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

Movie Review: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

Django-Unchained-Poster-JacksonArguably, one cannot make a film about slavery without making a comment on it, and neither can one star a black man in a white-directed, white-produced movie without commenting on race. While many may not see Tarantino as a serious director (and for excellent reasons: I refer you to my esteemed blogger-comrade Rémy) I do feel that his movies make a comment on the subject matter, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

Django Unchained is, at heart, a vengeance tale set within the Western style of movie-making with a big, fat budget of $100 million. It riffs on blaxploitation movies, slavery, violence against women, black-on-black crime, ownership, love and revenge. It has time to segue into phrenology, that terrible pseudo-science, as well as German folklore. Don’t get me wrong: the plot of Django is very straightforward. Man loses his wife under terrible circumstances, and makes deals to get her back. Like Inglorious Basterds, like Kill Bill, it is revenge. Glorious, varied and endless revenge. And don’t get me wrong: the vengeance is as gratifying as it is visceral. We want to see Django’s enemies destroyed, for they are very, very bad men. At no point in this movie are white slavers ever given an ounce of sympathy. They are given only our scorn, and our glee at their punishment. Like Inglorious Basterds, we like to see the bad guys punished, as so few were at the time.

Is Django Unchained controversial? Yes. Should it be? No. In my opinion, Tarantino says some fascinating things about slavery, but none of them are pro-slavery. He shows the violence visited upon black bodies without hesitation. It was a terrible, horrific time to be black. That anyone should be shocked by violence in a slavery setting is ludicrous. Women were whipped on the smallest pretense.

Django-Unchained-character-postersRaped to pass the time, or produce more slaves. The hot box, the horsewhipping by the preacher – these are not fantastical scenes. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of American slave history will recognise the bit, the collar, the whips, the terrible items of imprisonment and torture. If Tarantino really wanted to make a movie about just vengeance, he could have done it without the background information that was seeded throughout. Bills of sale, forced marches, familial separations, the induction of black slaves into liking/loving their masters through incessant torture and grooming. Why go to all that effort to not make a movie about slavery, in some way?

Toni Morrison’s epigraph for Beloved reads:  ‘the sixty million and more’ who had no monument, no museum, not even a bench to mark their loss and pain in America when the book was published in 1987. While the number is still not certain, it still runs into the millions. America, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, has numerous museums dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust, but almost for the slaves who died on their land, building their country. It has been left up to authors and directors to make some kind of memorial for them. Which brings me back round to my point: Tarantino might be a bit insufferable at times, but at no point did Django Unchained pretend to be anything other than an unforgiving look at an unforgivable time. After all, there were enough scenes of horror that could only have been enabled by slavery: tearing a black man apart with dogs, whipping a woman for dropping eggs, threatening to shoot a black man for riding a horse, branding women with hot pokers. The scene with the proto-KKK (the Regulators) was hilarious, pointing out the cowardice and childishness of that movement, which continues to be ridiculous today. The evangelical overseer with his whip and corpulence was a point of ridicule rather than awe.

DjangoUnchainedOfficialPosterPTI want to look at Django himself. Hollywood still has ridiculous hang-ups about avengers and ass-kicking, and who should get to star in such movies. There’s Die Hard numbers 1-10, and Crank, any movie with Liam Neeson in it, the Bourne series and about 70 James Bond films (ugh). There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris (UGH), Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Renner, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jnr, Jude Law, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Chris Evans. All men as white as the driven snow in movies by Tippex-white directors. Hollywood doesn’t mind when black directors choose black actors, but it has been a very long time since we’ve seen a black man take his own vengeance in a big, serious movie that wasn’t being sold as something like Bad Boys. Look at the number of the movies with white heroes with black sidekicks. (I won’t even talk about horror movies.) The movies starring black men as action heroes nearly all star Will Smith. And more Will Smith. Even Morgan Freeman is always in a supporting role as a magical negro. Now with Django, we have a black hero who is unrepentant in his role, who can be as brilliant and heroic and sexy as the next action hero. At no point is he ever made fun of, and when people try they end up coming off worse (“The D is silent.”). If you think this is an exaggeration, try come up with a serious, big-budget movie with a famous white director starring a black action hero that isn’t Will Smith or Samuel L Jackson. (Oh, wait, and Eddie Murphy, who went on to be The Nutty Professor.)

Right, moving on to production values (see, I know when to tone it down!), the soundtrack is outstanding, and very fairly priced on iTunes – particularly worth noting is Rick Ross’ 100 Black Coffins and Too Old to Die Young by Brother Dege. And there’s some extra dialogue that didn’t make it into the movie for your consideration. The settings were luscious, showcasing  the American South in all its natural glory and slavery-built opulence. Add to this incredible prop detail (notably the different slave collars that popped up in the background and on Django twice) makes this a stunning movie just to look at and listen to.

Two performances stand out in particular for me: Leonardo Di Caprio’s portray of Monsieur Calvin Candie, and Samuel L Jackson as Christopher. While Jamie Fox was outstanding and Christoph Waltz can do no wrong, Candie and Stephen took over the movie on

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their terms, with commanding performances. Stephen interests me as a skewed portrayal of the male equivalent of the Mammy character, a character which appears so often without interrogation (like in The Help, that awful movie that pretends to be more important than it actually is). It is difficult to determine how much of it is happiness in slavery, but we are left with questions: can someone can beaten into loving someone? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Is this what happens when one raises someone else’s children because they aren’t allowed to raise their own? Why does he seem to genuinely care about Candie? Does he hate all black people, or is it just in front of Candie? Or just Django? Again, why have such a complex character if this is just a shoot-em-up?

Django-Unchained-29And then there’s classy, greasy, sister-kissing Candie, who has the manners and heart of a Southern gentleman: he has harps playing while he signs over the life of another and uses phrenology to explain the supposedly inherent servitude of slaves with the skull of the black man who raised him, Ben. (It is deeply disturbing that they had the flesh melted off so that they could keep the skull, denying him dignity even in death.) Did he get Christopher to believe in phrenology? He has Lolita-dressed maids flitting about, a detail that plays in nicely to his understanding of the purpose of black women. But to see Leonardo play a very, very bad man was such a pleasure. He took what could have been a cringe-worthy, two-bit cartoon villain and filled him with charming, terrifying menace. That little hammer was given all the weight of a sledgehammer, all the threat of a cannon. An excellent change from his usual roles (not that he has ever turned in a poor performance.)

If you’re a Tarantino fan, you’ll enjoy this, even if it isn’t his best work. It is a bit overwrought at times, and Tarantino really, really needs to stop appearing in his own movies. I don’t know if its a Stan Lee kind of attempt to seem relevant but it smashes the fourth wall to pieces for those of us who knows what he looks like (and really wish we didn’t.) I wish Kerry Washington had had a bigger role – she is talented, and deserved more lines (though she does screaming well). She is a bit wasted here in this ultra-manly movie, but if we’re lucky she’ll appear in Kill Bill 3.

But for Django’s properly bad-ass reckoning, for Candie as the worst man you’ll see on screen this year, for Christopher and his classic “you’ll have to burn the sheets!” monologue,  this movie is still very much worth your time. And go see it on the big screen – you’ll be glad you did.

Writer on Writer Crimes

There’s nothing writers love more than giving each other advice.

It is the most irritating thing short of catching ebola from a tax form.

But there are hundreds and hundreds of blogs dedicated to writing about writing, because it doesn’t get more tediously meta than writing about writing about writing. Maybe this is why some writers have to work so hard to keep friends around. And most of the writers giving advice haven’t even published so much as a pamphlet, but since opinions are as plentiful as assholes, its a little difficult to get away from. This is the reason why I don’t actually want to hang around writers. (But I have hung out with some pretty cool authors.)

Now, if I want advice on writing, I want it from Neil Gaiman, Lauren Beukes or Toni Morrison or Chuck Paulahnuik. And I do seek it, please believe my pretty white gi. And from what I gather, the only advice is practise and read more. That’s all there really is to it. Everyone wants a great novel and everyone wants to be JK Rowling but no one wants to put in the legwork. Great authors are well-read authors, and have been writing non-stop for years. Whenever people casually say ‘oh, I thought I’d write a novel, but its like really hard and stuff’, it usually turns out they’ve never written out more than a cheque before. Of course its fsking hard. All I’ve managed is 6 of the damn things and I’m 25. Compared to Stephen King or even Barbara Cartland, it is a pitiful output. Nowhere near enough, and definitely not good enough.

So in the run-up to Nanowrimo, there will be hundreds of blogs dutifully telling other writers what to do. And it is nearly always people who have no idea what they’re doing. Stupid advice about writing schedules, or not having a schedule, or writing in the morning or on the train. Its never a straightforward “write until you get sick of it. And then write some more. And read more great books by real authors. And then write some more.”  The whole joy of writing for me is that it is such a solitary joy and that it is the one thing that (to a large extent) doesn’t rely on anyone else. Toni Morrison said in an interview that she writes books that she wants to read. Isn’t that part of the point? Since when did we need consultants and talent brokers?

Of course there are great articles that are interesting and give good advice, but isn’t the one thing writers hate most is advice? I have a book called You Know You’re A Writer When…By Laura Adair, and one of the signs is “when a friend timidly suggests that maybe the umbrella scene isn’t necessary, you find you don’t like that friend so much anymore.” Its true and no one wants to admit it, but no writer actually likes being corrected. We admit it is necessary, and we know that we sometimes have to do what our publishers want but no writer actually enjoys it. (For better insight into the writer-publisher relationship, read He Beats Me, But He’s My Publisher over at Mad Genius Club).

So yes, in the Nanowrimo frenzy, amongst the joys and horrors of trying to make wordcount between work, training and the Handsome Physicist, the last thing I know I want to hear is “oh, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t you know you’re supposed to write naked?”