Oprah’s Choice

Source: Iowa Alumni MagazineFebruary 2013
Author: Shelbi Thomas

Newsmaker: Ayana Mathis, 11MFA
Oprah’s Choice

Why was she in the news?

Ayana Mathis thought the day that her debut novel was accepted for publication would be the best of her life. Then she received the call from Oprah Winfrey.

At first, Mathis, 11MFA, thought it was a joke. But then she heard the voice of one of the most influential women in America endorsing her novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, as the next Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.

Mathis’s book follows two generations of a family whose matriarch was part of the 20th century Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to Northern cities. Hattie the protagonist leaves her native Georgia to make a new start in Philadelphia. She marries and has 11 children and one grandchild, whose troubled lives are chronicled in the book. “The opening pages of Ayana’s debut novel took my breath away,” Winfrey said this past winter on her book club website (www.oprah.com/packages/oprahs-book-club-2.html). “I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”

Winfrey’s endorsement has changed life drastically for Mathis, a Brooklyn native. Suddenly, the new author is in the literary spotlight and book clubs worldwide are discussing her novel. The so-called “Oprah Effect” prompted Mathis’s publisher to increase the first printing of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie from 50,000 to 125,000 copies.

What role did the Iowa Writers’ Workshop play in her success?

In 2009, Mathis left her hectic life as a freelance copy editor in New York City to join the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which she describes as “privilege to study with incredible teachers.” The workshop was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I came to Iowa and writing became the focal point of my life.”

During her two years in Iowa City, Mathis wrote The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson served as her instructor and mentor, connecting her with the agent who sold her novel to Knopf.

“I had this idea that to be a good writer, you wrote these pretty sentences,”Mathis told the New York Times. “The biggest thing I learned at Iowa was that being a good writer has everything to do with telling a truth about what it means to be a human being.”

What’s next for Mathis?

The limelight continues to shine bright on Mathis, whose interview with Winfrey aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) this month. Winfrey’s team recently visited Iowa City to film Mathis as part of the Super Soul Sunday series. Mathis has also begun work on her sophomore novel.

This semester, the author’s journey comes full-circle as she returns to Iowa City to teach aspiring fiction writers at the IWW. “If the workshop has a philosophy, it has everything to do with finding ways to help each student evolve into the best writer that she can be,” says Mathis. “That’s what I hope to do for my students.”

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