[Q&A] Tiya Miles on History, Historical Fiction, and “Structured Imagination”
“Whenever I visit antebellum homes in the South, with their spacious rooms, their grand staircases, their shaded back windows that, without the thickly planted trees, would look out onto the now vanished slave quarters in the back, this is invariably my thought. I stand in the backyard gazing up at the windows, then stand at the windows inside looking down into the backyard, and between the me that is on the ground and the me that is at the windows, History is caught.” -- Alice Walker, quoted in The House on Diamond Hill
In 2011, Tiya Miles was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work connecting the histories of African and Cherokee people in Colonial America. I heard Miles speak this past spring at the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville where she described the challenges of translating her historical monograph (a book that is based on a single subject) on the Chief Vann House into a fictional novel.
The monograph, The House on Diamond Hill, examines the racial and social complexities of Cherokee Chief James Vann’s plantation in Diamond Hill, Georgia, from its construction in the 19th century, through Cherokee removal in the 1830s, and up to its transformation into a historic site in the 1950s. The second book, The Cherokee Rose, is a fictional account of a similar house.
The novel uses the home and its history to make connections between individual’s different interpretations of the past. Both books serve as a means to emphasize that history is not linear or finite. That multiple perspectives shift the way race, gender, and politics interact with one another on the ground.
In both books, “history is caught” and translated deftly by Miles in a way that is at times both recognizable and strange -- but also important to telling the whole story of this period in American history. I recently interviewed her to learn more about her work and her process in writing The Cherokee Rose.
In The House on Diamond Hill, you tell us the history of the Chief Vann House. How did you end up writing about this home?
I was actually doing research on another project -- my dissertation about an Afro-Cherokee family during the period that Cherokees owned black slaves -- when I first visited the Chief Vann House in 1998. Since the Chief Vann House was the main architectural feature of a preserved Cherokee-owned plantation, I went there to gain a more material and sensory feel of how slavery was practiced among wealthy Cherokees.
Miles talks about her work connecting the histories of African-American and Cherokee people in Colonial America.
What are some of the ways in which you unearthed the layered history of the site?
I relied mainly on written primary sources in order to construct my history of the Vann plantation. In addition to a cache of detailed records left by Moravian missionaries from Salem, North Carolina, whom Vann invited to live and work on his land, there were letters to, from, and about James Vann in the Cherokee Agency records.
Cherokee Supreme Court and Georgia court records were also revealing, as they preserved James Vann’s will and details about the construction of his brick home. I also gleaned important information from oral interviews with local residents and members of the Cherokee-Moravian Association, a group that explores and keeps alive those historical ties.
Information about African-Americans on the plantation was tougher to come by, but I was able to find bits and pieces in the Moravian Mission diary, which I paired with slave narratives to glean context.
What did you learn from the house itself? Have you seen an impact in how history is presented at the Vann house since your book came out?
Visiting the physical house and grounds over a period of several years had an important impact on my work. I was able to get a spatial idea of how the Vann family and the people they enslaved would have lived -- the proximity of their living quarters and the natural and built environments they had to navigate. There is really nothing like being inside the walls of an old home, or standing outside in its former gardens and fields, when you are trying to picture life there two centuries ago.
Until recently, there was no attention paid to slavery or black experience at a historic site that used to be a working plantation where the black population far outnumbered the Cherokee or white population in residence. While I was doing research on African-Americans at the Vann plantation, Vann House Interpretive Ranger Julia Autry felt inspired to create a new exhibit on the topic. She applied for funding from the state, enlisted the help of past and current Vann House volunteers, and sought feedback from me as well as the historian who translated the Moravian diaries, Rowena McClinton. Now visitors to the site can see an exhibit on black experience that is housed in a preserved log cabin.
This is a major and important accomplishment for the Vann House. However, the site still faces the challenge shared by other plantation sites that have tried to improve their interpretation of slavery but have done so in a separate exhibit space. Many guests still want to visit a plantation to hear romantic stories, see elaborate architecture, and hear about lifestyles of the rich and famous. They want to spend their time in the “big house” and do not seek out difficult histories.
Separate slavery exhibits that leave the main narrative of the “big house” and master family intact allow people to opt out more easily. The complex and diverse aspects of site histories can therefore be side-lined, leaving visitors with a less rich experience.
Your fictional novel The Cherokee Rose is set at a home with a very similar past as the Vann house. How difficult was it to translate the complexity of the Vann House’s history into a novel format?
In a word: very! I had a hard time allowing myself to write The Cherokee Rose as fiction. In the beginning, I stuck very closely to what I knew had happened in the past. I hesitated to make things up, feeling that I was violating a core principle of my academic training.
I had to remind myself that fiction is not history; I was writing in a new genre that was all about using the structured imagination, character and plot development, pacing and language, to shine a light on the interior aspects and social nuances of the human experience. While writing a novel forced me to set aside some of the important historical details that I uncovered in The House on Diamond Hill, it allowed me to capture emotion, magic, and the spirited nature of old places in a way that I could not in the history.
One of the things I liked about The Cherokee Rose was how you leveraged each of your characters into representing one particular view of the past. In doing so you were able to integrate different perspectives and approaches to the understanding of history. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about?
Thank you! This novel stemmed not only from my historical findings in the archives, but also from the many conversations I have had with people over the years at conferences, libraries, family reunions, and public lectures. These were folks grappling, like I was, with the issues of slavery in Native-American nations, the controversy over the citizenship status of freed people’s descendants’, the experience of mixed-raceness, and genealogical questions that resisted clear answers.
Because I have heard so many perspectives and recognize that these are sensitive, multifaceted issues with real meaning for people’s lives, I wanted to try to include various points of view in the novel. At the same time, I wanted to find some kind of resolution of the tensions and pain people felt over these issues, and that required having the characters change internally as a consequence of their confrontation with the history of the Cherokee Rose Plantation and one another.
Looking at The House on Diamond Hill and The Cherokee Rose together, is one medium more effective than the other?
I think the effectiveness of the medium depends on the reader. Some readers will get more out of the history because they know they are reading my best effort at reconstructing what is “true” (filtered, of course, through my perception) and because they can look up names and dates (including their own ancestors -- I see a lot of this) and double check my interpretations by following my footnotes.
Other readers will find the fiction more satisfying because it draws them into the interior worlds of a series of (I hope) compelling characters. Reading a novel is more of an emotional experience -- something like a roller coaster -- and some readers enjoy that intensity of connection and momentum.
I can say that most people in my everyday life, that is, my relatives and non-academic friends, have dived right into the novel when they had felt more of a barrier to reading the history. It’s funny, I recently saw a cousin who has her doctorate and works at a university hospital as a medical researcher. She told me she reads medical journals all day and likes to unwind when she reads for pleasure. She actually said that she hates history and bought my previous work not to read, but to support me! However, because my cousin loves reading Beverly Jenkins who manages to interweave aspects of black history into her romance novels without turning the books into depressing reads, she said she will give my novel a try.
This, for me, is a triumph! I love being able to reach new audiences (particularly African-American women) with a fictionalized version of my research, and I love being in the same sentence with Beverly Jenkins.
What is your favorite history book? Historical fiction book?
This is a tough question. So many books have moved, informed, and challenged me. I cannot choose a favorite, so I will share with you what came most immediately to mind. When I read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale, in a graduate seminar in U.S. women’s history, I was utterly astounded. The book was a masterpiece of historical investigation, sensitive interpretation, and the skill and imagination required to pull whole pictures of the past from thin, seemingly cryptic sources.
I have also deeply appreciated and enjoyed Toni Morrison’s historical fiction. Song of Solomon comes to mind at this moment, because of the beautiful way that it touches on the influence of Native-American ancestry within an African-American family story.