself together. Marilynne was absolutely and utterly right. My characters lacked depth. I had to buckle down and face the two options: weep and move back home, or accept an upsetting dose of reality and continue with the business of trying to be a writer. Just about everyone encounters this kind of decision sooner or later: to put themselves in a position where they may have to confront the news they least want to hear. But once I’d done it -- and mourned the loss of my first flawed efforts -- I began The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

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