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The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
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The Unsettled

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The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
Paperback $18.00
Jun 04, 2024 | ISBN 9780525435617

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A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Oprah Daily, Kirkus Reviews

“Poignant, heartbreaking  . . . Mathis skillfully and subtly drops allusions to historical events, sending the reader on a kind of intellectual treasure hunt.”The New York Times Book Review

The Unsettled follows Ms. Mathis’s debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, whose loosely assembled family vignettes also explored the ambivalent aftermath of the Great Migration north. But this is a far better book, more focused and cohesive, and also more alive.” The Wall Street Journal

“Ten years after The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Mathis again strikes story-telling gold.” People

“An ardent, ambitious, and carefully stitched tapestry of a novel, one that deserves and rewards our attention.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Unsettled is a powerful, moving novel about the fracture of Black family and the attempts we make to suture it, about the power of our history and futile attempts to sanitize it, about the connection of Black people to the lands they fight so hard to keep, and the government’s attempts to separate them from it.” –Roxane Gay, The Audacity

“A decade after taking the world by storm with her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—the 72nd Oprah’s Book Club selection and an instant bestseller—Mathis is back with a highly anticipated and emotionally propulsive follow-up . . . Through a chorus of distinctive and virtuosic voices, we gather the story of a mother, a daughter, and the land that both unites and divides them.” Oprah Daily

“[A] masterpiece . . . The Unsettled is poised to be a significant addition to contemporary literature, affirming Mathis’s status as a gifted and influential voice in the literary world . . .  An emotionally charged journey through the intricate tapestry of family, love, and the relentless pursuit of belonging.” Essence

Important . . . The Unsettled bears within its title the affective work that it accomplishes. Through entanglements of generational memory, placemaking, loss, nostalgia, family, community, and social dissolution, the reader is dislodged from the comfort of neat resolution.” Los Angeles Review of Books

“Shelter without the grace of welcome is exposure to the worst coldness of the world. Loyalty and the offer of comfort satisfy needs we feel in our bones.  In The Unsettled, Ayana Mathis brings these extremes of experience intensely to life. This is a fine, powerful book.” – Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead

“The Unsettled crosses generations and landscapes, digs in the Southern soil and walks mean Northern city streets. Expansive and explosive, this beauty of a novel showcases Ayana Mathis’s grace on the page, as writer, as storyteller. A book to be read and re-read.” – Jesmyn Ward, author of Let Us Descend

“Ayana Mathis is one of the most brilliant writers working in today’s America. A tour de force, The Unsettled is a poetic and fierce study of the conflicts between circumstances and personalities, between dreams and survivals, between the indifference of the world at large and the passions of individuals.” – Yiyun Li, author of The Book of Goose

“Outstanding . . . Perfectly paced . . . A heartbreaking tale about Reagan’s America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.”BookPage (starred review)

“Another triumph for Mathis . . . Fresh, bold, entrancing  . . . [The Unsettled] sparkles even as it cuts to the bone.”Library Journal (starred review)

“An affecting and carefully drawn story of a family on the brink . . . Mathis powerfully evokes the heartbreak and ways best efforts are undermined by social and legal machinery.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A simmering family saga involving fraught efforts in building Black communities . . . Mathis ratchets up the tension all the way to a stunning reveal, which reunites the family members for a reckoning with the truth. Readers won’t want to miss Mathis’s accomplished return.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Surprising and gorgeous . . . Mathis’ long-awaited sophomore novel leaves the Great Migration of her lauded debut (The Twelve Tribes of Hattie) for the 1980s, but her sharp characters, vivid settings, and beautiful sentences remain . . . Hattie fans will not be disappointed.” Booklist

Author Q&A

What is The Unsettled about?

The Unsettled is about three generations of a family ripped apart by migration, grief, and the unbearable cost of defending their 1000 acre homeland, an independent Black town called Bonaparte, Alabama. All of Bonaparte’s descendants have fled North, including its favorite daughter, Ava and her son Toussaint, who drift through gritty 1980’s Philadelphia, always on the edge of poverty, always a paycheck away from homelessness. Fed up and worn out, Ava is seduced by a radical separatist community called Ark – where she and Toussaint find joy, belonging, and in the end, tragedy. 
Would you please introduce the three main characters?

Dutchess Carson is Bonaparte’s fierce, hard-as-nails protector. A blues singer long retired from the road, she’s determined to hold fast to Bonaparte’s land and legacy by sheer will, and with  the shotgun that’s always by her side. 
Ava is Dutchess’s troubled, estranged daughter. She is a restless soul, with a penchant for blowing up her life – and her son’s – in her search for a home and a family like the one in Bonaparte that she left behind. 
Ava’s son Toussaint is a sensitive, whip smart eleven year old with some very adult problems: his life in Philadelphia is unstable and hurtling toward violence; he’s got to save himself, and his mother, from her dangerous choices.   
These characters are poor and proud. What did you want to say about poverty in America? 

I am, and this is said with enormous pride, a poor Black girl from Philly. I wanted to write about the mechanisms of poverty and the labor it requires. This is a country that hates poor people – we blame them for most of our social problems, we patronize them, we ignore them. Some of that disdain is expressed bureaucratically, in the Kafka-esque crazy-making busywork of getting a safe place to live, nourishing food, and medical care (for your kids!). There’s a real obstacle course to getting these basics when you are poor – it grinds down the body and the spirit. But at the same time, when you don’t have the comforts and conveniences of the mainstream, you have to develop skills to deal with that; you have to be sharp and creative. You have to make your own sense of self-worth, value, and beauty because so often the perception of you and yours is negative. There is intense beauty there, alongside pain, of course, and that’s where the book lives. 
The portraits of the mothers in this book aren’t much like the usual ideas about  successful motherhood. Could you talk about why that is?

There are two mothers in this book and neither of them quite get it right by any conventional standard! They’re both pretty self-absorbed. And they are both fixated on their obsessions to the point that they can’t see their living, breathing children who need them. As it was with Dutchess and Ava, so it is with Ava and her son Toussaint. They love their children – both women face bullets to save them. But they also know that they can’t ensure their children’s safety or comfort. Or secure their futures. This is a reality for lots of Black mothers, and other mothers all over the world. Parenting under those less-than-favorable circumstances might be very different from the sanitized, perfectionist motherhood that we see on television (which no one can live up to anyway!). I think this book is an alternate vision of motherhood, one that has a real bone to pick with what a “good mother” looks like.  

Bonaparte is a fictional place in the south that is slowly, but intentionally, being erased. What led you to set part of the story here? What research did you do?

I spent some time in Alabama’s magical, and very real, Gee’s Bend. It’s famous for its quilts, but it’s also a place where Black families owned their land and lived independently – a miracle in the Jim Crow South – for decades. There were so many independent Black towns and settlements throughout the south. Many of those places are gone now, or barely holding on. Between 1910 and 1997, millions of Black-owned acres were lost to fraud, developers, tax trickery and violence – roughly $326 billion dollars of value! It’s hard to fathom. My own grandparents were Virginians. White locals ran my great-grandfather off of the family land in the early 1900s. Those acres would have changed generations of my family’s fortunes. And, on a larger scale, that collective wealth would change African-American life in this country.
The story also takes place in Philadelphia, where you were raised in the 1980’s.

It’s a formative decade for me, and my heart just can’t let it go. The Philadelphia of my youth was wild, and a little dangerous. In lots of ways, the ‘80s set the stage for the America we live in now. On one hand, the ‘80s were big everything: hair, money, consumerism. But there were also multiple crises: rampant unemployment, the crack and AIDS epidemics. The nation’s response wasn’t great. We made addicts into criminals and incarcerated more (mostly Black) people than ever before. We cut social services and left poor and sick people with few resources to avert disaster. Ava and Toussaint are in a homeless shelter early on in the novel, in part because there is no social safety net for them to fall back on. At the same time, so many people were let down by the end of the freedom movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. People like Cass, Toussaint’s father, were left angry and hopeless, determined to find a new path forward at any cost. This isn’t a vision of the ‘80s we often see in fiction, so it was especially fertile ground.
You were a child in 1985 when the MOVE bombing happened in Philadelphia. What was it, for people who may not know?

Many of us have never gotten past the bombing, and will never truly understand how the city could have committed an act of war against its own citizens. For those who aren’t familiar with it: on Mother’s Day in 1985, Philadelphia police got into an hours-long armed standoff with a Black separatist group called MOVE. At the then-mayor’s behest, authorities dropped a C4 explosive onto the MOVE house from a helicopter. The block went up like tinder, displacing hundreds. In the house itself, 11 people died. 5 of them were children. My book doesn’t dare recreate the bombing – it’s a raw wound in Philadelphia and I worried about misrepresenting it somehow. Instead, I invented Ark, so I could ask some questions about radical politics and utopian communal living without exploiting that painful history. 
An episcopalian priest named Pastor Phil is an integral character later in the novel, and there are religious themes throughout. Can you discuss why religion is important to include?

I was raised in a strictly religious household. I left the church as a teenager, but just can’t shake it. I don’t practice any religion anymore, but I am currently in divinity school. Biblical references come pretty naturally to me. I like the authority and richness they add to fiction – so many Bible stories are metaphors for the complications of being human. The Unsettled sees religious impulses through different lenses. In Bonaparte, people call God “the Everlasting.” They also have a mystical (and elusive) protector spirit who lives in the woods, and a sacred reverence for the natural world. In Philadelphia, Pastor Phil’s compassionate, if far more conventional, Christianity is a balm and a comfort for Toussaint. In other instances, religion is a weapon to control and manipulate, as in the case of Ava’s ex-husband Abemi. In the end, the novel is a deep dive into a diverse African-American spirituality and the multiplicity of belief.
The perspective of who’s telling the story shifts throughout the book; What are you trying to convey by presenting different vantages or why did you want to write it this way?

I think it may just be how I write! There were lots of voices in my last novel as well. In this case, these characters live in socially isolated communities that don’t much align with the mainstream. They have no real witnesses to their hopes and triumphs, or their defeats, besides each other. Like any group of people, or any family, they remember similar experiences differently; and those experiences have wildly different significance to each person. That’s absolutely the case for Ava and Dutchess, who can’t even agree on the fact that they love one another. To tell any story truthfully, many perspectives are required. Each voice is a pixel; they add up to a portrait of the character’s lives that is fuller and richer than any single voice could ever be.
We have two intentional communities in this book, ARK in Philadelphia and Bonaparte in Alabama. Why do these characters create these alternative ways of living? 

The characters in The Unsettled are not safe. Their children are not safe. Their land is not safe. The larger systems into which these Black characters were born are not workable; in fact, they threaten them. So these people create new, albeit flawed, ways of living: one urban and one rural. They grow their own food, they pool their financial resources, they make their own rules about educating the young people. Both communities are armed in self-defense. Ark and Bonaparte are mirror images, two radical visions of Black self-determination, both dogged by friction from within and violence all around. Their more radical aspects aside, to my mind the story of these two striving communities is a very American story, told through an African-American lens. The Unsettled is a novel of hope; these characters believe that tomorrow can be better than today, and they risk everything to make it so.

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