Tiya Miles tracks the painful history of a family and of a nation through one handmade cloth bag in “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.” The book is a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize in nonfiction. The author is a professor of history at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She will speak virtually as part of the Boston Book Festival at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
MILES: A book I started about a year ago when it came out and am getting back into now, Walter Johnson’s “The Broken Heart of America,” which is a history of St. Louis. St. Louis is one those cities that has been so important and iconic but gets less attention for the role it played in American history.
BOOKS: Do you read mostly history?
MILES: My personal reading runs the gamut. It depends on my mood and the time of year, whether it’s summer or academic year. Sometimes over the winter holiday I will luxuriate in a novel that is pure escapism. During the academic year when I’m teaching, writing, and researching I can’t afford to lose myself in a fictionalized experience and stay up all night so I try to control that kind of reading.
BOOKS: When was the last time you let yourself go with a novel?
MILES: Deborah Harkness’s “A Discovery of Witches,” the first book in her series. I read it over a Christmas holiday while visiting my husband’s relatives. I found it amazing that a historian of science could have written this, where the main character is a scholar and has all these magical powers, including time traveling.
BOOKS: What did you indulge in this summer during your break?
MILES: I spent a large part of my summer researching. I read and reread biographies of Harriet Tubman. The two most comprehensive ones are by Kate Larson and Catherine Clinton. Erica Dunbar wrote a more recent visual biography. I’ve also been reading Octavia Butler. For my book, I incorporated some of her thinking, especially from “Parable of The Sower.” This summer I read one I hadn’t, “Fledging,” Butler’s last novel. It’s kind of a vampire adventure romance. I read that over a weekend in May after classes had ended. I was sitting in my yard under an apple tree as the petals were falling. I saved some of the petals in the book.
BOOKS: Do you tend toward fantasy or science fiction?
MILES: I used to tend toward mystery. Feminist mystery was my genre. I loved Barbara Neely’s novels. She wrote about this character Blanche White, who is a Black domestic worker. Everybody underestimates her but being a domestic worker she is always around and sees and hears everything. I also read Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries. Her main character is a female park ranger. What carries through all of these novels is that I look for strong female characters that are up against challenges but are OK in the end.
BOOKS: Are you a fan of biographies?
MILES: Biography can be like fiction and really pull you in but I don’t turn to it for my personal reading because I know the person is going to die by the end of the book. The research I do is so painful that I tend to select fiction for my personal reading, and not the heaviest, most serious novels. I don’t read novels about slavery though I did read Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” over a Christmas break.
BOOKS: Is there a book that sent you on the path to being a historian?
MILES: Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which I read in an African-American literature class in college. I loved literature but I had not been such a fan of history. When I read that book, I realized not only that African-American women had survived so much and that was so miraculous but also that literature and history are intertwined. That book absolutely changed my life in that it gave me the sense of intense connection to the past as well as a sense of deep purpose.