The Center for Fiction welcomed Ayana Mathis (The Twelve Tribes of Hattie) to our stage in celebration of her highly anticipated second novel, The Unsettled. This searing novel is set in the racially and politically turbulent Philadelphia of the 1980s, as well as in the tiny town of Bonaparte, Alabama, and follows a mother fighting for her sanity and survival amidst a growing revolutionary moment. Author Kiese Laymon (Long Division) joined Mathis for a rich conversation about the historical roots of the novel and their relevance today, as well as the art of crafting this powerful tale of motherhood, revolution, and endurance.
By Ayana Mathis
Published by Knopf
From the moment Ava Carson and her ten-year-old son, Toussaint, arrive at the Glenn Avenue family shelter in Philadelphia 1985, Ava is already plotting a way out. She is repulsed by the shelter’s squalid conditions: their cockroach-infested room, the barely edible food, and the shifty night security guard. She is determined to rescue her son from the perils and indignities of that place, and to save herself from the complicated past that led them there.
Ava has been estranged from her own mother, Dutchess, since she left her Alabama home as a young woman barely out of her teens. Despite their estrangement and the thousand miles between them, mother and daughter are deeply entwined, but Ava can’t forgive her sharp-tongued, larger-than-life mother whose intractability and bouts of debilitating despair brought young Ava to the outer reaches of neglect and hunger.
Ava wants to love her son differently, better. But when Toussaint’s father, Cass, reappears, she is swept off course by his charisma, and the intoxicating power of his radical vision to destroy systems of racial injustice and bring about a bold new way of communal living.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, Dutchess struggles to keep Bonaparte, once a beacon of Black freedom and self-determination, in the hands of its last five Black residents—families whose lives have been rooted in this stretch of land for generations—and away from rapidly encroaching white developers. She fights against the erasure of Bonaparte’s venerable history and the loss of the land itself, which she has so arduously preserved as Ava’s inheritance.As Ava becomes more enmeshed with Cass, Toussaint senses the danger simmering all around him—his well-intentioned but erratic mother; the intense, volatile figure of his father who drives his fledgling Philadelphia community toward ever increasing violence and instability. He begins to dream of Dutchess and Bonaparte, his home and birthright, if only he can find his way there.
Ayana Mathis’s first novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was a New York Times best-seller, an NPR Best Book of 2013, the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. and has been translated into sixteen languages. Her nonfiction has been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Guernica, and Rolling Stone. Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was born in Philadelphia and currently lives in New York City where she teaches writing in Hunter College’s MFA Program.
Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan