Review By Nitra Wisdom
“You ain’t strong like she is. You got a soul that cain’t be still. Your mama did too at one time, but she wrestled it down. Yours look like it’s running you.”
Ayana Mathis’ debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a collection of short stories that speak to the complexities of Black motherhood, healing, and the loss of and search for peace. Threaded by the intersecting lives of the children of Hattie Shepherd, The Twelve Tribes tenderly yet honestly examines issues of Black social mobility, sexual identity, disillusionment with religion, and mental health.
Hattie is a prideful, sacrificing mother disappointed by the way her life has turned out after migrating from Georgia to Philadelphia. Loss surrounds Hattie from a young age. After the murder of her father forces her family to move to the North in the middle of the night, she meets her husband August and gives birth to twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, named for the hope of a new life for them all. After her babies die of pneumonia just seven months later, 17-year-old Hattie mothers nine more children, yet a part of her dies with the twins. She closes herself off to the people she loves, lest life snatch them from her grasp as well. The stories that follow portray the effects of Hattie’s mothering on her surviving children and one grandchild.
(This article originally appeared in ELIXHER Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2014 Issue. Support independent Black queer media and purchase here.)
Called The General by her children, and described as a “lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known,” Hattie approaches motherhood in a way that is familiar to many Black parents and children—from a place of protection and preparation for the cold world that awaits them. Love manifests through food, clothing, shelter, and discipline, and there is no time for affection, vulnerability, or the dangers that love brings. Hattie admits that she doesn’t know how to care for her children’s spirits, and her “tenderness […] was always hard,” but she keeps them alive, safe, healthy, and ready to meet a world that will bring them new disappointments and challenges.
The novel is heavily character-driven and Mathis does an excellent job of digging deep into their psyches and breathing life into them. The members of the Shepherd family are authentic, everyday people to whom readers will connect easily. The layers of their lives, circumstances, and personalities are familiar; it is easy to see yourself in one or more of them as they attempt to cope with, heal from, or even escape their past. The stories told are the stories of our family members. The Shepherds are our uncles, brothers, mothers, and grandmothers.
Mathis’ writing is graceful and descriptive, the dialogue intimate and natural as it changes not only with the characters, but also with time. The stories take place primarily in Philadelphia and the Deep South (mostly Georgia and Alabama) over a period of 55 years. In that time Mathis weaves in glimpses of the sociopolitical world that surrounds her characters, including run-ins with a would-be lynch mob, the Vietnam War, and the sit-ins. Mathis doesn’t focus on those issues—to do so would overwhelm the narrative—but she makes them a part of the characters’ everyday lives.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is captivating—it reads like a (fictionalized) historical narrative from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, an incredible, extensive historical study of the Great Migration. Mathis has justifiably been likened to Toni Morrison due not only to her rich and moving writing voice, but also to the ways she portrays the realities of Black motherhood. The book brings to mind Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood in its depiction of the hardships and sacrifices of mothers and the culture and community expectations of them. The portrayal of love, both distorted and clear, recalls bell hooks’ Salvation: Black People and Love, in which she discusses how racism, sexism, and economic inequality color our expressions of love as children, parents, and partners.
The lives of the Shepherds are hard and full of struggle. There are definitely more downs than ups, but the story doesn’t dwell in darkness. It’s not morbidly sad or emotionally overwhelming; it is authentic. The uplifting twist at the end mirrors life’s unexpected minor yet significant changes.
All this, combined with the book’s raw honesty, makes for a genuinely healing read. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will reach tired, honest, and understanding mothers—and their children everywhere.
Nitra Wisdom is a freelance copy editor and proofreader who is working on her first collection of short stories and personal essays. The self-described queer introverted bibliophile received her B.A. in Pan African Studies from the University of Louisville and currently lives in Atlanta, GA, where she blogs about love, literature, being a wounded healer, and the Divinity of Femininity at wiseedits.wordpress.com.