By Kim Wells

12/15/2000

Editor's Note: This Fall (2000), Texas A&M University held a graduate conference, where we were privileged to have Dr. Nancy K. Miller, a respected name in autobiography criticism, as our guest speaker.

Usually by the time the keynote rolls around, I'm tired of conferencing . . . we've had dinner, maybe a glass of wine . . . . and the drone of the voice in front, no matter how much I want to hear it, just fades into nothingness . . . . . But Dr. Miller's speech was hands-down the best keynote speech I have ever attended-- funny, moving, theory-based and engaging. If you ever have the chance to hear her speak, I urge you to make the trip. I listened with rapt attention and wanted more. Luckily, according to this interview, her speech is going to be part of a future book. I, for one, cannot wait.

But you don't have to wait to read Nancy K. Miller's other great work.
Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent's Death, was just released in Trade Paperback. You can find other works (even the out of print ones) at the local University Library. You'll probably want to be familiar with at least a few of the other books she analyzes in her own work (Art Spiegelman's MAUS, Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters,)... but get them; it's worth it. Learn.

 




This interview took place during an exchange of emails, right around October 10, 2000.

KIM: What are you currently working on? Or, what books of yours would you really like to direct young feminist writers towards (given a perfect world and open access, and no need to consider "out of print" status). Of course, the second part of the questions is obviously "why"?

NKM: I'm currently working on a collection of essays that I might call, using the title of my talk at Texas A&M, "But enough about me, what do you think of my memoir?" In these essays, which were all written in the 1990s, I engage with three themes or issues that seem to preoccupy me: feminism, primarily in the academy; autobiography; and aging--especially the question of women aging. Sometimes I think about these preoccupations as a kind of braid of overlapping interests-- not to say obsessions. What I try to get at (work against or through) in the jokey title "But enough about me..." is the assumption that writing about yourself is a terminally narcissistic activity; that it excludes the reader. Getting personal--which is the also somewhat playful title of an earlier book--does mean talking about oneself BUT--and here's the important thing--it also is meant to engage you, the reader. As I say in the last line of my keynote, my memoir is about you. Just as when I read, say, Joyce Johnson's memoir Minor Characters, I think about my life--even if I never had a boyfriend as famous as Jack Kerouac!

I've just run across a phrase used by the critic Alicia Ostriker in an essay she wrote a while ago about "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" where she uses the term "transpersonal"- -by which she seems to mean a shared experience that gets evoked when the poet says "you"--"my kitchen, your kitchen/ my face/your face." I think that what's true about Sexton's poetry is also true for memoir writers: when I write about the death of my parents, I hope you will think about loss, too. Not necessarily--and I don't wish this on you!--*your* parents--but a feeling of loss and mourning. If I write about growing up as nice Jewish girl in New York, you might be thinking of growing up in a town in Texas--or wherever you are from. When I look in the mirror and worry about my face as it turns fifty and now sixty--which I can hardly believe (I don't mean that I don't look my age but that I find it hard to connect myself to that number)--you might think of your own fears growing up, or what it feels like to watch the signs of age on your mother's face, etc. That's a kind of long answer, but I wanted you to understand what I mean. Do I sound defensive? It's hard to avoid when everyone is happy to attack the autobiographical impulse.

I hope that my books will continue to be read: in addition to the ones you know--Getting Personal and Bequest and Betrayal-- is a slightly older one in which I write more "theoretically" about what women's writing means and also about writing by French women: Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (Columbia, 1988).

KIM: I've noticed a lot of arguing over minutia any time there are organized groups of women who call themselves feminist, and a lot of people who like to tell others that they're not good feminists because they follow a certain argument, in a way that the "critic" would not, for example, I was doing some work on mother goddess imagery and someone accused me of being essentialist, when I was using the metaphor to try and draw commonalities but not to wash over differences. What these folks usually do is say something like "you aren't forwarding the goals of 'real' feminism, the grass roots activism that started the movement, by making purely rhetorical discussions and talking in the language of the oppressor (i.e., academic language)". I think there is space for all kinds of different discussions under the blanket term "feminism". So, the point of this is that as a feminist who has worked both as an academic feminist for much of your career and as a woman who actively encourages younger scholars, do you see this as a problem, something new, or the same old jostling for position that has always taken place? I guess I'm asking for perspective since often experienced writers do not get into the fray on my listserv (where this discussion is currently taking place) and only the ones with an axe to grind do....

NKM: In some ways I think that as feminists we are our own worst enemies. I don't mean to discount the force of anti-feminist attacks from groups opposed to feminist aims but very often the worst attacks--especially when they are public and hard to answer--come from other feminists. I've come to feel that it's a matter of "representation": who gets to represent, to speak for, feminism, or for other women? and in what terms/images/language is the representing done? From the beginning of the second wave, some women have always protested--"you are not speaking to my experience," or "not in my village..." The more established feminism became--or the more established certain feminist critics and scholars became--the more they could and would be criticized around that issue. These attacks--they are usually disguised as "critiques"--often would focus on a problem of exclusion but sometimes it was more fundamental. In the eighties, I remember vividly being attacked for talking about "women" as though just to use that word was to support patriarchy, etc. It was a big shock to me to discover that I would have to fear attacks coming from women, since when I started out in the 1970s, the problem seemed to be men who resisted feminist insights. I don't know how much this has to do with jockeying for position when positions are scarce and how much with a strange intolerance women have about other women-- despite all the rhetoric of commonality. Look how crazed and vicious women get about Hillary Clinton!

KIM: How do you think that class studies and autobiography studies intersect? You touch on this briefly in your work, Bequest and Betrayal where you point out a person who discusses how, in the past, "she would have been ironing your clothing" . You respond by pointing out that your grandparents would have been sewing the clothes-- and in a way, are claiming your family's class moving-- but that it's in the past... Anyway, these seem to be studies that need to work together, since our autobiography are such important parts of our studies in class mobility...

NKM: I think your question about class and autobiography is great. The question of class is central to the construction of the self, of identity, even if in the United States we tend to focus more on psychological and familial issues. Sometimes class in America can seem invisible--until a confrontation occurs, or an accident, which brings you up short about your assumptions. British writers--and some French ones (like Annie Ernaux whom I've worked on a great deal) consider class even more foundational to identity than gender. Class in America can be confusing because it historically has been tied up with ethnicity and race, as well as stories of immigration; and because the ideal immigrant story is one of the upwardly mobile plot, we tend to think of leaving class behind. This is certainly true of Asian-Americans (the "model minority") today. Take New York where Koreans run small, local markets, working incredibly long hours, and their children will be doctors and other professionals. It's also hard to sort out what class means when just about everyone defines themselves as being "middle class," and when working-class (or blue-collar) identity seems to have less descriptive value in the U.S. than it does in England.

This being said, I want to mention another complication of class in the family. I've just discovered--this is a long story--members of my father's family I had never known, though I knew of their existence; in particular a first-cousin--my father's nephew--whom I had never met. He is a good deal older than I am, lives in the South, and is quite ill, so I don't think I will have time to get to know him. But I have just met him, his daughter, and granddaughter. They live in a fashion that is vastly different from my professional, middle-class style (my cousin is a gun expert!!)--and yet, when you trace back the connections, we all came from the same place: my extremely poor grandparents who lived in tenements on the Lower East Side. I didn't write about this side of my family in Bequest and Betrayal because the door had been closed. My father and his brother parted ways--and lived lives in different classes--and in different regions of the United States. So it seems important to me to see how mobile class is.

KIM: What writers have inspired you towards the studies you pursue? (These can be scholarly or fictional)

NKM: Hard question. Academics I admire: Susan Gubarand Sandra Gilbert, Jane Gallop, Carolyn Heilbrun, are probably the best known examples I could cite. Writers who excite or amaze me--I'll stick to women here--are Simone de Beauvoir,Charlotte Bronte, Colette, Zora Neale Hurston, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Monique Wittig,, Virginia Woolf.... I'm sure there are lots of others but these are the writers who have given me my "material"...

KIM: You mention in your work Bequest and Betrayal that as the childless daughter of deceased parents, you cannot pass on the same kind of "family" legacy of memories as your parents (to your own blood children) but you then comment on creating a different kind of family, and passing on a different kind of legacy. I read this as encouraging feminism and scholars in your own field-- is this what you meant? If so, do you feel it's working? As an aside, I have contacted a number of feminist scholars about appearing in this magazine and several didn't even reply-- so I feel like you are very accessible to people who are still "working it out" themselves. Do you think there might be a tendency to see this kind of mentoring as "mothering," and therefore, that women scholars who want to reject that part of the role avoid anything that sounds like it? Or is there something else at work here?

NKM: Is mentoring mothering? You know that until recently the whole idea of mentoring was a male activity--tied up with the process of initiation into a profession, or an apprenticeship. (In the Odyssey, when Athena helps Odysseus, she disguises herself in the form of a friend of Odysseus called Mentor.) Mentoring requires the recognition of authority--both by the mentor and the mentee. I wonder whether some women just don't see themselves as powerful or experienced enough or wise enough to have something to pass on. So many women think that their own success was just luck, and luck is not something you can teach!

Maybe you are right that because I don't have children, I see my students as somehow extending me into the future, as carrying part of me with them into their work. But I don't think of that as "maternal" because as you know, I didn't get much pleasure or sustenance from maternal care-- and because I have trouble seeing myself in that role.

KIM: Thank you so much, Dr. Miller, for both the interview & the visit to the conference. It was wonderful!


       
 
 
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