I had already bought a copy of Nancy K. Miller’s memoir, What They Saved, published this year by the University of Nebraska Press, when I attended her panel on family story at the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Chicago in March.
Nancy is distinguished professor English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She’s the author or editor of more than a dozen books. What They Saved is her newest.
Nancy took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for The Whole Megillah readers.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Did you keep a journal while traveling?
Nancy K. Miller (NKM): I kept a journal when I went to Eastern Europe. In my first draft of this material, I wrote it as a diary—including what I had for breakfast at the hotel in Kishinev, the tablecloth, the music that was blaring on the television, etc. The chapter was very, very long, in the present tense, and filled with the crudeness of uncensored first impressions—how many people had gold and silver teeth, the state of toilets on the roadside, etc. Looking back, it strikes me that it was something like a blog post, but that did not occur to me as a form at the time. On the website for my book, though—I reconstructed the journey and included snapshots that I was not able to include in the book.
I also took notes whenever I interviewed anyone—including family members, and sometimes I taped the interviews.
TWM: How much did you reply on the physical representation of the family tree?
NKM: When I saw the tree sketches that my grandfather and father had done, I was completely mystified. I mean I could see that there were several generations of people I had never heard of, but I had no idea how to make a standard tree—the way I now have it at the beginning of my book. Early on, I had been in contact—online—with a woman who had set herself the challenge of making a tree for everyone she researched with the Kipnis family name. She converted the numbers on my father’s tree into a tree that made the generations and branches clear. And it was through the conversion of this information—that I began to realize that there were many people I could have known—like my father’s uncle and aunt, who lived in New York. The tree served primarily as an organizational tool, a way to visualize interrelations. But as a feminist, I feel bothered by the way this particular tree is missing the woman at the very beginning (whom I’ve named Sarah)—and most of the women in those very early generations—and represents so much the narrative of the fathers, the power of the name, even if Jewishness theoretically passes through the mother.
TWM: There seems to be so many personal learnings. Which was the most surprising and why?
NKM: The biggest surprise over all was just how much there was to learn, how much information was available to me, thanks to the state of archival research today. But perhaps the most startling discovery was not what I thought it would be: what I wanted to know at the beginning—where “they” were from, who “they” were. That was exciting—true. More overwhelming to me personally, was the realization that I had completely missed what was at the heart of our family dynamic—what went on at home between my parents. In other words, I thought I was looking for what was far—Russia, great grandparents—but what I was finding brought me much closer in. I felt as if I had not understood my own life, at least the part of it that shaped my childhood and early adolescence. Maybe the saddest part of this was the exclusion of my grandmother—who was the first saver of many of the objects and letters that proved so valuable. She was there—and yet not there.
TWM: How long did it take to write the book?
NKM: I started to research the book in the year 2000, with the phone call about the property in Israel. But I was not thinking of a book at the beginning. I was gathering information for its own sake, following whatever leads I had—playing detective. In 2007—after the property was finally sold (that was the beginning of the journey)—I published an academic article that contained the story I was embarked on in a nutshell, but interwove my story with that of other writers—Mary Antin and Amos Oz. I also published one or two little pieces about the objects that had fascinated me. But it was only once I had gone to Eastern Europe, and perhaps influenced by Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, that I began to see how the pieces could become joined to become linked into a book with an arc. So it took me about three years of writing after several years of research.
TWM: I see several earlier versions of selected chapters had been previously published. Would you recommend that approach to aspiring memoirists?
NKM: I think it’s a good idea to publish bits as you go along. It was fun to get responses—especially to the piece about the locks of hair—and it encouraged me to try and figure out what kind of story I would need to interest others in my quest. Yes, I would encourage other memoirists to experiment with short pieces. You just learn a lot in the process—not least because you have to make a “bit” stand on its own.
TWM: How did you decide to use artifacts as an organizing principle for your book?
NKM: It took me a long time to figure out how to organize the book. I was attracted to the idea of grounding the story in artifacts—because paradoxically that allowed me to construct myself as the detective, the questor, and thereby to make what might seem static or passive, active. In other words, I began to see that if I could narrate the experience of learning what each of the documents could reveal—I would have something both concrete and imaginative, or narrative. I could weave a story around that process. At one point, I had a very long table of contents that alternated, “narrative,” “object,” “narrative,” “object,”—until a friend who was a novelist pointed out that every object contained the potential for a narrative and that I was both overcomplicating and undermining the story line.
TWM: How did this journey affect your spirituality and practice of Judaism?
NKM: I’ve left the question about Judaism for last. It’s in many ways the hardest question you’ve asked. I’ve always felt that I lacked the spirituality gene—if there is such a thing—and that hasn’t changed. And I don’t think that I will become observant at this point in my life. But what has changed for me is that I feel very clearly attached to this particular slice of Jewish history—that of the diaspora, of the huge waves of immigrations of Jews from Eastern Europe to America before World War II and the Holocaust. I see that a lot of what I thought was “just my family” was in fact deeply attached to what this immigration meant, and what I think of as “just me” is intimately connected to belonging to the third generation. Most of all, I am thrilled whenever I hear from a reader for whom my book has triggered memories of similar experiences, or inspired readers to undertake their own quest. I guess I feel grateful to have learned that I belong to this tradition—to what this kind of Jewishness is.