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://​nan​cyk​miller​.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.

Tah­neer Oks­man is a writer, teacher, and schol­ar. She is the author of How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jew­ish Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty in Con­tem­po­rary Graph­ic Mem­oirs (Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016), and the co-edi­tor of The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Your­self (Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2019), which won the 2020 Comics Stud­ies Soci­ety (CSS) Prize for Best Edit­ed Col­lec­tion. She is also co-edi­tor of a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Spe­cial Issue of Sho­far: an Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Jour­nal of Jew­ish Stud­ies, titled What’s Jew­ish About Death?” (March 2021). For more of her writ­ing, you can vis­it tah­neeroks​man​.com