Tiya Miles

2011 MacArthur Fellow, 2021 National Book Award Winner, Historian, and Novelist
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Stephanie Mitchell

Music Credit: “NY,” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd, Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Josephine Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.

Tiya Miles: Well, "The Cherokee Rose" is a novel about three women in our contemporary time period who find themselves being drawn to a historic plantation site in Georgia on lands that previously belonged to Cherokees. So it's indigenous land in Georgia and when they arrive, they find that something is amiss. There's a deep history at this place that they cannot turn away from. And while meeting each other at the plantation site and also confronting the past in that place, they are actually able to confront some of their own personal traumas, demons, desires and to form new relationships that will change their lives.

Josephine Reed: You just heard historian and 2011 MacArthur Fellow Tiya Miles talking about her novel, “The Cherokee Rose.”   Most people know Tiya Miles as an award-winning historian and Harvard professor whose book “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake,” won the 2021 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. But as anyone who has read “All That She Carried Knows,”  Tiya Miles is not just an innovative and perceptive historian, she’s also a beautiful writer blessed with the ability to breathe life into the people who came before us. So, it’s no surprise that she would turn her attention to fiction. In fact, Tiya wrote “The Cherokee Rose” in 2015, but, scholar that she is, she has re-worked it and just re-issued the new edition. As she mentioned “The Cherokee Rose” takes place on a plantation in Georgia that is based on a historic site—one that had been owned by a Cherokee chief before the US expelled indigenous people from the southeast resulting in the infamous Trail of Tears. And the action of “The Cherokee Rose” occurs in two time periods, the contemporary period and in 1815. Now “The Cherokee Rose” has a very interesting origin story because while Tiya Miles created the most of characters of the novel out of her imagination— A couple of them are based on real people who lived in the 1800s on the plantation that is the blue print “The Cherokee Rose.” Tiya Miles explains

Tiya Miles: Many years ago, many, many years ago, <laughs> when I was a graduate student, I started researching the history of Black enslavement by Native Americans and particularly by Cherokees. And while doing this research, I visited historic sites in the U.S. Southeast, formerly indigenous space, including a place called the Chief Vann House State Historic Site, which is a brick mansion that has been preserved. It's run by the State of Georgia. It's open to the public today. This site to me was incredibly interesting but also a source of deep sadness because I realized immediately that there was no interpretation of African-American history, of slavery or even of Cherokee women and I decided then that I wanted to do more work on the site and to write about it. And so I did. Years later, I came back and researched and published a book which is the history of that plantation and the history of the family that lived there and the people who were enslaved there. And while I was conducting that research, I visited the site a number of times. Those site visits were really personal to me, quite moving. I became familiar with the landscape and I felt as if some of the stories that I was reading in the primary sources, which consisted mostly of missionary diaries and letters, were going to the fore, they felt so real. And there was one visit to the site that was incredibly potent and it was a time when I was there near a creek that had been a very special creek to Cherokee peoples when they had lived there. And I looked up at a tree and kind of had an imagining; you could call it a vision in a sense. I mean, it was my own mind creating this scene of a Black enslaved woman in that tree. And she caught my attention. She seemed to be actually working to get my attention. She seemed to be calling me in a sense. And it was almost as if she were an apparition, though of course, I know that I was imagining her. I felt then that I wanted to write about this site in a different kind of way that would allow me to get at the emotional texture of the past and also the residue, the psychological-emotional energy that still attaches to places like this in the present. And so I wrote a novel about it.

Josephine Reed: Okay, here's the question I have for you. I know as a historian you are absolutely tasked with documenting facts. Was it difficult for you to give yourself permission to make stories up, no matter how grounded that book is in history, and it is. You create characters. Was that-- <laughs> was that hard for you, to give yourself permission to do that?

Tiya Miles: Oh, my goodness. It was so hard, Josephine. It was a long, ongoing struggle. I was really glad, though, once I was engaged in that struggle, that I had researched that site for years and written about it in various formats from a book to various articles. And so, I felt, you know, pretty confident in my understanding of the historical nature of the site, which gave me a pretty firm grounding, but when I was trying to craft the plot, and I should say, this novel takes place in the present and in the past, so the woman that I describe who I kind of imagined when I was there ends up being a ghostly figure in the novel and as a ghost she connects the past and the present. So when I began to try to plot the story, I found myself constantly questioning myself about whether or not I could write this or say this or, you know, present that because I knew these things hadn't actually happened or at least they hadn't happened on that certain date or they hadn't been carried out by that particular person who I was wanting to be doing the action in my story. And so, it took quite a while for me to really convince myself that this was a work of fiction, <laughs> that I did have leeway and license, that I could invent things, And even once I told myself that and finally believed it, I couldn't let myself walk away from the story without doing a lot of explaining and a lot of context, and so the novel has a note, an author's note which talks about all of my sources. It has an introduction which talks about the historical context and the contemporary issues that relate to it now. It has an essay that talks about my writing process. <laughs> And so--

Josephine Reed: <laughs>

Tiya Miles: <laughs> Yeah, I couldn't quite let go of that, of, I don't know, the scholarly frame.

Josephine Reed: They were all interesting, though. I mean, I devoured them all, so I was-- I was very glad that they were there. It's not that the novel doesn't have men and it's not that men don't play pivotal roles, but this is a novel that foregrounds women, both in the past and it's women of different races, different places in the society of that plantation, and in the present, we have women of different races operating within that plantation. Tell me about really creating these communities of women.

Tiya Miles: Well, here is where I stepped right into some surprising aspects of the actual history and also some gaps in the historical record, which I think fiction is wonderful for. I mean, it allows us to imagine what wasn't there and to read in between the lines of what was there. So I mentioned earlier that the planation site, the historic site, wasn't really interpreting women's history when I first went there and yet, as I was doing my primary research to work on my first book about this history, I realized that it had actually been a woman who recorded the vast amount of material that we have about that site. There was a woman diarist. She was a white woman originally from the Pennsylvania area who then moved to the North Carolina and she was a missionary who wrote just about every day of her life over decades about what she observed in that place. And so she was a primary producer of the historical record and yet she wasn't really being represented by the interpretation at that site. She wasn't really being centered in historical understandings of that site. And I think partly because of her sex she was the one missionary diarist, the one missionary letter writer in that location in the Cherokee Nation who actually paid attention to the women around her. And so she included very vivid descriptions of enslaved Black women, of their children, of Cherokee women that really weren't being seen and recognized in other sources. I wanted in this novel to draw on the observations and the experience of this missionary whose name was Anna Rosina Gambold, and also to recreate a world that her diary entries really only hint at. And that was a world that was shaped by women from, as you said, all different racial backgrounds and cultural backgrounds who were living and working around this plantation and around this Christian mission site, which was on the plantation grounds.

Josephine Reed: And I just wonder, and again, because you are an historian, was the present day part and the contemporary women more difficult for you to create than the historical figures in the book?

Tiya Miles: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I will say that that my portal or my way into the story really was these primary sources. I had already read Anna Rosina Gambold's diary entries. I had read them many times for my scholarly research and I remember sitting outside at a coffee shop one summer and just re-reading them and trying to read them in a different way and trying to read them sort of for the story of her life and for the stories of the lives of the women that she was writing about. And it was once I read her work in that way, you know, for the historical figures almost as characters, that I could find my way in. So yes, you're right in recognizing or in sensing that it was those historical women in the past time with the novel who I felt closest to first. But as I was writing them and thinking so much about the relationships they may have had that never entered the historical record and even the friendships they may have formed or the friendships that I wished they had formed, I saw an immediate relevance of their stories, their intertwined stories of an initial distance and suspicion that had the potential to develop into a closeness and understanding as being interesting and even maybe necessary for women living in our moment right now. I really wanted to make a connection between women in the past who could find each other across distance and women in the present who really should find each other across distance.

Josephine Reed: You also have a romance. I mean, it's not just a romance, it's a real relationship between two of the women in the present day. And they are both mature women. This is not a coming out story. And it's also not the focus, it just is. And that was so refreshing.

Tiya Miles: Oh, I'm glad. That relationship between two of the characters was a surprise for me. And this is one thing that again, I enjoy so much about writing fiction, the characters will often drive parts of the story and there are things that end up occurring that the author may not know about in the beginning, you know, when sketching out the plot. This happened with that relationship. I didn't know that these two women were going to connect in the way that they did, but once they were there on these grounds and becoming open in a different way to the place around them, to their own personal histories and to their own needs and desires and kind of wishes for their lives, it just seemed incredibly natural to have their intimacy shift from being one that was platonic to one that was romantic and erotic.

Josephine Reed: "The Cherokee Rose" has another character we haven't discussed. Well, a couple of others, but the one I'm looking at now is the place, the place itself, the house itself. It is as much of a character as any of the women we have discussed. Why was that house so central for you and for this book?

Tiya Miles: Well, you are absolutely right that the house, this plantation house is a character in the novel. I'm so glad that you read it that way and that that came across. It's a character because the way in which I interpret the history that actually unfolded at this place, because again, the novel is set at a real plantation that I previously researched.  The history that unfolded between human beings and between the people and their environment actually connected with the place, sort of infused the place with a kind of feeling and some energy that stayed with the place over time. And the place gains a kind of animacy or life or vibrancy and even kind of a sadness and a regret, a hauntedness because of the history that people lived out there. I wanted to try to show that by keeping the place and giving the house a sense of presence, a sense of personality, even, a sense of physicality such that the people who come to that place in the present time, the three women who arrive there, feed into the house and also are sparked by and fed by the house.

Josephine Reed: The subtitle is "A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts." So let's talk about gardens and ghosts. You mentioned a ghost earlier, who was a bridge between the past and the present, but ghosts are also part of your scholarly work.

Tiya Miles: <laughs> They are. And actually, when I was attempting to finish the novel, I traveled down to Savannah, Georgia because I wanted to experience another part of Georgia. I wanted to connect with the history in that state in a different kind of way. And while I was there, I went on a ghost tour that actually led me to write a book about ghost tours, which is called "Tales From the Haunted South." And so I was going on these historically themed ghost tours and working on this novel that was set at this historic plantation in Georgia and that's when it really hit me that a ghost had to be an important character in the novel. I hadn't quite known that before, even though I had envisioned this enslaved woman in the tree, I hadn't thought of shaping that woman into a character in the story until I was doing some real thinking about the ways that ghosts and the ways that haunting function for us historically, the ways that they connect us to the past. And the ways that so many of us feel that a ghost story or a haunted place creates an accessibility and an interest in relation to the past that we might not feel when we go to our university library or our public library and then glance at the shelves with all the history books.

Josephine Reed: "The Cherokee Rose" was first written in 2015 or first published in 2015 but you just reissued it, with a gorgeous new cover, <laughs> and a new introduction. Why the decision to revisit this?

Tiya Miles: I was doing a podcast in the summer of 2020. That summer when, you know, of course the country was facing a terrible legacy of police violence against Black people and people of color which connects to the history of enslavement. And the podcast I was doing was with indigenous podcaster Adrienne Keene and her partner and it's about indigenous issues today and the deep and intertwined relationships that indigenous people have. They wanted to have me on to talk about this history of slavery and race in the Cherokee Nation and in Native Nations For quite a long time, Cherokee Nation government officials denied this history and refused to grant citizenship to the group that is known as the Freedmen or the Freedmen and women. And through that conversation, I was actually kind of prodded and inspired by Adrienne Keene, who is a Cherokee scholar, to go back and look at what the Cherokee Nation is doing now. She told me that in response to what really was a nationwide reckoning with this history, the Cherokee Nation had just taken down a statue to a Cherokee Confederate leader. And now the Cherokee Nation is the tribal nation that is out in front with being willing to recognize these wrongs, to try to in some way make amends for these wrongs by fully including the descendants of enslaved people as citizens in the Cherokee Nation. And so I looked into this and I was incredibly inspired, Josephine, by the change, by the way in which the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation was saying the descendants of freed people are Cherokee. Freedmen and Freedwomen history is Cherokee history and the Cherokee Nation needed to heal and to turn the page with regard to these relationships. By 2020 and in 2021, the Cherokee Nation was taking the lead. It was so inspiring that I wanted to revisit this novel that I had first written and published back in the days when the Cherokee Nation, or at least its representatives, were very closed to the idea that Freedmen and women's history, that descendants' history could also be Cherokee history. And so I revisited this novel with a sense of just joy and satisfaction and delight that things could change and we now have evidence of things changing on the governmental level, on the national level, on the societal level in this example. And I wanted to not only reissue the novel but also to revise it and to rewrite it and to write in some new scenes that reflected more of what had taken place over the last several years.

Josephine Reed: Had you written fiction before beginning this novel?

Tiya Miles: I had. I had written fiction in short form, you know, really for my entire life. I remember writing a play <laughs> when I was-- when I was a grade schooler that was put on by my recreation center. It was actually called "Super Duper Sam." <laughter> Sam being short for Samantha. And I had taken creative writing classes through college and through graduate school. I got to take a really fun mystery writing course in Minneapolis which was taught by the mystery writer Ellen Hart. And there may actually be a bit of an imprint in "The Cherokee Rose" from that class and from her influence, Josephine. I didn't think about this until right now, given the question you asked me about the relationship between a couple of the women, but Ellen Hart wrote lesbian mystery novels. <laughs> So now I see a direct connection there.  So I had for a long time had kind of a passion on the side for creative writing and in this novel, I was finally able to sit down and kind of  wrestle all of my interests and wishes and desires, you know, into one manuscript and to write a novel.

Josephine Reed: All right. How would you compare writing history with writing fiction?

Tiya Miles: Well, they're both very hard. <laughs> I feel I can say that. Whenever I sit down to write a new book, I realize again just how gargantuan a task it is to write a book of any kind. I think though, even having said that, that writing fiction is harder, or at least for me, it was harder, it has been harder because in writing history, the task at hand seems to be somewhat clear and direct. You go in with research questions. You then look to find all of the sources, especially the primary sources that you can that pertain to that research question. You read the sources as closely as you can. You find whatever secondary contextual materials that exist that you can bring to bear. You try to put all those sources together to reconstruct the past and to offer your interpretation of the past. You try to offer an argument based on that interpretation and you try to write it in a way that will be sound and if you're lucky and have interest in this, that will feel very readable and interesting to those who will pick up your book. Basically, things happened as you have discovered them to have happened based on your sources and they happened in a certain order that the historical record will tell you. With fiction, a lot of that is out the window because you do have to create a story by sequencing events that you often have to invent. You do have to create characters that are fully real to the extent that you can accomplish that; whereas in historical work, you are drawing figures who really lived from the past and you actually don't have access to their interior lives because of the nature of the sources.

Josephine Reed: I wonder if winning the MacArthur in 2011 gave you the space financially, psychically, professionally to write the novel.

Tiya Miles: Yes, it did. <laughter> Yes, it did. It made a tremendous difference. Winning that prize, first of all, just shored up my confidence in what I was doing as a scholar. The kind of work I was doing which was looking at the intersections of Black history and Native history really wasn't so common at the time and there was also a public history element to my work. I was very interested in the historic sites that related to this past and public history really wasn't viewed as being kind of on par with academic history at the time. Much of that has changed, but back then, I, as a young scholar, needed the reassurance that what I was doing was not just okay but actually good. <laughs> And actually eye opening for many people. Once I had that new confidence, I felt that I could revisit the material and really devote time to the novel that I had been dreaming about and thinking about for a while. So of course, winning a prize like that means that it's easier to travel. It means that child care, the all-important and necessary child care is more affordable. I had three kids when I was writing this novel. Two of them were not even in elementary school yet and one of them was a nursing baby. <laughs> So it just made a tremendous difference to be able to hire someone to help me to take care of them while I was writing, and I did.

Josephine Reed: I wanted to touch on your extraordinary book "All That She Carried, The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family’s Keepsake" which won the National Book Award, can you describe Ashley’s sack for us

Tiya Miles: I can. Ashley's Sack is the name that curators have given to an old cotton bag, a utilitarian sack made of cotton that was manufactured probably in the 1840s or the 1850s. This sack is called Ashley's Sack because there's a story attached to it which is embroidered onto the sack itself and the story is about an enslaved woman named Rose who was held in bondage in South Carolina in this period of the 1850s who learned that her daughter named Ashley was about to be sold after the death of the person who had enslaved them. And Rose then got ahold of this sack, this utilitarian, you know, cotton bag that would have been used for, you know, something like seed or for grain in what was likely the kitchen where she worked as an unfree person, and she packed that sack with various items that she thought her daughter Ashley would need when they were separated. Rose packed a dress. She packed pecans. She packed a braid of her own hair. And she also packed love for her daughter, Ashley. Ashley never saw her mother again but she kept the sack with her her entire life. She passed it down to her own daughter who passed it down to her own daughter. And that descendant, whose name was Ruth Middleton, is the person who wrote the sentences via thread on the sack. She embroidered the story on to the sack which is how we know about it today.

Josephine Reed: I wonder if you remember your first encounter with it and whether you knew immediately you were going to have to write about it?

Tiya Miles: Oh, yes. There were many first encounters for me with this artifact. The first first encounter was actually via technology. It was on my iPad when I was looking at an image that had been sent to me by a local journalist down in Savannah, again, Georgia. When I saw the image that he sent to me, I thought that I had to see this thing in person. And so I actually spent months <laughs> trying to see the sack in person. It was actually in storage at the time in Washington, D.C. because it was going to be one of the first artifacts featured in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the new Smithsonian Museum in D.C. And so I had to wait until the Museum opened to be able to see the sack. But after the Museum opened, I was able to gain entry early in the morning before members of the public could get in and I was able to see the sack on display when I was all alone. And I recall what it was like to stand in front of this incredibly beautiful moving artifact of Black women's experience and how I felt at that time that it's almost as if I could fall into the sack, it's almost as if it were like a channel or a tunnel that I would have to enter into, because there was no way that I was going to walk away from that compelling story of a mother and a daughter and a sack that was exchanged between them which I came to believe must have sustained and nourished that daughter's life so that she could survive what ended up being a lifelong separation from her mother and go on to have her own daughter.

Josephine Reed: "All That She Carried" is obviously a deeply tragic story that just tears at the heart, but it's also one of extraordinary courage and tenacity and creativity. From Rose who put this emergency kit together for her daughter; for Ashley, who kept it and told the story; and for Ruth who documented it.

Tiya Miles: Yes. As I was doing the research and really the thinking for "All That She Carried," I came to a realization which <laughs> I think in retrospect I should have seen immediately that the sack is an archive. The sack is a carrier of all of these stories and all of these memories, of all of these meanings not only for the women who used it and packed it and passed it down but also for us.

Josephine Reed: Researching the book, I know was very challenging; do you think having written “The Cherokee Rose” helped you in the conceptualizing, structuring and writing of “All That She Carried”

Tiya Miles: Yes. Yes. It did. I think that we as academics, you know, trained to do a certain kind of thinking and writing can become locked into ways of doing it,  into ways of writing our articles, into ways of writing our books. And  being locked in can make it much more difficult to take up projects that require a kind of creativity and flexibility in their methods. But I had written a novel which had already really pushed me, really challenged me, really tested me when it came to writing narratively, to writing creatively, to trying to imagine the inner worlds of characters. And when I came across this wondrous artifact, Ashley's sack, and then recognized through some early research that I was not going to be able to find the kind of sourcing that I would need to really put together a tight reconstruction of this artifact, which was an antique cotton sack, and of the women who used it and passed it down, I knew I was going to have to turn to some very creative methods that already practiced those.  And so, even though it was scary, <laughs> I'm not going to lie, Josephine, and say that it wasn't, <laughs>  even though it was scary to take up the project where I knew I would not have the typical sources that a scholar of history would turn to, I already had, you know, a sense of the capacity to take something like this on and I already knew that fiction could be a colleague of mine along the way. And when it came to "All That She Carried," I used fiction in all kinds of ways that didn't actually end up in the finished version of the book. One of those ways is there were some moments in the history that I first wrote as fiction so that I could get a better understanding and sense of them. Before the manuscript went to my editor, I went back and kind of culled those passages because I wanted this work to be one that was strictly nonfiction but writing them helped me to bring I think a greater sense of detail, a greater sense of a sensory nature to my descriptions of those historical moments in the history "All That She Carried." And people who have read that book or who may read that book will also notice that I turn quite a lot to the fiction of classic authors in the African-American women's literary tradition in "All That She Carried" to help me fill in some of those gaps. And I think that I probably would have been less prepared and less ready to look to fiction written by others as a historical resource or as a historical archive if I hadn't written a novel myself.

Josephine Reed: Both "The Cherokee Rose" and "All That She Carried" really explores the resilience and strength of particularly women in marginalized communities and I wonder what lessons readers can draw from these narratives as we're looking at our world today?

Tiya Miles: One of the ways in which I like to think about the past is that the past is a resource for us today. That in the past we have the whole lives of hundreds and thousands and millions of people that we can look at and examine and ask questions about with regard to how should we live a life? How should we organize societies? How should we build communities? How should we run nations? How should we orchestrate global relations? My particular interest in relation to those questions has been the ways in which women of the past have been able to use everything at their disposal: their thoughts, their art, their passion, their emotions, their relationships, the things at hand in their environmental surrounds to live lives of love and perseverance amid and despite exploitation and abuse. And this is so important to me because we're constantly contending as human beings with trauma. Violence is so much a part of our human story. And yet, we have examples of people in the past who faced up to violence, who faced up to terrible wrongs committed against them and were able to still have hope in the future. I think we need that now, Josephine, because we are living at a time of intense violence, disruption, distance. It almost feels like there's going to be tremendous change after dramatic change after unexpected events that we don't know how to actually deal with. And to my mind, these women in the past who also dealt with dramatic, traumatic, unexpected change can be exemplars and they can be lights to help us find our way through the darkness.

Josephine Reed: And I think that is a great place to end it. Tiya, thank you. Thank you for both of these books. They've really meant a lot to me and I so appreciate it. And I appreciate you giving me your time.

Tiya Miles: Josephine, thank you so much.

Josephine Reed: That was historian and writer Tiya Miles. We were talking about her recent novel “The Cherokee Rose” and her 2021 National Book Award-winner “All That She Carried.” You can keep up with Tiya’s work at tiyamiles.com. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed—and thanks for listening.


Tiya Miles is best known as a historian and the author of the 2021 National Book Award winner for nonfiction, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake.  But Miles had preceded All That She Carried with a novel, The Cherokee Rose, published in 2015, which she has revised and has just been reissued with a new introduction. The novel moves from contemporary Georgia to the early 1800s and back again, as it explores the intertwined and sometime painful histories of Indigenous peoples and enslaved Black communities and those repercussions that are still felt in the 21st century. Drawn from Miles’s imagination but based in her scholarly research, The Cherokee Rose foregrounds the voices and experiences of women—Black, Indigenous, multiracial, and White—while it shines a light on a little-known history. 

In this podcast, Miles talks about the challenges for her as an historian writing a novel, what fiction allows her to explore, and how writing the novel helped her think creatively when she conceptualized and wrote All That She Carried. We also discuss her winning the MacArthur Fellowship and the freedom it gave her, her reasons for revising The Cherokee Rose, and how she draws hope from the creative determination of the women that she has spent her life studying.

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