If you’ve been waiting with bated breath for the publication of Ayana Mathis’ next book, you’re not alone. The author herself was eager to finish The Unsettled, her sophomore novel. However, as Mathis explains during a Zoom call, the book—and particularly its characters—had other plans.
“There’s a really lovely origin story about The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” says Mathis from her second home in the Hudson River Valley, where she went to escape record-breaking temperatures in New York City. Mathis began writing her 2012 debut, which was a New York Times bestseller and the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, when a friend suggested several of her short stories could work as a book. The Unsettled, however, had no such beginnings. In fact, Mathis can’t recall the exact moment she knew what she was writing. “It was just a very long journey of becoming what it is,” she tells me. “I was writing around inside of it for a really long time.”
What The Unsettled became is a gripping novel about mothers and children, past and present, and the private hells in which we often find ourselves while searching for utopia. It opens in mid-1980s Philadelphia, where an unaccompanied 13-year-old named Toussaint Wright sneaks into an abandoned house with a stack of letters from his mother, Ava Carson, and grandmother, Dutchess. This image sets the tone for the rest of the book, in which Dutchess and Ava take turns telling the story of their estranged family. Toussaint, the novel’s youngest but most perceptive narrator, tries to make sense of his own history as well as the chaos of the present.
“I’m not concerned about likability in characters. But I do want people to be able to attach to Ava, and I need[ed] to, in order to write her”
While Mathis is no stranger to multivocal narratives (The Twelve Tribes of Hattie follows the lives of its eponymous matriarch, her 11 children and one of her grandchildren), the voices that compose The Unsettled are markedly different from her first book as well as from each other. Deceptively brief chapters carefully detailing Ava’s and Toussaint’s trek through the streets of Philadelphia are interspersed with Dutchess’ no-nonsense dispatches from Bonaparte, Alabama, where she is fighting to save her small, all-Black town from extinction. In each character, Mathis’ dexterity of voice is on full display. This is a riveting family story, and the people who tell it do so with finesse. For Toussaint, broken windows create “glass rain [that] sparkled like tinsel.” When Ava recalls meeting Toussaint’s father, Cassius Wright, for the first time, she describes her immediate infatuation with the man who was “the same tawny gold color all over: eyes and skin and hair.” To Dutchess, Alabama highways are “flat as a white woman’s behind.” Developing the kind of intimacy necessary to create these distinct voices was no small feat. Dutchess and Toussaint came easily to Mathis. Ava, however, was much harder to pin down. Proud, impulsive and prone to depression and prophetic trances, Ava is both pitiable and, at times, infuriating, even to her creator. “She and I had a terrible relationship for years,” Mathis says, shaking her head. “She refused to have a voice that was recognizable to me. She was very resistant.”
Even her name kept changing: Mathis was only able to find something that fit after she grew to accept Ava as an individual, flaws and all. “I’m not concerned about likability in characters,” Mathis explains. “But I do want people to be able to attach to Ava, and I need[ed] to, in order to write her more fully. I need[ed] to think of her as a full human being, not just someone I’m angry at or judging.”
Indeed, part of Mathis’ struggle to finish The Unsettled was the effort to map out the actions of the adult characters whose disastrous decisions drive much of the book’s plot. At the nadir of Dutchess’ nightclub singing career, she meets and marries Caro Carson, a native of Bonaparte, a town partially inspired by Gee’s Bend, Alabama. In the 1930s, the federal government sold tracts of land to its Black citizens as part of Roosevelt’s war on rural poverty. When Caro is killed by jealous local whites, Dutchess descends into a near-catatonic state that almost destroys both her and her daughter. Consequently, once Ava leaves Bonaparte as a young adult, many of her life choices are made to avoid returning home or becoming like her mother.
After a failed marriage, Ava reunites with Cass, who founds Ark, a commune for Black people in search of self-determined living. But soon, Ava is immobilized by his increasing radicalism and his sadistic means of controlling Ark’s inhabitants. Despite Ava’s best efforts, she and her mother are more alike than different. As Mathis points out, “Both of [them] meet men with whom they become completely and utterly enamored, sometimes to the detriment of their children. They’re [also] both drawn to these nontypical Black communities that are trying to find something like freedom, and struggling with what that is or what it might look like.” For both Ava and Dutchess, the search—and the fight—for home becomes paramount, yet a sense of home itself remains elusive. And in both cases, their children suffer for it.
Cass, a former Black Panther and disgraced physician, is also a complicated character. While his beloved Ark bears some similarities to 6221 Osage Avenue, the site of Philadelphia’s 1985 MOVE bombing, both he and his commune are more homage than historical fiction. Mathis, a Philadelphia native, describes that bombing as “an open, raw wound,” and says she is not attempting to tell its story in The Unsettled. Instead, her novel talks “about what the implications of something like that might be. What it means in terms of Black people and police interactions.”
“What I hope is that people enter the book in a spirit of generosity so they can spend some time with these people, even though they might hate them sometimes . . . . Remember that they are people and remember how infuriating the people we love can be.”
Likewise, Cass Wright is not a fictionalization of MOVE’s founder, John Africa. In fact, Mathis turned to many places for inspiration in her effort to complicate this handsome yet merciless figure. “I imagined him as this super charismatic shyster preacher who is taking everybody’s money,” she says with a smile. “But as I wrote him, I realized I wanted him to be right about some things. . . . He’s right about all of the issues around freedom. He’s right about the exploitation of Blackness. But he’s a pretty bad guy.” Cass becomes both Ava’s lover and her tormentor; her salvation, but also her obsession. Even in this way, Ava is not much different from Dutchess. As Mathis says, “She’s much more prone to fantasies and ideals whereas her mother is obsessed with this historical past. And they both in many ways sacrifice their lives to those enterprises.”
Still, Mathis warns against the danger of simply designating characters’ choices as good or bad. “A lot of this book is about the ways in which people figure out for themselves what survival looks like. And not just what surviving looks like, but what thriving looks like,” she explains. “And what that looks like for these people may not be what it looks like on a television show about the middle class.”
This is especially true for Toussaint, who realizes early that Ark might not be the paradise for which his mother has been searching. Once he discovers this, he begins making plans for their escape. “I think of Dutchess as a past, and Ava as a present,” says Mathis. “And Toussaint is the bridge between the two of them, and he’s also the future. There needed to be a future.”
Although he is still a young boy, Toussaint’s insights about the adults around him contextualize their actions even when he himself does not fully understand them. Despite Ava’s and Dutchess’ many failures, Toussaint’s love for them is persistent, and his desire to mend the rift between generations keeps the reader rooting for the survival of the entire family, even in their darkest moments.
Near the end of our interview, when I asked Mathis what she wanted readers to know, she offered words that could have been spoken by Toussaint himself: “What I hope is that people enter the book in a spirit of generosity so they can spend some time with these people, even though they might hate them sometimes,” she says with a laugh. “But still remember that they are people and remember how infuriating the people we love can be. The people we love hurt us more than anyone else. And we are more privy to their failures than to anyone else’s.”
The Unsettled, with its chorus of intergenerational voices and its themes of love, loss and legacy, contains many of the things Mathis’ loyal readers most enjoy. But there are also new characters to love and hate (or love to hate), and a story that is heartbreaking yet hopeful in ways that continue to surprise and sustain throughout. More than a decade in the making, it was definitely worth the wait.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.