Plus ça change… A Few Thoughts in the Wake of the Toulouse School Shooting

toulouse_013 by celine nadeau

A few months ago, a friend asked me before departing to France on sabbatical if she should be concerned about anti-Semitism there. “Oh no,” I said, dismissing her concerns. Now, in the wake of the Toulouse Jewish school shooting, I see I may have been wrong to be so quick in my assurance that all would be well.

I have complex emotional relationship to France, but I love Toulouse, “la ville rose.” My family and I spent a few weeks there while I was doing research for Epistolophilia. Ona Šimaitė lived there for a time after 1945, and we went to the city to retrace her steps. We liked it so much that it was one of the places we considered when searching for a place to spend our 8-month sabbatical.

My visit to Toulouse was my first return to the south of France in almost two decades. I had lived in Aix-en-Provence for a year as a student in my 20s. It was an incredibly difficult year, and I returned home shaken and traumatized. It took almost twenty years before I could consider returning without anxiety. So it was a big deal when, a few weeks ago, my son (on the cusp of turning 5) and I boarded a plane from Malta to Marseille to visit my old friend, Sarah.

Since I last saw her, Sarah has married a Moroccan man. Out of love for his wife, Mohammed left his country for her and settled in France. The stories they told me of raising “mixed” kids and of the difficulties that Med (Mohammed’s nickname) has finding and keeping jobs — despite the fact that he’s friendly, competent, fluent in French, and a highly trained professional — revealed how little had changed since the summer I left Aix after an “Arabe” had been savagely beaten on the swanky Cours Mirabeau for no apparent reason. One of the things that troubled me back then was the overt racism against “les Arabes” — mostly Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians who have lived in France for several generations. Now, if anything, things appear to have gotten worse.

North Africans born in France call themselves “Beurs,” a distorted anagram of the word “Arabe.” Generally speaking, Beurs have a tough go of it in France. On the one hand, young people of colour are told that they must assimilate and become French. But on the other, the fact that they are always identified as “of Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisan/etc. descent” reveals that they will never, despite their best efforts, be French enough. (Incidentally, there are a lot of good books about Beur culture, and even more good music produced by Beurs. See, for example the books of Leïla Sebbar or the music of the group Gnawa Diffusion. I’m a bit out of the loop at this point, and not nearly cool enough to know much about the music, but with a bit of digging, you’ll unearth some interesting things.)

The point is that we’ve now learned the Toulouse Jewish school shooter (also the killer of French soldiers of North African origin) is a French Algerian, a Beur. And this fact has sent me into despair. All I see is a spiral of hatred upon hatred, and I can’t see a way out.

I ache for the families of the dead.

And for the Jewish kids in France who will now go to school under armed guard.

And for the innocent Beur kids who will suffer for this crime.

And for Sarah and Med, for whom things are bound to get worse.

[Photo: celine nadeau]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.


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On Chronology and Necessary Abandonment: Working with Letters and Diaries

Broken by MarcelGermain

The first review of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė appeared a few days ago. And even though this isn’t my first book or review, it’s still a wild ride to have strangers reading my work.

In her review of the book, Claire Posner points to a major challenge that I faced writing this book: chronology.

Perhaps reflecting the uneven records that Šimaitė left behind, Epistolophilia‘s chapters are grouped by subject matter rather than in chronological order.

She’s right: rather than telling Šimaitė’s story from beginning to end in a clean and linear fashion, I attacked the librarian’s life by topic, and attempted to answer the questions that the process of piecing her story together raised for me.

This book, as many of you know by now, was a struggle to write. The archival materials I was working with (letters and diaries) resisted my efforts to tame them. I simultaneously had too much and too little to work with. Only after a long internal battle and after putting aside some of my ideas about how this book should look did Epistolophilia finally come together.

The funny thing is that despite its being such a major obstacle, I’d pretty much forgotten about the issue of chronology and how much pain it had caused me, until I read the ForeWord review.

So what did I learn from writing Šimaitė’s life? For one: we don’t actually live our lives chronologically. Two: we certainly don’t record them that way. Rather, we move continually back and forth between the past and present, reinterpreting, forgetting, remembering, inventing, telling ourselves our own histories, then (in the best cases) turning around and recounting those histories to our children, our loved ones, and our readers.

So, when I was recently asked by a fellow writer how she should tackle a large collection of letters in her possession, I had to stop and think. The obvious advice is to organize and read the letters and diaries chronologically (if they come from different archives, be sure to devise a system to identify the source of each letter before mixing documents up — I used coloured star stickers). Then, the second most obvious piece of advice would perhaps be to abandon chronology altogether.

The difficulty lies in the fact that you’ve got to make order from chaos to start. But then you may realize that the order has created a new kind of chaos. Do not confuse mere chronology with structure. Chronology may be a start, but it may not be a solution. It may even be a problem.

I suspect that each body of correspondence or life writing demands its own structure when being reworked for a book. This is great, because it means that there are no rules. (But the bad news too is that there are no rules.) You have to pay close attention to your material and tease out its meaning. With luck, once you have meaning, structure should follow. By this I mean that once you see a story emerging from a pile of documents, chances are you can also see how to tell it.

The best I can offer for now, in terms of a method, is this:

  1. Organize your materials chronologically.
  2. Read them chronologically
  3. Track the story they tell. (Find their meaning)
  4. Abandon chronology if necessary. (Build a structure)
  5. Tell the story as the material demands.

I’d love to hear from others working with letters and diaries. How have you coped with an embarrassment of riches that resists structure? How do you organize your material and tame it? What is your relationship to chronology and the material traces of lives lived?

Share your thoughts and experiences. Perhaps we can learn from one another.

[Photo: MarcelGermain]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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Epistolophilia: A Few Thoughts on the Occasion of a Book’s Birth

The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.

The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.

The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.

But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.

Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.

Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.

Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.

The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.

But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.

So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book hereEnter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research 2012

Margin by Ian Koh

Established in 2011, this prize in memory of Abraham Meir Schwartzbaum, Holocaust Survivor, and his Family who was murdered in the Holocaust is awarded annually in recognition of high scholarly research and writing on the Holocaust.  Last year’s prize was awarded to:  Prof. Christopher R. Browning, for his book Remembering Survival:  Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, and to Prof. Daniel Blatman, for his book, The Death Marches:  1944-1945.

Only books containing new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath, will be considered. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

Books, either hardcover or original paperback, published between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2011 are eligible for the prize.

Five copies of the published book together with the application form, a copy of the author’s Curriculum Vitae, and two letters of recommendation should be sent to the International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem.  Entries must be received by 1 June 2012.  Entries will not be returned.

In addition to the monetary prize, the recipients will be asked to present a paper at the award ceremony.

This prize is endowed through the generosity of Sabina Schwartzbaum in memory of her father.

The Prize

1. The prize is named in memory of Holocaust survivor Abraham Meir Schwartzbaum, and those of his family who were murdered in the Holocaust.

2.  The Yad Vashem Prize for Holocaust Research is awarded annually.  It recognizes research on the Holocaust published in the two years proceeding the year in which the prize is awarded.

3.  The prize aims to encourage excellent and new research on the Holocaust, or its antecedents and aftermath.

4. Research accuracy, scholarship, methodology, originality, importance of the research topic, and literary merit are important factors.

5. A monetary sum will be awarded to the winner/s.

6.  Recipients from abroad will be invited to Israel to present a paper at the award ceremony. Flights and hotel accommodations will be covered by the Research Institute.

7. A group of Holocaust historians chosen by the International Institute for Holocaust Research make up the panel of judges for the prize.  Judges, including their family members, may not enter the prize in any year in which they judge.

More details here.

Application form here.

[Photo: Margin by Ian Koh]

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This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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Show Me the Money: Where to Find Writers’ Grants

Platita para la micro, y una moneda de....?? 細かいお金 by * Cati Kaoe *

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I couldn’t have written Epistolophilia without writers’ grants and research fellowships. A number of different arts agencies and institutions — these are listed in the Acknowledgements to my book — helped me pay for plane tickets, get paper for printing, buy time for writing, and (perhaps most importantly) they confirmed that my writerly hunch might be a good one.

I’ve applied for hundreds of grants over the years — so many that it’s now become part of my creative process. Entering grant competitions is one more way for me to work out ideas, test the waters, and see if a project has legs. I’ve had a lot of success partly because I’ve learned how to talk about my work in a way that makes sense to granting agencies; and in part because of the numbers — the more grants I apply for, the better my chances.

I’ve had a few queries regarding grants recently: how to find them; what they fund; how the system works. So, I thought I’d give an overview here.

By far the best resource for grant, fellowship and residency announcements I’ve come across is Mira’s List, a blog kept by the extraordinary writer Mira Bartok (soon I’ll be interviewing her about her new book The Memory Palace, so stay tuned). I recommend signing up for her mailing list or checking her site frequently.

There are a few things to keep in mind when applying for grants. First, grants beget grants. That’s to say that every grant you receive increases your chances of getting another one. Second, granting agencies want to feel confident that they’re backing a winner, so be prolific. Finish your projects and publish them!

So what kind of funding is there to be had?

Of course, there are the big and prestigious awards like: the Guggenheim Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. These awards are generally for established writers and artists, and even to oft-published authors, applying for them can feel like a lottery. Unless you’re very senior indeed, it’s best to treat them as long-shots, and expect to be turned down so you can be pleasantly surprised (or ecstatic) when you win an award.

Easier to win are geographically determined awards, like the New York Foundation for the Arts, the CALQ (Conseil des Arts et Lettres du Quebec or Quebec Arts Council), and the Ontario Arts Council. Most states and provinces have their own granting agencies, so check out yours. Many cities (Toronto and Kansas City are two examples ) have artists’ grants available to their residents, so check those out too, and mark deadlines on your calendar. Obviously, the smaller the geographic area defining the competition, the better your odds.

Don’t forget to check out the Fulbright Program if you’re a US citizen, have a scholarly affiliation, and need to do research abroad.

Artists’ Residencies are a good way to go for short periods (weeks or months) of uninterrupted work away from home. Some cover all costs; others ask artists to kick in a share of the cost. Sometimes there are small application fees, which annoys me, but perhaps it won’t bother you. There are well-known colonies like Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. (Here’s a good resource to check out for more artist residencies.) Universities, like McGill University in Montreal, often have writers-in-residence, so keep an eye out for those too.

Library grants can be very useful for those of us doing research. Many public and specialized libraries offer fellowships to writers. A few examples include the New York Public Library Fellowships, Chicago’s Newberry Library Fellowships, and the Laman Library Writers Fellowship in Arkansas. Around Montreal, where I live, public libraries offer fellowships to local writers. See if this is the case in your community.

Other aspects to consider are subject matter and genre. There may be grants available to fund work in a specific genre or on a particular subject area: Yiddish culture, the Holocaust, biographyAmerican history, and poetry are just a few examples of areas in which targeted funding is available.

Finally, don’t sniff at small grants like the awards of between $500 and $1,500 offered by Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation. I won this one just as I was finishing my book, and it paid for the daycare I needed to get the final version of my manuscript ready for review at the press. Remember, grants beget grants, so the very fact of winning a small award improves your position in the next round of competitions.

When writing grant proposals, be as specific as you can. If you can give chapter breakdowns, do so. If you’ve written half the book already, then say so. If you have a publisher interested, underline that. Demonstrate how your project is new, innovative, and important. Show that it contributes to knowledge or culture. Point to your past accomplishments to underscore the fact that you finish what you start.

Above all, don’t despair. The grants system can be capricious and unjust. Brilliant projects can get rejected and duds occasionally get funded. Write the application, put it in the mail, then forget about it and get back to your work.

Which is, after all, the whole point.

[Photo: Cati Kaoe]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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How Long Should a Book Take to Write? (On a Writer’s Natural Rhythms and Pace)

Recently, a fellow writer (who publishes short essays and pieces of travel writing) told me about a book she’d just finished reading. It was an excellent book she said, but added with wide eyes: “It took him seven years to write! That’s crazy. I could never do that.”

I have this thing I do when I’m not sure how to respond: I involuntarily freeze stone-faced for a few seconds, thus allowing my brain to work. It’s what happened after my friend’s remark. All kinds of thoughts whipped through my head, as I stood there motionless, considering what to say next: Wait, I’ve spent at least that long on my book! What does that mean? Is it really crazy to do that? Am I crazy? Have I wasted my life? Does the fact that my book took me so long to write mean that I’m a bad writer?

In the end, I shrugged and tried not to seem defensive: “That’s how long my book took me to write.”

It was a bit of a white lie. Truth is, it actually took me longer.

I doubt that anyone who picks up Epistolophilia will guess that it was twelve years in the making. For one thing, it’s not even a particularly long book. But even though I didn’t write consistently for twelve years, and accomplished a lot of other stuff during that period, from the first discovery of Ona Šimaitė’s story to the appearance of the book, that’s the amount of time that elapsed.

There are many reasons why it took so long to complete. First, I had to gather research materials from five archives in three far-flung countries. Once I’d collected these, I had thousands of manuscript pages to sift through. What’s more, to read a large portion of these documents, I had to remember how to read Russian (a skill I hadn’t used for some ten years). When I actually started writing, I made some false starts and took some wrong turns. Finally, I had a baby. That slowed things down even more.

Had I known then what I know now, I could have saved myself a few years. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t. Live and learn. Write and get better at it.

How long should a book take to write? My answer: as long as it takes.

Writing, in large part, is an endurance test. The creation of a book is a marathon, not a sprint, so one of the most valuable traits a writer can cultivate is patience – with herself, with the industry, and with the creative process.

Some writers work incredibly quickly.  I applaud them and, truth be told, am slightly envious of them. But if you’re like me, and write at a snail’s pace, that’s OK too.

Make peace with your natural pace and rhythms, whatever they are. That’s how the best work happens.

[Photo: cishore]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part I)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

*

In her new memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, Nancy K. Miller tells the story of how she reconstructed her family’s missing past from a handful of mysterious objects found in dresser drawers and apartment closets after her father’s death. The strange collection–locks of hair, a postcard from Argentina, a cemetery receipt, letters written in Yiddish—moved her to search for the people who had left these traces of their lives and to understand what had happened to them. As Miller slowly pieced together her family portrait and assembled a genealogical tree, she felt connected in unexpected ways to an immigrant narrative that began in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, when her ancestors headed for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the end of her decade-long quest, Miller started to imagine the life she might have had with the missing side of her family. Suspended between what had been lost and what she found, Miller finally comes to terms with the bittersweet legacy of the third generation—tantalizing fragments of disappeared worlds.

Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written, edited or co-edited more than a dozen volumes, including Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death, But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, and several books on feminist criticism and women’s writing.

Julija Šukys: I once heard a novelist talk about how she decided to write a book about a house. One by one, she told the story of each room. I very much like the idea of writing biographies of objects or places. Your book, it seems to me, has similar origins; in your case, a private archive of objects passed down in your family, including a collection of letters, a tallis bag containing tefillin, a map of a plot of land in Israel, and a lock of hair enclosed in a soap box. Talk a little about this collection of items, and how your contemplation of them led you to write this book.

Nancy K. Miller: Not long after my father’s death in 1989, as I emptied the family apartment, I found the tefillin and the locks of hair in a drawer. More precisely, I found the tefillin in a set of drawers that resembled a secretary and that was part of the living room furniture, and the box of fancy French soap in which the hair had been preserved in a bedroom dresser. The distinction seems important, if only because following the model of the house, I now in memory recall the objects in their original location. But also perhaps because, now that I think about it, the tefillin were destined to be worn in a public place—a synagogue, or any other place of prayer—and therefore were stored in the living room, whereas the box of hair was stored in the more intimate space of the bedroom. Not that I thought then about what possible difference that made.

At that point in my life, I was about to take off for a year’s sabbatical in France, and there was little time for contemplation. All I could do in the days I had before leaving was to gather these objects—and others, the letters, photographs, and random scraps of paper—and set them aside for storage. I knew I wanted to hold on to these things, but the idea of writing anything inspired by them was very far from my mind. I was working on the book that was to become Getting Personal (1990), and while I suppose I might have contemplated, to use your word, the significance of these objects, I did not. Weirdly, though, it now strikes me, before my father died, I wrote a very short essay about his debilitating illness, a meditation I called “My Father’s Penis,” and that constitutes the last chapter of that book. Even when I wrote the book Bequest and Betrayal (1996), in which I deal with the death of my parents and their legacy, as well as other family matters that I dwell on in What They Saved, I did not turn my attention to what now seems to me a precious collection of memorial objects.

It was only when I received the strange phone call from the realtor in Los Angeles telling me that I had inherited property from my paternal grandparents that I began to realize that this small cache of objects contained, or potentially contained large stores (not yet stories) of information about my father’s side of the family. Since I knew almost nothing of these people—his people—I started to wonder about who they were, what had happened to them, and how their absence, their silence might have affected my childhood. But again, I was not thinking about a book. I related the anecdote about the phone call and the meeting it led to with my father’s nephew (I had known neither my father’s brother, nor his son, except for their names) in an epilogue to But Enough About Me (2002), saying that it was a good story. But the story, such as it was (and wasn’t) kept tugging at my mind, and I continued to research the missing family members. I wrote an academic essay (2007), in which I sketched out whatever I then knew—not much!—and interwove those bits of knowledge with stories of immigration (Mary Antin, Amos Oz) in order to create some perspective for my very slender speculations.

Still no book.

In 2008, after vowing I would never follow the path of the “root-seekers” heading for Eastern Europe, I traveled there myself. And when I returned home, I realized that I had to write this book. It was at that moment that I first understood that the objects not only grounded my story, in some sense they were the story, or at least they provided the clues I needed to construct a narrative.

While reading your book I felt a host of tensions at play in the narrative. You write how as a young woman you rejected your father’s surname, Kipnis, and took on your mother’s name, Miller (retaining only the middle initial K. from your father). Yet, here you are, many years later trying to reconstruct the very past, the otherness, and the patriarchal footprint, I suppose, that you once rejected.

There’s another similar moment: the story of the tefillin — sacred prayer boxes — that you inherited. You consider what to do with the tefillin: “Because the paraphernalia of prayer belongs to men, I could not see the point in saving this legacy, but something about putting the velvet bag in the trash along with the household garbage made me uneasy – would I be throwing away an entire tradition? Part of me said yes, and why not?” (217). In the end, as a kind of compromise, you get rid of the bag and straps, and keep the boxes themselves as a souvenir of your father’s (and your?) abandoned religious past.

It’s a big question, I know, but I wonder if you could talk about this complicated desire both to excavate the past (by tracing family trees and reconstructing histories) and to turn one’s back on it (by discarding pieces of the past like family names, languages, and religious beliefs).

The fact that all the objects were, in one way or the other, connected to Jewish history posed a conundrum. How could I pursue this research when so many of these markers—the pogrom-driven immigration, the property in Palestine, and so on, were parts of my inheritance that I had rejected, or at least distanced myself from? In particular, because of what you nicely call “the patriarchal footprint” (I love that phrase), I had rejected religious observance and, what we used to call “the name of the father.” Above all, in keeping with the seventies feminist ethos I believed in, I dreamed only of self-invention, the second-wave version of the “new woman.”

But by the time I had launched myself into this project of reclaiming the past, I could not quite so neatly sever myself from everything that had shaped it—and me. What surprised me the most and what led me to backtrack on some of my earlier positions was seeing how much closer I was to my grandparents’ immigration than I had realized. I mean that I understood in a wholly new way how much my parents were touched by the fact of their parents (on both sides) being immigrants, and then, by extension, how their manner of inheriting that immigrant past—my father was probably conceived in Russia—had been passed on to me, if only through their silence on the matter. There’s a term from psychoanalysis that one of my students (Molly Pulda) writing about memoir has introduced me to: nescience. Not knowing. The notion is that knowing that there is something you don’t know, in this case in a family setting, can have a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The further I delved into my research, the more I saw that what I saw as far from me—having nothing to do with me—was not outside me, but in me.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: Nancy K. Miller, courtesy of the author]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part II)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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This is Part II of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: I loved reading your descriptions of how you related to “The Old Country” before this quest. “Russia, a vast faraway, almost mythical kingdom ruled by Czars, was filled with mean peasants, who lived in the forest with wolves [. . .]. Basically, Russia was a place one left, if one was a Jew, as soon as possible” (36).

As you begin to piece your family’s past together, you start to see a much more nuanced picture. Your family, it turns out, comes not from this fictionalized Russia, but from Bessarabia, present-day Moldova. Thus “The Old Country” morphs into a real place. You learn too that your family likely lived a middle-class life rather than a shtetl existence as you’d imagined. How did this process of discovery and understanding change your thinking about both about your Jewish past and your American present?

Nancy K. Miller: Like many third-generation descendants, I had pictured my ancestors as Jews from Eastern Europe were portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. What other image was there? It took my second trip to Moldova to understand that my paternal grandparents were already modern, Westernized, and to some degree distanced from Orthodoxy (my grandmother was not wearing a wig, my grandfather trimmed and then shaved his beard): city dwellers and not living with goats. True, as Jews, they were subject to pogroms—and probably witnessed the famous pogrom of 1903 that took place in Kishinev (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova) where they were living before emigrating in 1906, but they were not peasants; nor were they wealthy (alas). At the same time, their decades on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where my father grew up—had to have deeply influenced my father’s tastes, and ultimately mine. When I was in Kishinev, for instance, I was amused to be served “mamaliga” (polenta), a Moldovan specialty–one of my father’s favorite foods and that he made for himself when he was living on his own after my mother’s death. I saw my father as both more Jewish—and less. In other words, he did not “lay” tefillin, he and my mother joined a Reform synagogue—horrifying my mother’s parents—but he saved what his mother had saved, the traces of their immigration. I now see myself as an inheritor of that history, not purely American, unless we understand American as always marked by ethnicity and coming from another place, never fully belonging.

I was very interested to read your book for purely selfish reasons: I too am writing a sort of family history largely based on a collection of letters that my grandmother sent to her children from Siberia. A constant preoccupation as I write this story is whether or not anyone outside of my immediate family will or should care about this narrative I’m piecing together. I imagine it’s the preoccupation of anyone writing a book based on private and invisible lives. Was this the case for you? How did you work through this question of why this story matters, and what conclusions did you draw about what family stories and private histories can teach us?

Indeed, I was tormented by the “so what” that all autobiographers grapple with. Why should anyone care about these people? The way I convinced myself that readers could care was by trying to show their story as representative—generational and historical. But beyond that, and only readers can say whether I succeeded in wrestling with this paradox, I tried to bring out the less specific, more universal aspects of my quest: wanting to know the story of one’s origins, who our parents were before we were born, where our grandparents came from, how we always come so late to wanting to know, and therefore not being able to ask. I confess that I’m always thrilled when someone who isn’t Jewish, who isn’t from an immigrant past, connects to the story as just that: the attempt to grapple with the past, with incomplete memories, with loss, with absence. I don’t expect anyone to care about my dead ancestors—as people, I’m not sure I did, either—but I hope that readers will relate to my desire to discover them, and the importance of finding out whatever one can. The book is a celebration of knowledge—maybe that’s because I’m an academic at heart. I guess that’s the lesson: there is so much to be learned, it behooves us to search for it. The search itself is probably the most important aspect of my book.

A major theme of this book is the absence of children. You are the last in your father’s line, and therefore there is no one to inherit these objects. It seems to me that your book is a kind of meditation on life, aging and death. Can this book take the place of the heir? Even if there is no child to inherit the dunams, there are the story and map of them, and these will never die. To what extent is writing about the family archive a way of creating non-biological continuity?

Yes, I hope that this book can take the place of the heir—even though I also know that that is impossible. I have found some consolation in having turned the objects into language, put them as words on the page, even though after I die, no one will want them, keep them, save them. That is a sadness but a fact of life, of my life, anyway. So it’s true that the book meditates on the meaning of loss and expresses the mad desire to hold on to whatever remains as traces of what we have lived.

The book ends with the acceptance that some things are unknowable. You can’t connect all the dots. You can’t know what caused a seeming rift between your father and his brother, but “a story about finding always returns to the places where the story got lost. It’s also a chance to begin again.” How does this new beginning look for you now that the book has appeared?

Well, for one thing, I have a different, richer view of my childhood, which always seemed mysteriously unhappy and vapid—standard issue professional, middle-class New Yorkers. But it’s not only about the past. I also feel newly excited to experiment as a writer. To circle back to your first question, in my mind, I’ve created a book about objects, from objects. I had no clue about how I was going to write this book until I did. So I look forward to my next projects emboldened by the adventure.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part I)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Born of an Anglican mother and a Jewish father who disdained religion, Kaplan knew little of her Judaic roots and less about her famed great-grandfather until beginning her research, more than twenty years ago. Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes the commune he founded and led in Russia, his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his seething feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Daily Forward. Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colourful actors of Yiddish Theater from 1891 to 1910. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide.

Beth Kaplan is a writer and actress in Canada. She has taught memoir writing at Ryerson University for sixteen years and at the University of Toronto for five. Her essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail and other newspapers and magazines. Visit Beth Kaplan’s website at www.BethKaplan.ca.

Julija Šukys: In your bio in the opening pages of the book, we read that you spent twenty years raising children and writing this book – “they both left home together.” My writing became entangled with and inextricable from my private life once my son was born four years ago. In light of the connection you draw between your kids and the process of writing, I’m interested to know more about the relation between them.

Beth Kaplan: I had my first child in Vancouver when I was nearly 31. I’d been working as an actress in Vancouver for eight years; when I got pregnant, I left the stage and registered to take an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. So it was as if pregnancy gave me permission to finally sit down and write.

And then the birth of my daughter took that permission away – or at least, made the process difficult. I adored being a mother and didn’t know how to focus on anything else. I’d take the baby to a YMCA daycare for a few hours every few days, so that I could write – but often instead I’d grocery shop or sleep or read the newspaper, things I couldn’t do when she was around. And I felt alone. Almost none of my friends in the theatre or at UBC had kids, and I didn’t know, or even know of, any mother writers.

Someone said once that of the 3 things of vital importance to a married woman – husband, children, work – she could only successfully have two of the three. I thought about Virginia Woolf with husband and work, Margaret Laurence with children and work, L. M. Montgomery with all 3 and a wretched life. There were very few examples of a writer with all 3 successfully. Later I discovered Carol Shields as one very good example, and there are now lots. But around me in the eighties, there were few.

I wrestled with that constantly. I managed to finish the degree long-distance – we moved to Ottawa for my husband’s work in 1983 where I had my son, and then to Toronto in 1985, where I finished my thesis on my great-grandfather and decided to keep going with research and to write a book. When my kids were 6 and 9, my husband and I separated, he moved shortly after that to the States, and so I was a single mother with financial support from him but 100% custody of two difficult children and an old, disintegrating house, in a city where I had no work connections and no family.

The result – the book wasn’t published until 2007. I don’t blame that solely on being a single mother. I also completely lost confidence in myself, was isolated with no support group, had no idea what I was doing – in academic research, there are methods, I just didn’t know what they were. I compared the book to an octopus with its tentacles around my neck – the minute I pried one away, another had me in its grip. And that’s just the writing, let alone getting the thing published. It’s a miracle it ever appeared, in fact.

So this is a very long answer to your question, which is – that I came too late to understand something I call beneficial selfishness. I think writers, artists, have to be selfish sometimes, even with their children. That is, not selfish to the point that their needs are neglected. But selfish in asking them to recognize that their mother has important work that requires something of them. Writing is so invisible. If I were playing the cello or painting, they could hear or see that. But they could see nothing of my work. That was hard for me too, as most of the time, I didn’t believe either, with very little published, that I was a writer.

What helped was writing essays for the CBC and newspapers and for “Facts and Arguments” in the Globe and Mail – I published a lot of short term things that got me out there, got my name in print and showed the world, and me, that I was a writer. Incidentally, many of my essays were about my kids. They grew up being chronicled on the back page of the Globe – always with veto power, of course. But they liked it.

25 years later, I’m still in the same house; the kids live on the other side of town and their rooms here are rented out to help pay the mortgage. I teach but have lots of time, lots of quiet for writing, which is heaven. Except that my daughter has just told me she’s pregnant. Omigod, I’m going to be a grandmother. I can’t wait. But this time, I’ll be able to cuddle and hug and read stories, and then give the baby back and get on with my work.

The fact is that unless you have a spouse who can take over, which I did not, young kids do and must come first, especially when they’re very young (and again when they’re teens but that’s another story.) But that doesn’t mean shelving the work. It means being creative with finding time, and it means taking it and yourself seriously enough to be selfish, sometimes. Otherwise, the work is constantly last, and the book takes 25 years to emerge.

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare constitutes a kind of textual archaeology. It tells the story of your great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish playwright once compared to Shakespeare and Ibsen, now largely relegated to oblivion. Tell me about the impetus to embark on such a journey, and the research path down which it took you.

I needed to choose a thesis subject for my MFA, and it was my husband who said, You have a great man in your family, write about him. Once he’d said it, of course, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Because there was the mystery I’d grown up with – why did my father and other relatives have such disdain for a man who’d been in his time so revered? So I blithely began, without realizing that almost all my research materials were in New York City– this was 1982, the Dark Ages before Google, so research meant writing letters, making phone calls, and getting on airplanes. The first time I flew from Vancouver to New York for research in 1983, the thrill of arriving at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research on 5th Avenue, asking for their materials about Gordin, and watching the cart rumble up to my desk with all those file boxes. Then opening them eagerly, and finding that nearly everything was in Yiddish or in archaic Russian – the next tiny hurdle, as I spoke and read neither.

I was lucky enough to find a woman who translated from the Yiddish for me for 25 years. So it’s really our book, Sarah Torchinsky’s and mine.

I wrote lots of letters of enquiry, discovered family members to interview – several of them just in time, as they were extremely old already when I found them – and read everything I could find on or around the subject. I didn’t start using a computer for writing until 1987 or so. And Google, of course, much after that. It seems unbelievable now, how much time research took. And several people have pointed out that in the Internet age, we lose the thrill of hunting and holding the actual artifacts and books.

As I read your book, I found myself continually pondering questions of language. Interestingly, Jacob Gordin’s strongest language, and the language he appears to have loved best, was Russian. Yet, he wrote his plays in Yiddish, a language that always represented a bit of a struggle to him. It’s not the language he used in private: with his wife he spoke Russian, and to his children, English (a language it appears he never mastered). Why, once he had gained some success, do you believe that Gordin never made the switch to Russian? Why did he continue to write in Yiddish, despite the limited audiences, the community politics that you describe, and despite the fact that it was not the language in which he planned his plays?

Gordin didn’t switch to Russian because nobody on the Lower East Side ever wanted to hear Russian again; he would have had no audience at all. Yiddish was the language of mothers, of home, hence not only of the theatres but of the burgeoning Yiddish newspapers. Russian was the tongue of the oppressor, the Cossack enemy, there was no place for it amongst the Jews in America. But Gordin always dreamed of going back to Russia one day. Before he died, he knew that his plays were touring Russia – one of his sisters, who still lived there, wrote to him from her town in Ukraine of her pride in going to the theatre to see two of her brother’s plays. But she saw them in Yiddish, not in Russian. There were Yiddish theatres and troupes performing Gordin’s plays in South America and in Eastern Europe – in fact, all over the world.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Images: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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