Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Q&A with Tiya Miles




Tiya Miles is the author of the new book Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation. Her other books include All That She Carried. She is the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University.


Q: What do you see as the relationship between your experiences with the ECO Girls group you founded in the 2010s and your decision to write this new book?


A: Over a decade ago, I had the idea to develop an environmental education program for girls after attending an environmental justice conference that included a “toxic tour” of Detroit.


I had hoped to contribute one small thing to the community effort to address environmental wrongs and invisibilities in the place where I lived. (For 16 years I taught on the faculty of the University of Michigan and lived in Ann Arbor. During that time, I researched and wrote a book on Detroit history and had the privilege of learning from Detroit researchers from many different fields.)


So back then, I was an educator and the mother of elementary-school-aged twin girls; a pedagogical project focused on that group was natural and personally meaningful.


Over several years, I co-developed and co-ran (with college and graduate students and university and community staff and volunteers) a fun weekend and summer camp program that took girls outside all around southeastern and northern Michigan and encouraged them to embrace the overlapping spaces of nature, culture, place, identity, and purpose. Our activities, along with our philosophies and approaches, are preserved on a colorful website


Fast forward to a few years ago when Alane Mason at W. W. Norton asked if I would be interested in writing a short book inspired by the website for ECO Girls. My answer was an enthusiastic yes; I wanted to write in a way that captured the positive spirit of that project and imagined the former students in that program as my readers.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I researched the book in a number of ways. One key avenue was delving into the featured women’s childhoods to the extent possible. This often meant turning to their memoirs and recollections and to observations made about them by family members and associates.


I had read many of these women’s memoirs (like Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Mamie Garvin Fields’s Lemon Swamp) and novels (like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women) before, and I recalled flashes of environmental description in this material; however, I was surprised to discover just how prominent nature was in their writings when I reread these texts for Wild Girls.


The theme I had chosen to focus on – girls outdoors, inspired by my work with the ECO Girls project -- was a much better fit than I had at first realized for framing a fresh interpretation of these women’s lives.


As I reread their writings for the book, I found certain moments, turns of phrase, and memories to be charming and even magical. The manuscript took on a quality of wonder due to these moments.


Another research method was visiting the historic sites that would appear in the study, something I find incredibly fruitful for all of my book projects.


Q: The writer Lauret Savoy said of the book, “Wild Girls invites readers on a crucial journey of insight and humanity, reminding us how each life--whether enslaved or dispossessed, marginalized or privileged--takes place on this Earth.” What do you think of that description?


A: Lauret Savoy is a beautiful nature writer. She has a knack for articulating the heart of any relationship between earth’s systems and features and our human lives. Her take on Wild Girls in this quotation is poetic and apropos. It is indeed a book about how place shapes experience, and indeed, makes lives possible.

Q: How did you choose the women you write about in the book?


A: I wrote about women who have been on my mind for years, and about whom I had a basic working knowledge before I started on Wild Girls. Many of the figures have appeared briefly in my previous essays or journal articles or on my college classroom syllabi.


Harriet Tubman inspired the thrust of the book – tracing the lives of girls with rich outdoor experiences who became active and influential in their time. For at least 15 years I have wanted to write about Tubman’s relationship with the natural world.


Once I had Tubman clearly in mind as a central figure and had drafted a chapter focused on her, I had a clear sense of the direction and argument for the other chapters. To a large extent, I was able to turn to my personal archive and reread notes and original materials that I had collected.


For instance, I have been assigning Harriet Jacobs’s narrative since I first started teaching. I had files of lecture notes on her. I had also kept notes about water, trees, and other natural elements in Jacobs’s memoir because enslaved people’s observations about nature have long been a side interest of mine.


Laura Smith Haviland, the Michigan abolitionist, is someone I researched for an (award-winning) academic article and a public history webpage around 10 years ago. I had plenty of material on her and a heavily annotated personal copy of her autobiography, A Woman’s Life-Work, Labours, and Experiences.


I used to teach about Anna Julia Cooper in a course on representations of African American women, and about Grace Lee Boggs in a class on Women of Color in the US.  


I taught about Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and the Fort Shaw basketball team in a class on Native American women.


I suppose this was a book just waiting to be written. “Save Everything!” is one of my research and writing mottos, and it came in handy here. In Wild Girls, you are getting a peek behind the scenes of my courses.


The one person I would never have expected to write about was Louisa May Alcott. I remember reading Little Women and visiting Orchard House when I was a teenager, but I had never studied Alcott’s work until the pandemic.


On one of those days when the world was shut down and my family needed an escape from the confines of our house, I had the idea to take a quick day trip to Concord, Mass. We walked the grounds of Orchard House, looked at the tags for plantings in the early-spring garden, and peered through the windows. That trip planted the seed, I am sure, for Alcott’s inclusion in the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a biography of Harriet Tubman told through an eco-spiritual lens. If all goes well, this book will be out in 2024 (with Penguin Random House).


Readers who find the appearances of Tubman in Wild Girls intriguing will likely enjoy the forthcoming book, which will also trace shadow as well as light in Tubman’s life journey but in greater detail than was possible in Wild Girls.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! I am excited to share that in June of this year, Random House released an updated and revised version of my novel, The Cherokee Rose.


The dual time period book, set in 2008 and the early 1800s, shares themes with Wild Girls (gardens, summer camp, historic sites, and female characters finding themselves and each other outside) and is based on research for my previous histories on Black experience and slavery in the Cherokee Nation.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tiya Miles.

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