The ProsenPeople

Interview: Nancy K. Miller

Monday, December 09, 2013 | Permalink

by Tahneer Oksman

Nancy K. Miller’s new memoir, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris, recounts the years that the author spent abroad after graduating from Barnard College in 1961. Bearing fantasies gleaned from New Wave films like Godard’s Breathless, the twenty-something native New Yorker went to Paris with the dream of living an unconventional bohemian life. In her memoir, Miller recounts her romantic and sexual adventures as she struggled to break away from her "nice-Jewish-girl" past in search of an uncertain future. Set in the years before second-wave feminism had effectively sunk in, Miller’s captivating, intelligent, and often humorous storytelling will resonate with anyone who has ever wandered off the beaten path in pursuit of an unknown future.

You can read more about Miller’s memoir, as well as download the first chapter for free, on her website: http://nancykmiller.com/

Tahneer Oksman: In your memoir, you describe your move to Paris as a means of escaping your "nice-Jewish-girl" upbringing. What did you mean by this?

Nancy K. Miller: Growing up in Manhattan in the 1950s, girls from middle-class Jewish families like mine felt that their destiny was mapped out for them—think of Herman Wouk’s famous Jewish heroine, Marjorie Morningstar. In general, girls in the fifties were trained to be good, which meant remaining a virgin until marrying someone successful, having children, and moving to the suburbs. “Nice-Jewish-girls” had the added restriction of marrying someone Jewish, and preferably also “nice,” who would keep you replicating your parents’ life and remaining within a universe in which almost everyone you knew was also Jewish. I thought that living in France away from this marriage/home plot would be an exciting adventure in which I would become someone other, freer than myself, even if I had no idea what that might be.

TO: How did your parents react to your new adventures in Paris?

NKM: Even before my first year in Paris ended, my parents were urging me to come home: “Enough is enough.” I resisted. This was just the beginning of the new me. I continued to find ways to stay on in Paris, and after a few years I married an Irish American ex-pat, who definitely did not fit the successful, professional husband pattern. My parents were more than mildly horrified by my choice of a husband and our decision to live in France, but in the end they resigned themselves to the fait accompli.

The funny thing is that Jim, as I call him in the book, was enamored of all things Jewish, especially classic dishes like barley pilaf and brisket, and he wanted above all to please my parents. He would have been happy to be an honorary Jew.

Looking back, I feel embarrassed by my youthful blindness: by how much I wanted to be married and a wife, and how desperately I wanted my parents’ approval, even though I was doing everything to drive them crazy and disappoint their expectations.

TO: What kind of research did you do for this book?

NKM: After my parents’ deaths, I found the letters I had written to them from those years in Paris in my mother’s dresser drawer, neatly tied up in a bundle, along with my letters from summer camp.

When I read the letters, I immediately felt that the story of that period was contained in those pages, and that I wanted to write it as a memoir. The letters, as well as the photographs I had saved, gave me an irresistible point of departure. But once I started to write, the letters and photographs were not enough. I could not rely on the letters completely. This was in part because I wanted to test my memory against the records of the times. That’s when I expanded my research: I looked at old Michelin restaurant guides and fashion magazines, I watched some of the movies I had seen during my Paris years, and I wrote to friends asking them how they remembered me then. I sometimes felt I did more research on myself for this book than I had done years before for my dissertation!

TO: Why did you decide to write about this particular time in your life – your twenties – and what prompted you to write the story now?

NKM: I tried to tell the story of my twenties many times, as early as the 1990s, but something about it was never quite right. It was only after I wrote What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past that I knew what was missing. Strange as it may seem, learning how to chronicle my quest to recreate a lost family through the twists of Jewish immigration helped me reshape the Paris memoir, in part because I had developed the technique of short chapters—the better not to bore the reader with the minutiae of my history—but also because What They Saved made me see how my efforts to escape the “nice Jewish girl” plotline (all the while returning to it and my parents) were key to the story of what happened in Paris, and why, paradoxically, I had to return home to figure myself out.

Tahneer Oksman recently received her PhD in English Literature at the Graduate Center at CUNY. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s identity in contemporary graphic memoirs.