In her book All That She Carried, woman writer Tiya Miles explores the lives of three women told in embroidery on a grain sack that was found in a flea market. That grain sack, dating from 1851, tells the story of two enslaved women and one descendant. Rose created the sack for Ashley, her daughter, and Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered the story onto the sack when it was in her possession years later.

That is all Miles had to go on when she started out.

She began to do research about the time periods covered in the story on the sack, Black slavery in the US and the history of the items in the sack. She looked over plantation records and purchases of inventory including the enslaved in this time period, studied the history of Charleston where the story begins, and examined the purchase records and subsequent sale of the plantation where she located Rose and Ashley. 

Miles poured through any narratives of enslaved women that she could find, oral and written, explored the psychology of the enslaved and the enslavers, the market economy and political forces that created Black slavery. Then she began to dream into the lives of Rose, Ashley and Ruth with “imaginative restraint.” Once she got the feel for the interior lives of these women and their connections to each other through time, the book emerged. 

This is a new style of writing that is strong and effective which Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation.” Miles credits Hartman as inspiration in All That She Carried. In the introduction she writes:

“I also adapt the writing practice beautifully captured by cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman as  . . . a means of illuminating “the intimacy of our experience with the lives of the dead.”  Writers “narrating counter-histories of slavery” present-day inheritors of the legacy of slavery carry a responsibility not to forget our close ties to these lives, Hartman insists. Because archives do not faithfully reveal or honor the enslaved, tending this intimacy with the dead necessitates new methods including a trans-temporal consciousness and use of restrained imagination.

I take up Hartman’s notion of past and present abutment, of imaginative license, and of recognizing the persistence of archival gaps. In select moments where I encounter archival deficit, I imagine onto the page the figures of Rose, Ashley and Ruth. At other times, I take an opposite approach of marking their absence in the record, so that we remain aware of how the real conditions of their lives precipitated not only physical and psychological trauma but also archival diminishment”(17-18). 

Read NWW’s post about All That She Carried:
All That She Carried by Tiya Miles—Recovering the Untold Stories of Black Women in America

Miles also credits historian Marisa Fuentes, “who acknowledges the “violence” and “distortion” of traditional archives”(17) and Caribbean studies scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot who said “history begins with bodies and artifacts”(19), as other important scholars who have inspired her in this style of writing.

Miles uses the artifact (sack) as archive, exploring the history of women and stitching, enslaved Black women and textile and stories told and left behind in cloth. She continues in the introduction:

“Though early women’s history can be elusive, women need not “conjure a history for ourselves,” says the archaeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. We do not have to magically pull our collective past out of thin air. “Very little of the ancient literary record was devoted to women,” Barber continues. “Here among the textiles, on the other hand, we can find some of the hard evidence we need.” Similarly, in her essay “African -American Women’s Quilting,” the historian Elsa Barkley Brown insists that if we “follow the cultural guides which African American women have left us,” we will “understand their worlds”(15-16).

Critical fabulation is a call to action. To writers, researchers and readers, to historians and archivists. A calling out of the archive, of history as we have recorded it. Who has written our history? Who has created and kept these records that we consider to be our history? Whose stories get told and what determines that? 

Tiya Miles

When someone is only considered to be property and is not allowed to have a voice, is rendered invisible, how can they possibly show up in told or documented histories? History is skewed toward not only the victors but the wealthy, the colonizers and the slavers. 

Those who committed atrocities and lived to tell about it, and even show off about it, should not own the narrative. That is not the whole of history. Tiya Miles, Saidiya Hartman, critical fabulation and others who follow their lead are about to change all that. And I am here for it.

It must be emphasized for clarity that we are not talking about historical fiction here, or fiction of any kind. Though this sounds like what fiction writers have been doing forever, it is not. Critical fabulation is a form of nonfiction, a form of history writing, and as Miles notes, imaginative restraint is required. 

When writing in the style of critical fabulation, a writer cannot let themselves be totally carried away by their imagination or the story line of their imagination, as one can when writing fiction. There are guidelines to stay within. 

In critical fabulation, once the facts are gathered, we can imagine within a container of restraint that does not go beyond what would be believable for the time and place. We can create a narrative about the life or lives of the humans in the stories we are telling by drawing upon other sources from that time and the other historical data we have gathered.

For instance, why did Rose create such a sack for Ashley? And why did she put the items that she did inside of it? These answers are gathered through careful research and understanding of each item in the sack, enslaved Black women’s relationship to grain sacks in general, and the heartbreaking truth that most enslaved women had their children taken from them. With all this data in the container, imagining Rose creating the sack for Ashley, the conclusions Miles reaches for, the why of it, the how of it, make perfect sense. We can confidently rely on the data Miles has collected to help flesh out the story of Rose and Ashley. 

Considered in this way—taking in all points of view and allowing everyone in the story to have their humanness, a voice and an interiority—critical fabulation is actually a more accurate historical telling. Miles explains:

“This confrontation with the archive and the call to stretch sources like textiles raises a narrative imperative that I borrow from the incisive theorist Saidiya Hartman: to write history “with and against the archive.” It also raises questions about where to turn when the archival ground collapses beneath us. How do we discover past lives for whom the historical record is abysmally thin? What materials should we use as sources of information? . . . Evidence, or the lack thereof, presents a particular challenge for the study of Black women, women of color, and women on the whole as groups that have been socially disempowered and therefore often overlooked by the keepers of records and the intellectual architects of archives”(300-301).

Saidiya Hartman

Leader in the field of critical fabulation and author of three books including, Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives, woman writer Saidiya Hartman’s work has led her more deeply into the realm of  “counter-histories,” defined as  “histories that oppose past dehumanizing or invisibilizing historical narratives”(Miles 307). In her seminal essay, “Venus in Two Acts” where she first uses the label critical fabulation, Hartman writes:

“The scarcity of African narratives of captivity and enslavement exacerbate the pressure and gravity of such questions. There is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage. This silence in the archive in combination with the robustness of the fort or barracoon, not as a holding cell or space of confinement but as an episteme, has for the most part focused the historiography of the slave trade on quantitative matters and on issues of markets and trade relations. Loss gives rise to longing, and in these circumstances, it would not be far-fetched to consider stories as a form of compensation or even as reparations, perhaps the only kind we will ever receive”(3-4).

What a unique and enlivening thought: “stories as a form of compensation or even as reparations” is a truth that cuts through the longing. Give us back our stories. Give them back their stories. It makes clear that stories are one of the most profound things to have been stolen, erased, disappeared. To reclaim realities told through story as a way to regain some of that loss, a way of recapturing some truth, to begin as humans to be able to own our own backstory, to take control of it as a revolutionary act is, I believe, one of the most profound things activists can do at this time. Hartman is genius. 

This is not fiction. This is our history. We want it back. We must free it from the shackles of silence, erasure and denial. We must claim the narrative.  

Hartman writes:

“The intention here isnt anything as miraculous as recovering the lives of the enslaved or redeeming the dead, but rather laboring to paint as full a picture of the lives of the captives as possible. This double gesture can be described as straining against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration. The method guiding this writing practice is best described as critical fabulation. Fabula” denotes the basic elements of story, the building blocks of the narrative”(VTA 11).

And for all of us, just as we claim history as it has been told until now as our story, so too these untold narratives waiting to be told and explored are our stories. This is our history in its fullness wanting to be told and recorded. All the stories are our stories. The stories of our humanity. We must allow them all.

Read NWW posts about Saidiya Hartman:
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Woman Writer Saidiya Hartman
Reimagining the Quest for Black Freedom in the USA: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

“My work explores the limits of the archive,” Hartman says in the video introducing her on her MacArthur foundation award page. Here’s to adding more names to those exploring the “limits of the archive,” claiming the narrative and telling history in its wholeness. 

Saidiya Hartman and Tiya Miles are Nasty Women Writers blazing a trail for us all to follow.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2022

Works cited:

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, Duke University Press. #26(vol. 12, #2) June 2008, pp. 1-14. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/research/centres/blackstudies/venus_in_two_acts.pdf

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. W.W. Norton & Co. NY, 2020

MacArthur Foundation: “Saidiya Hartman: Literary Scholar and Cultural Historian|Class of 2019.” https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2019/saidiya-hartman#searchresults

Miles, Tiya. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Random House, N.Y. 2021