Who We Are.

 

Julija Šukys (center), with (from left) Darius Kuolys, Rimas Čuplinskas, Kęstutis Girnius, Emilija Sakadolskienė. November 2019. Kaunas, Lithuania. XVI Pasaulio lietuvių mokslo ir kūrybos simpoziumas.

It was a whirlwind trip to my grandmothers’ beloved city, Kaunas (Kovno/Kauen). Verutė, my maternal grandmother, met her life partner in the Kaunas Sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse and where her beloved was a tuberculosis specialist. It’s also the city where my paternal grandmother spent as much time as possible after she returned from her long Siberian exile.

I had a great time in Kaunas. It’s a city I don’t know very well, but in the off hours, some of the other symposium-goers and I went dancing. It was my first outing to a diskoteka in many, many years.

I will admit: I’d had real fears and misgivings about presenting on Siberian Exile in Lithuanian to Lithuanians. To my great surprise and pleasure, those fears were unfounded, at least this time. My audience was warm, receptive, encouraging, and curious about me and my work. Several people came up to me afterward and expressed shock that I spoke Lithuanian, which I found odd but amusing. (There’s no way I could have written either Epistolophilia or Siberian Exile without access to Lithuanian-language sources).

Here we are, at the plenary session, discussion: “Who are we? Who do we hope to be?” (Just small questions for contemplation…). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was the odd woman out in my answers to these questions.

Thank you to all who made my trip so wonderful.

[Photo: Egidijus Balandis]

 

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Off to Lithuania…

Julija Šukys in Belastok/Brovka, Siberia, while doing research for the book SIBERIAN EXILE. 2010.

In a couple of days I’m off to Lithuania to speak at the XVI World Lithuanian  Symposium for Scholarship and Creativity (XVI Pasaulio lietuvių mokslo ir kūrybos simpoziumas). The event brings together Lithuanian diasporic writers, artists, educators, and scholars from all over the world.

I’m taking part in the plenary session and have been asked to think (and talk) about the question of identity — national, ethnic, and cultural. For someone who lives in a constant state of uprootedness and nomadism, it’s a  tall order. So, in true essayistic fashion, I plan to bring it down to the small, everyday, and personal. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone who grew up in an immigrant/émigré family as I did how to think about who they are. I can only speak for myself, on the basis of my own experience, and tell the story of what writing books like Siberian Exile and Epistolophilia have taught me.

With luck, that will suffice (I’ll find the big in the small) it will  be of interest to those who come to listen.

Wish me luck!

If you’re in Kaunas, Lithuania, on November 15th (14:30-16:30, Plenary Session, Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas, Didžioji aula, Gimnazijos g. 7), come on by to hear what I come up with. Fair warning: the event’s taking place in Lithuanian! I plan to show pictures of Siberia, including the one above. This is me in the place where my grandmother’s Siberian house once stood.

Here’s link to the event schedule. 

[Photo: Julija Šukys in Belastok/Brovka, Siberia, while doing research for Siberian Exile. 2010.]

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Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning

NOW AVAILABLE!

“Interweaving coincidences and reversals with historical precision in a narrative that layers, folds, zags and spikes, Julija Šukys wanders the ghost-filled streets of the present, mingling with kin, real and imagined, and corresponding with multiple unspeakable pasts. I can’t recall the last time I read so gripping and so delicate a documentary of atrocity, complicity, dispossession and survival. Siberian Exile is remarkable, daunting, and disarmingly real.” — Mary Cappello, author of Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

“All families harbor secrets. What if, in blithe innocence, you set out to research your family history, only to discover that your grandfather was guilty of the most heinous of crimes? Šukys pursues her tragic family memoir with courage and self-examination, often propelled to her painful discoveries by what she believes is a bizarre synchronicity. This is not a book written at a safe distance.”—Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

“Riveting. . . . Beyond the historical and familial narrative, Julija Šukys ponders her own exile and her own complicity, allowing readers to do the same, comparing versions of selves and asking which version is truest, an impossible question, but one readers will find as enthralling as these pages.”—Patrick Madden, author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

About the Book

When Julija Šukys was a child, her paternal grandfather, Anthony, rarely smiled, and her grandmother, Ona, spoke only in her native Lithuanian. But they still taught Šukys her family’s story: that of a proud people forced from their homeland when the soldiers came. In mid-June 1941, three Red Army soldiers arrested Ona, forced her onto a cattle car, and sent her east to Siberia, where she spent seventeen years separated from her children and husband, working on a collective farm. The family story maintained that it was all a mistake. Anthony, whose name was on Stalin’s list of enemies of the people, was accused of being a known and decorated anti-Bolshevik and Lithuanian nationalist.

Some seventy years after these events, Šukys sat down to write about her grandparents and their survival of a twenty-five-year forced separation and subsequent reunion. Piecing the story together from letters, oral histories, audio recordings, and KGB documents, her research soon revealed a Holocaust-era secret—a family connection to the killing of seven hundred Jews in a small Lithuanian border town. According to KGB documents, the man in charge when those massacres took place was Anthony, Ona’s husband.

In Siberian Exile Šukys weaves together the two narratives: the story of Ona, noble exile and innocent victim, and that of Anthony, accused war criminal. She examines the stories that communities tell themselves and considers what happens when the stories we’ve been told all our lives suddenly and irrevocably change, and how forgiveness or grace operate across generations and across the barriers of life and death.

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

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Behold the Power of the Internet! (On Crowd-funding)

iceland

A few days ago, I received an email from Eric Scott, one of my creative writing graduate students, with the subject heading: “Behold the Power of the Internet!” Just a day earlier, we’d been racking our brains, trying to raise 3,000 dollars in tuition for an Icelandic summer language program that he’d been admitted to, but for which he’d received no funding. The course would fulfill not only our PhD program’s language requirement, but would set Eric down his planned research and writing path.

We scoured our university’s available funds, searched for funds available through our academic consortium, the federal government, and surfed the sites of Scandinavian Studies organizations. Finally, I had him call the language program assistant from my office while I sent a few last “Hail Mary” emails to the Icelandic embassy in Washington. All to no avail. With the last stone seemingly turned, I admitted defeat.

Should he take a loan, Eric asked? No, I said. Better to defer admission and take the time to raise tuition for next summer. I’m very debt-averse myself, and the last thing I want to do is to send my students out into a very difficult job market saddled with financial problems.

The next morning, I got the email. Eric had raised more than 2,000 dollars in a matter of hours. How? Here’s what he said when I asked:

Once I realized that traditional funding wasn’t available for my Icelandic class, I decided to try crowd-funding. A website that I write for, The Wild Hunt (www.wildhunt.org), funds itself with an annual Indie-Go-Go fundraiser, so I had a source of advice while I was designing the campaign. I was fortunate enough that some of the places where I regularly publish – The Wild Hunt, Killing the Buddha, Witches and Pagans Magazine – helped me advertise the campaign, but most of the donations have come from family and friends.

“Ask and you shall receive,” I thought.

Eric’s model is not one I would necessarily recommend to all my students, but I think his story is instructive in a number of ways. It shows how, with enough persistence and creative thinking, you can do just about anything. It illustrates that small communities will support their members if they are doing interesting work and if they ask for help. Finally, it demonstrates that small amounts of money (much of Eric’s funding came in 5 bucks at a time) can grow to a reasonably big pile in a surprisingly short period of time.

Above all, the lesson is this: Keep dreaming. Keep working. Keep telling your stories. Occasionally, the universe surprises.

If you want to kick in 5 bucks or more to Eric’s campaign, you can do so here.  He’s a little shy of his full tuition. He’s offering fun rewards in return for support.

Áfram!

[Photo: m’sieur rico]

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New Review in Lithuanian-Canadian Weekly

Thanks to Ramunė Jonaitienė for this review in Tėviškės Žiburiai, the Lithuanian-Canadian weekly newspaper. Among the phrases I’m really grateful for is her description of my tone as “calm.”

Ačiū, TŽ.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Ellen Cassedy

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust tells the story of Ellen Cassedy’s personal journey into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania – the land of her Jewish forebears – and then expands into an exploration of how Lithuania today is engaging with its complex 20th-century history.  Probing the terrain of memory and moral dilemmas, the book shines a spotlight on fragile efforts toward mutual understanding and carries a cautious message of hope.

Ellen Cassedy has explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years.  She is a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her articles have appeared in Huffington PostHaaretzJewish JournalHadassahThe Jewish ForwardJewish Telegraphic AgencyLilithBridgesUtne ReaderPolin, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. She is a frequent speaker about Jewish and Lithuanian issues, and a regular contributor to VilNews, the international web magazine based in Vilnius, Lithuania. She lives near Washington, DC.


Julija Šukys: The frame for your book is a trip to Vilnius to study Yiddish at a well-known summer program there. Tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Yiddish language. How much Yiddish did you speak or understand before arriving in Vilnius? How did your relationship to the language change over the summer? How much Yiddish did you encounter in Lithuania?

Ellen Cassedy: My mother used to sprinkle Yiddish words into conversation like a spice. At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe! (a downpour.)” In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” On the telephone:  “The woman’s a makhsheyfe (a witch).” After she died, I missed those homey syllables. I began studying Yiddish as a kind of memorial to her, a way to hold on to my Jewish heritage.

By the time I arrived at the summer program run by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I’d progressed far enough to be placed in the second-to-highest level – where I held on by my fingernails! Spending several hours a day in class and doing hours of homework every night was a mekhaye – a great pleasure.

Within a few weeks, I became able to conduct interviews in Yiddish – with a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town of Rokiškis, with the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Šiauliai, where my family members had been imprisoned in the Shavl ghetto. And occasionally I’d encounter a Yiddish-speaker on the beautiful streets of the Old City in Vilnius.

The Yiddish scenes that I weave through the book serve as resting places for both me and the reader – places of laughter and love.

The central focus of this book is the Holocaust bystander. You seek to consider the role of the bystander in a nuanced way and struggle to understand what it meant to be a non-Jewish witness to the Holocaust.  In the end you arrive at a kind of reconciliation or entente in your understanding of the opposing forces and tragedies that were at play in Lithuania during World War II. Tell me a little bit about how you came to take this path.

On the brink of my journey to Lithuania, I learned there was an old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak with a Jew before he died. In 1941, when he was 17, he watched as the Jews of the Rokiškis region were rounded up and marched off into the forest to be shot. Those memories had tormented him all his life.  He wanted to tell what he knew, and he wanted a Jew to hear his tale. Would I be that Jew?

The time I spent with this haunted witness – and with numerous other Lithuanians who shared with me their family stories of the Holocaust – showed me that “bystanders” are not an undifferentiated mass. We need to look closely enough to understand each person as an individual. And our goal must be to create the kind of society where it is easier to stand up than to stand by.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that you discover that your uncle was a member of the ghetto police force in the Shavl Ghetto. The ghetto police forces were and are, of course, extremely problematic – they are both victims and oppressors. You cite Primo Levi’s term “the gray zone” to describe the moral space that people like Efroyim Gens (head of the Shavl Ghetto Police) and his brother Jakob Gens (head of the Vilna Ghetto Police) inhabit. To what extent should we, from our perspective, suspend our judgment of those in the gray zone? What conclusions have you come to about people like your uncle and the Genses? Do your uncle and the Genses belong in the same category?

I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering about my uncle and the complex truths he embodies. I’m less interested than I used to be in assigning people to one category or another. Maybe, when it comes to people like my uncle and the Genses (who had more power than my uncle did, but still faced inhuman and impossible choices), the answers are less important than the questions we continue to ask ourselves. Maybe it’s the moral attention we pay that will help to prevent future genocides.

Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands caused a firestorm when it appeared in 2010, because some historians and other readers considered that he equated Nazi crimes with Stalinist ones, thereby minimizing or excusing the former. He was accused of “Holocaust obfuscation,” among other things. By contrast, you, like Snyder, seem to view Nazism and Stalinism and the ways in which those eras are remembered in Lithuania as interconnected. Wartime and postwar Lithuania itself is portrayed in your book as a kind of gray zone. Is this a fair characterization of your position? Could you expand?

I learned a great deal from Bloodlands, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the cataclysms of the 20th century. To examine both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, to explore the connections – that’s a basic job for a historian.

The term “gray zone” doesn’t mean we turn away from morality. When we see things going wrong, we must speak up loud and clear. Bloodlands can help us do that.

In Lithuania, it was hard for me to open up to “the Other,” to hold in my head the reality of non-Jewish suffering alongside Jewish suffering. Hard – but essential, especially for those of us in the successor generations. Can we honor our diverse heritages without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past? Can we appeal to one another not as victims, bystanders, or collaborators, but as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice? Those are the questions I hope my readers will ask themselves.

My final question is about the Lithuanian language and the ways in which you had to use mediators to “access” Lithuanian narratives and memories of the Holocaust. With the exception of Yiddish speakers, you interviewed most of your Lithuanian contacts in English or through translators, and employed third-party intervention to collect and work through archival sources. What risks does working through mediators in this way bring with it? How do you account for or deal with what necessarily gets lost, censored or simplified in translation?

By the time I left Lithuania, I had a Lithuanian vocabulary of about 60 words – pitiful!  I don’t know Russian, German, or Hebrew, either –all of which came into play in the writing of my book. But I’ve always been intrigued by what happens when people from different cultures, using different languages, make the effort to communicate. My experiences with translators and interpreters turned out to be utterly fascinating encounters in themselves. I make sure the reader gets to meet Regina, Hirsh, Emil, Natasha, and others who helped me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.

When you think about it, aren’t we always mediating, always translating – no matter who we’re talking to, no matter what languages are involved? Reaching out and attempting to understand, even when it’s a challenge – in the end, that’s exactly what We Are Here is about.

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Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week

Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.

Julija Šukys

Photo by Genevieve Goyette

This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.

978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp

When did you start reading as a child?

I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.

What were your favorite books when you were a child?

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.

What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?

I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.

Who are your top five authors?

WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.

Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.

Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.

Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.

What book changed your life?

There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).

I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.

Continue reading “Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week”

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A Look Back at 2011: Reflections on Preparation, Homesickness, Travel, Language, and Love for a Little Boy

More love messages from the idiot by Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)

Ah, another year. Like most families, perhaps, ours does a year-end review on New Year’s Eve. We go through our calendar and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, experienced, and learned over the past 12 months.

Looking back over that 2011 calendar, I realized that, for me, it was a year of laying groundwork: I prepared our house for tenants; planned our travels to Malta; crunched numbers and made budgets; liaised with our local school so that we could register our son in our absence; searched for and found cat sitters; planned for my book’s 2012 appearance; started lining up 2012 speaking and signing engagements; wrote and submitted two still-in-production essays; and forged ahead on book #3, the one about my grandmother’s life in Siberia.

It was a year with moments of shock and sadness too: recently my  dear friend’s small daughter was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Months of helplessness have followed as we witness her treatments from afar. May 2012 bring good health.

So, I greet the new year with hope, anticipation and a bit of melancholy. Yes, book #2 (my new baby) will be born this year, but my other baby is no longer one. As I cradled Sebastian on my lap the other day, I felt like I was rocking a goat. His arms and legs are so long and his body so lean and heavy that soon I’ll no longer be able to carry him. His health and robustness, I now realize more than ever, are miracles.

If (as I wrote last year) 2010 was the year of linguistic gifts from my son, then 2011 was one of discovery and growth. Our landing in Gozo was, in some ways, a hard one. My little one was homesick, and found the adjustment to life on a small Mediterranean island difficult. His calm temperament turned tempestuous and fearful. Slowly, and only over the course of weeks and even months, did my kinder, gentler boy return.

But last week: something new. We made our first trip to Sicily, where after four days, Sebastian declared his homesickness once again. But this time it was different — he was homesick for Gozo. The discovery that he loved Gozo too (that he could love his home in Montreal AND this temporary one on this beautiful island in the sea without betraying the former) was a revelation.

Part of me knew that this 8-month stint would be tough. We would be bored. We would be cold in this drafty stone house (and, boy, have we ever been lately!). Sebastian would lose some of his French skills (he claims no longer to understand the language, though I don’t believe him). But, in planning this adventure to a new and unfamiliar destination, I’d hoped to give my son other gifts. I wanted him to learn early on in life that there are many ways to live on this earth, many ways to speak, and many different kinds of beauty.

With his discovery of mysteriously double homesickness, I think the learning process I’d hoped for is well underway.

For the past year, Sebastian’s become categorical about language. Whereas he once spoke an “alphabet fusion,” switching back and forth between three languages and words of his own invention, in his fifth year, he started to draw boundaries. There was “his” way of speaking (English) that he shared with his daddy; the “school” way (French); and “mummy’s” way (Lithuanian). Out of the jumble of his toddler years, he’d succeeded in making order, and had even become a bit rigid.

The other day — a small Sicilian revolution. Upon hearing his father order pastries in Italian (not “his” language), Sebastian was impressed. If daddy could do it, maybe he could too. Perhaps speaking “another’s” way wouldn’t lead to chaos after all.

“Daddy,” he said, “Maybe I’ll try to learn Maltese.”

Happy 2012. May it bring you happiness, peace, good health and many days of creativity.

[Photo: Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)]

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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.

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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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