Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Tiya Miles is a public historian and the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University. She is the author of seven books including the novel “The Cherokee Rose,” a work of historical fiction about a three-woman quest to uncover the surprising origins of a Georgia plantation. Her 2022 book “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake” was, among other accolades, a National Book Award winner and New York Times bestseller.
Enjoy our conversation about out-of-the-way archives, exploitative Southern ghost tours, and the sense of shelter offered by a good tree, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: You’ve written that one of the characters in your historical novel “The Cherokee Rose” came to you as an apparition, and that you subsequently realized you might be able to do her more justice with your imagination than faithful adherence to the historical record. Imagination is clearly a powerful tool even in your nonfiction work, notably in your recent material history. Does the balance between narrative creativity and adherence to what’s cite-able feel as delicate to you as it might seem from the outside?
Tiya Miles: It is indeed a delicate task to work with evidentiary sources as well as the imagination to interpret the past, but I would argue that historians do this all the time. We always bring our creative mental faculties to bear when reconstructing the past. We draw inferences from sources, speculate about cause and effect, and envision times and places that we can never experience directly. Some scholars (and I count myself among them!) enjoy the challenge of pushing this process further to write history in intentionally narrative ways and even to write fiction based on historical knowledge and primary sources.
DY: I imagine you combing through small-town libraries and genealogy rooms for your research. How big a part of your method is that kind of work? What kinds of lessons have you learned from using archives not meant for academic historians?
TM: Your imagination would be spot-on in this case! A crucial part of my research process is traveling to visit historic sites (that often have records and archives of their own), local libraries, museums, cultural centers, and visitor’s centers. The most interesting, surprising, and revealing materials are often hiding in these tucked-away places. I’ve also found that reading the posted flyers, pamphlets, self-published booklets, genealogy papers, cookbooks, and other materials on the ground in these small towns helps me to understand the area better and contributes to my ability to make meaningful links between the past and the present in my writing.
DY: What’s your favorite memory of encountering a rural public history?
TM: My favorite memory is of doing place-based research at the Chief Vann House State Historic Site in Chatsworth, Georgia around eighteen years ago. I had infant twins at the time, so my husband accompanied me on my travels to help care for them. We stayed in a rented cabin up a steep mountain road not far from a fellow researcher and friend who had translated nineteenth-century German language diaries produced by people who had once lived near the site. At a country store along the road, I bought a beautiful wind chime made by a local artist who refashioned old, multicolored glass. I can look outside my window right now and see that chime hanging from an apple tree in our yard. It brings back wonderful memories of the research trip. These Georgia mountains and rural towns are the setting of my latest book, “The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts,” in which the main characters travel that same road.
DY: Your book “Tales from the Haunted South” is all about sensationalist and exploitative tours meant to shock audiences with horrific tales of slavery and the ghosts it left behind. Ghost tours are an obvious enough example, but do you have advice (for historians and non-historians) for telling which public-facing histories of slavery are and aren’t trustworthy?
TM: During my research on ghost tours in the South that included slavery as a theme, I found that many of these tours had characteristics in common, such as the romanticization of relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, the diminishment of the sexual abuse that enslaved Black women endured, a gratuitous focus on violence, an exoticization of Black faith traditions, and a demonization of white women. I would say that if tourists hear narratives about slavery that sound too easy-going to be true or too grotesque to be respectful of people’s lived experience, they are probably listening to exaggerated or fabricated narratives crafted to increase revenue rather than to educate the public. Before I travel, I like to read a solid history of the place to ground myself. I know that people on vacation don’t always have that much time or might decide to visit a spot at the spur of the moment. In cases like this, I would recommend that visitors check out the National Park Service website (you can even download and travel with the NPS app), where numerous historic sites are described more accurately. Visitors might also check out The Clio, a public history project that showcases crowd-sourced descriptive walking tours vetted by a historian and professor.
DY: Your love for trees comes up a lot in your writing. I’m curious what draws you to them — what do you see in a wooded landscape?
TM: Looking back, I can see that for every phase of my youth there was a significant tree in the picture. Because I grew up in the city, these trees often stood alone rather than being parts of forests. I sought out special trees because they held a sense of time, presence, and stability. They were calming in their naturalness and inspiring in their beauty. I noticed and loved the ways they sheltered animals and imagined them as alternate shelters for me. As an adult, I have moved around for my schooling and career, and I have often pinpointed special trees in yards where I lived or in open landscapes that I revisited while spending time with my in-laws in Montana. Forests deserve a special mention in this response. I do love the woods, although I am a tad bit afraid of their power. Woods are brimming with variety, mystery, and sensory prompts, and of course, with fascinating non-human creatures. They create a surround of mindfulness and adventurousness simultaneously and take me out of my hustling-bustling daily life.
DY: What are you reading this summer, historical or otherwise?
TM: First, I’m reading a book about reading! It’s titled “Reading Territory: Indigenous and Black Freedom,” by Kathryn Walkiewicz. I’m reading “The 272” by Rachel L. Swarns, “We Refuse to Forget” by Caleb Gayle, “The Agitators” by Dorothy Wickenden, “Book Lovers” by Emily Henry, and “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.