Doilies, Vases and Greek Life Lessons

It all began with a doily, and a vase.

My yaya, a woman who has caustic wit and very thin eyebrows, had come over from Cyprus to stay with us. Two days into her visit, the world’s ugliest vase (origins unknown) and a crocheted doily suddenly appeared and made themselves comfortable upon a stylish Art Deco table more fitting to the house’s décor.

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Basically, this is all grandmothers.

My father returns from work, knows this instantly to be the work of his mother (whose taste remains in the 50s) and hides it away, for he is a good son and doesn’t wish to upset his mother by destroying the vase. The next day, the vase has returned avec hideous doily, and sits, bold as a stripper in church, in the hallway. It is again removed that afternoon to a new hiding spot. The next morning, it was back like a rash, and it popped in and out of hiding like a mole on amphetamines.

And so, the Great Vase Exchange of 2005 continued on, watched with some amusement by the rest of us. Eventually, after two weeks of this back and forth, Jo asked Yaya, “but when will this stop?”

To which my venerable elder turned around, sniffed and said “we’ll see who gets tired first.”

If there’s any advice I’ve ever taken from my family (which is not much, I grant you, because then otherwise I would have studied French and Law and maybe been a more respectable adult), it’s this: if you ever want anything, you keep going until they get tired first. Whether it’s a black belt, a promotion, selling your book to a publisher, you keep going. Because as long as you’re not tired, you’re not done. Be stubborn, be tireless, and one day, it will be yours.

Also, fight with doilies.

Review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

the-twelve-tribes_custom-6a80054024c857973e6515991a8ed02933f28957-s6-c10The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.

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Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.

Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.

Read more:

Oprah Interviews Ayana Mathis

Sarah Churchill reviews Twelve Tribes for The Guardian

 The Sunday Times: Three Writers to Watch

 The Atlantic: The Russian Poetry that Inspires Ayana Mathis

A Stirring Portrait of Family, Loss, and Endurance: The Everyday E-Book

The New York Times Sunday Review

VIDEO: Ayana Mathis’ 3 Greatest Writing Lessons