Episode 25: Nancy K. Miller and the “pals of her desk”

My Brilliant Friends coverNancy K. Miller is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her latest book, published in January by Columbia University Press, is My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism. Her title evokes that of Elena Ferrante’s widely read Neapolitan novels, and that is neither coincidental nor derivative. Though she was already deep into her own manuscript when the first volume of the quartet, My Brilliant Friend, appeared, Nancy was galvanized by the story of the lifelong relationship between Lenù and Lila. Seeing similarities in her own intense female friendships, she deftly weaves a few relevant bits of their friendship into her narrative. In My Brilliant Friends, Nancy writes about her complicated, life-affirming, sustaining, sometimes painful friendships with Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook. The relationships span from the 1970s to the 21st century, and as such, coexisted with considerable cultural and societal changes for women. Moreover, these friendships are in high relief set against the backdrop of academia and the thrills and agonies of professional writing careers. Nancy talks and writes about the “B-sides” of friendships, the emotional undercurrents that often aren’t acknowledged as relationships unfold, and the importance – or sometimes just dumb luck – of “built-in protections” that help sustain friendships across time.

Another friend, Jason Tougaw, is Nancy’s conversation partner in this episode. (I had my own conversation with Jason about his memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, in Episode 19.) As Nancy’s former student and now her colleague and friend, he was the ideal interviewer to elicit a rich, intimate dialogue. They discuss a range of ideas including the structure of her book and of the friendships therein, the function of memory, and the ethics of writing about other peoples’ lives. There’s an overarching theme of balance and finding the right distance between friends – exemplified in the Goldilocks fairy tale – that occurs throughout the conversation. Nancy uses the concept of “cline” to address the space in a relationship between people, a kind of grammar of relation that allows for movement and negotiation, even within the bonds of intimacy. I predict you’ll find this episode as thought (and feeling) provoking as I did.

To learn more about Nancy K. Miller’s work, have a look at her web site. You can also read CUNY SUM’s synopsis here.

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