Nancy Miller never meant to become a detective. But the distinguished professor of English literature of English and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of more than a dozen books found herself intrigued by the discovery of a small family archive after her father’s death. A handful of photographs, a land deed, a postcard from Argentina, unidentified locks of hair…What had these things meant to her father? And what did they mean to her? So Miller embarked upon a quest: for people, for places, for meaning. The result, “What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past,” was just published by the University of Nebraska Press. In the interview below, Miller talks with Lilith’s Fiction Editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about her new book.
What prompted you to write a book about your ancestral objects? Lots of us have things of this kind but wouldn’t have thought to write about them.
I probably would never have undertaken the research for this book, let alone written it, if I had not received a phone call in the summer of 2000 from a real estate agent in Los Angeles telling me that I had inherited property in Israel from my paternal grandparents—and that he could sell it for me. Not just for me, but all the heirs, which meant my sister and my first cousin (whom I had never met), if he was still alive. I succeeded in locating my cousin in Tennessee. His daughter had begun doing research on the family and had found a website already in place for all the immigrants to America with our family name: Kipnis. I had been resigned to not knowing anything about my father’s side of the family. And suddenly, one discovery led to another and I got caught up in the fascination of the quest to find out everything I could about these mysterious relatives and what had happened to them.