When Latria Graham was first approached to join the faculty at the University of Montana as a guest writer in environmental studies, she did what she always does – she took 24 hours to think things through.
During those 24 hours, she reflected on the balance between her professional endeavors and her personal life. She also enlisted the advice of her friend Sean Hill, a Georgian poet who is a professor in the creative writing department at UM.
“It was an area of my map that I hadn’t filled in yet, so it was an important part of it and the opportunity to see something different was great,” Graham said.
“It’s easier to write about the South and love it and miss it when you’re not in the South, so I often find I have to leave the South to remember both the hard but tender parts of it,” she continued.
Graham is a noted essayist, journalist and columnist for Garden & Gun magazine. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Outside and many others. She is also a fifth generation farmer.
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Earlier this winter, Graham packed up her things and embarked on a 2,600-mile road trip across the country from her home in South Carolina to Montana to teach at the university for a semester as a Kittredge Distinguished Writer in Environmental Studies.
Kittredge’s post is named for Bill Kittredge, who taught creative writing at UM for three decades. The program has brought writers to the university since the spring of 2003. Graham is the first black writer to be named a Kittredge Distinguished Guest Writer.
Graham now teaches a writing workshop to graduates once a week and will give a public reading of his work which is scheduled for March 4.
“Latria’s work asks the questions that anyone writing about nature and the environment should be asking,” said Mark Sundeen, UM assistant professor of environmental studies.
As soon as Sundeen asked her if she might be interested in Kittredge’s position for the spring semester, Graham already knew what she wanted to teach, she said. In fact, she had been developing the program for most of the past decade.
While studying in New York for her MFA, she researched ways to explain her approach to storytelling and eventually settled on an explanation that was a bit like considering terroir while tasting wine. Terroir is a French term meaning “sense of place” and encompasses factors such as location, climate, soil, altitude and tradition and their influence on wine grape production.
“And so, thinking about the traditions that I come from, sometimes even thinking about the minerals in the ground that I write about, my place on this map and how to orient myself,” Graham said. “I take those experiences that I had and those theories that I learned in graduate school and look at how to turn them into something that students can learn from and talk about in their own way.”
Creating a distinct sense of place is a defining characteristic of Graham’s writing, regardless of subject matter. It’s also a frequent theme in her college class.
Another unique element of its graduate course at the university is its modernized approach to curriculum and assigned readings. Many of the authors she has included are living writers whose work reflects environments and conditions as they are today.
“There are current and interesting new ideas happening and in conversation with them. You can’t always be in a conversation with someone who wrote 200 years ago,” Graham said.
One of the authors she features in her class is Mitchell S. Jackson and his book “Survival Math.” It examines the history of racism and redlining in Oregon, the botany of an apple, and its experience in prison.
“I hope students will engage with this one because it’s a bit more challenging, it’s great craft-wise, but understanding all the places it goes is a challenge,” said Graham.
In 2018, Graham’s article “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us” was published by Outside magazine and sparked a conversation about visibility and racism in outdoor recreation. His work as a journalist spans many genres and beats such as food, culture, sports, conservation and travel.
She is currently working on her next book, “Uneven Ground”, which is due out in 2024. The book is about preserving her century-old family farm and its legacy, while examining the issue of the loss of black land ownership.
“I always hope that my work will make you think. Sometimes thinking is uncomfortable, it takes us out of Tik Tok country, but hopefully it will make your world better if you’re willing to sit in it,” Graham.