Stavans, Ilan 1961–
Stavans, Ilan 1961–
Born Ilan Stavchansky Slomiansky, April 7, 1961, in Mexico City, Mexico; immigrated to the United States, 1985; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1994; son of Abraham Stavans (an actor) and Ofelia Slomiansky (a psychotherapist); married Alison Sparks Baker (a linguist), June, 1988; children: Joshua, Isaiah. Education: Attended Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico; Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, B.A., 1984; Jewish Theological Seminary, M.A., 1987; Columbia University, M.A., 1988, Ph.D., 1990. Politics: "Center-left." Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Film, history, multiculturalism.
Theater director, Mexico City, Mexico, 1980-84; screenwriter for Mexican television, 1982-84; translator, New York, NY, 1985-90; teacher of Latin American fiction, Columbia University, New York, NY, 1988-90; assistant professor of Latin American literature, Baruch College, City University of New York, New York, NY, 1990-93; Amherst College, Amherst, MA, associate professor of Latin American letters and instructor in comparative literature, 1993-95, tenured to full professor, 1995, currently Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture; host, "Conversations with Ilan Stavans," special presentation of La Plaza, WGBH-TV, Boston, MA, 2001; editor, Hopscotch: A Cultural Review. Library clerk for Jewish Theological Seminary, 1985-87. Also taught at Universidad Iberoamericana; Bennington College, associate faculty, creative writing, 2000. Member of advisory boards of periodicals, including World Literature Today, Bloomsbury Review, and Common Review; member of board of directors of institutions, including National Yiddish Book Center, Contentville, and Mexican Cultural Institute. Military service: Served in the Mexican Army, 1977-78.
PEN American Center, Modern Language Association of America, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Instituto de Literatura Iberoamericana, National Book Critics Circle, Instituto de Escritores Latinoamericanos.
Translation fellowship, New York State Council on the Arts, 1989; National Endowment for the Humanities scholarship, 1991-92; Latino Literature Prize, Latin American Writers Institute, 1992, for Talia y el cielo; Gamma Prize, Spanish government, 1992, for La pianista manca; fellowships from National Endowment for the Humanities, 1992 and Littaver Foundation, 1993; Latino Literature Prize, 1992; Amherst College Faculty Research Award, 1993; Bernard M. Baruch Excellence in Scholarship Award, City University of New York, 1993, for Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage; nominated for the Pushcart Prize, 2000, for "On My Brother's Trail" and "Xerox Man"; grants from Poets and Writers, New York State Council on the Arts, Constantiner Foundation, and the Spanish government; nominated twice for National Jewish Book Award.
Manual del (im)perfecto resenista (title means "Manual of the (Im)perfect Reviewer"), Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (Mexico City, Mexico), 1989.
Prontuario (title means "Agenda"), Joaquin Mortiz (Mexico City, Mexico), 1992.
Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.
Anti-Heroes: Historia de la novela policiaca en Mexico, Joaquin Mortiz, 1993, translation by Jesse H. Lytle and Jennifer A. Mattson published as Antiheroes: Mexico and Its Detective Novel, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, NJ), 1997.
La pluma y la mascara (title means "The Pen and the Mask"), Fondo de Cultura Economica (Mexico City, Mexico), 1993.
Antologia de cuentos de misterio y horror, Editorial Porrua (Mexico City, Mexico), 1994.
El Alienista y otros cuentos, Editorial Porrua (Mexico City, Mexico), 1994.
Bandido: Oscar Zeta Acosta and the Chicano Experience, Icon Editions (New York, NY), 1995.
The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995, 2nd edition published as The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People, Rayo (New York, NY), 2001.
Art and Anger: Essays, 1986-1995, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1995.
Art and Anger: Essays on Politics and the Imagination, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1996.
Julio Cortazar: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne (New York, NY), 1996.
The Riddle of Cantinflas: Essays on Hispanic Popular Culture, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1998.
The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Literature, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2001.
On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Octavio Paz: A Meditation, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 2001.
Bandido: The Death and Resurrection of Oscar ‘Zeta’ Acosta, Vidas/Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 2003.
Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, Rayo (New York, NY), 2003.
Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2004.
Lotería!, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 2004.
Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2005.
Latino History and Culture, Collins (New York, NY), 2007.
Portions of Prontuario translated into English and published in Present Tense; portions of Anti-Heroes translated into English and published in Review: Latin American Arts and Literature and Nation.
(With fictitious coauthor Zuri Balkoff) Talia y el cielo; o, El libro de los ensuenos (novel; title means "Talia in Heaven; or, The Book of Dreams"), [Venezuela], 1977, revised edition, Plaza & Valdes (Mexico City, Mexico), 1989.
La pianista manca (stories), Alfadil (Caracas, Venezuela), 1992, translated as The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1995.
The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 2006.
Portions of Talia y el cielo were translated into English by Amy Price as Talia in Heaven and serialized in periodicals, including Southwest Review and Literary Review; portions of La pianista manca were translated into English by David Unger and Harry Morales and published as The One-handed Pianist, and in periodicals, including Calypso and Michigan Quarterly Review.
Genesis 2000 (musical), produced in Bellas Artes, Mexico, 1979.
Vals Triste (one-act play; based on texts by Patrick Suskind and Anton Chekhov), produced Off-Broadway, 1992.
(Translator) Felipe Alfau, Sentimental Songs: La poesia cursi de Felipe Alfau (poetry), Dalkey Archive Press, 1992.
(Author of introduction) Juana Ines de la Cruz, Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings, Penguin (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of introduction) Domingo F. Sarmiento, Facundo; or, Civilization and Barbarism, translated by Mary Mann, Penguin (New York, NY), 1998.
Latino USA: A Cartoon History, illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2000.
(Author of introduction) Margaret A. Neves, The Centaur in the Garden, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2003.
Selected Writings, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 2005.
(Author of foreword) Paquito D'Rivera, My Sax Life: A Memoir, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 2005.
Conversations with Ilan Stavans, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 2005.
(With Harold Augenbraum) Growing up Latino: Memoirs and Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.
Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers, Holmes & Meier (New York, NY), 1994, new edition, with introduction, Holmes & Meier (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Flora Schiminovich) La Pluma magica: doce cuentos de America Latina, Heinle & Heinle (Boston, MA), 1994.
Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Uncollected Works, Arte Publico Press (Houston, TX), 1996.
(And author of introduction) New World: Young Latino Writers, Delta (New York, NY), 1997.
(And author of introduction) The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.
(And author of introduction) The Urban Muse: Stories on the American City, Delta (New York, NY), 1998.
(And author of introduction) The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.
(And author of introduction) Calvert Casey, The Collected Stories, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1998.
(And author of introduction) Prospero's Mirror: A Translators' Portfolio of Latin American Short Fiction, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1998.
Mutual Impressions: Writers from the Americas Reading One Another, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1999.
The Essential Ilan Stavans, Routledge (New York, NY), 2000.
Wáchale: Prose and Poetry on Growing up Latino, Carus Publishing (Chicago, IL), 2001.
(And author of introduction) The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Farrar (New York, NY), 2003.
(And author of introduction) Tent of Miracles, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2003.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Collected Stories: A Friend of Kafka to Passions, Library of America (New York, NY), 2004.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to the Letter Writer, Library of America (New York, NY), 2004.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Collected Stories: One Night in Brazil to the Death of Methuselah, Library of America (New York, NY), 2004.
The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States, Grolier Academic Reference (Danbury, CT), 2005.
(With Harold Augenbraum) Lengua Fresca: Latinos Writing on the Edge, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
(And author of introduction) A Luis Leal Reader, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 2007.
(And author of introduction) Pablo Neruda, I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems, Farrar (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor of introductions to books, including Caballeria Roja y Cuentos de Odesa, by Isaac Babel, Edito- rial Porrua, 1992; Lluvia de oro, by Victor Villasenor, Planeta, 1993; A Distant Death, by Jose Emilio Pacheco, Sun & Moon, 1994; and The Martyr: Lui de Carvajal; A Secret Jew in Sixteenth-Century Mexico, by Martin A. Cohen, 2001. Editor of the series "Coleccion Rio Grande;" contributing editor of In These Times and Bloomsbury Review; editor of anthologies. Columnist for various international periodicals, including El Diario (New York, NY), Excilsior (Venezuela), Diaro 16 (Spain), and El Nuevo Herald (Miami, FL); and numerous other newspapers and periodicals, including New York Times, Nation, Miami Herald, Michigan Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Times Literary Supplement, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Commonweal, Science Fiction Studies, Boston Review, Village Voice, and Literary Review. Translator of works by Juan Goytisolo, Carmen Martin Gaite, Manuel Puig, and Alcina Lubitch Domecq into English; translator of works by Yehuda Halevi, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Leonard Bernstein into Spanish. Has conducted interviews with authors, including John Updike, Joseph Brodsky, and Isabel Allende, for numerous publications.
Literary critic and fiction writer Ilan Stavans has become a respected analyst of Jewish and Latin-American literature, and of matters pertaining to multicultural identities. His many volumes of essays, criticism, and short stories, written both in Stavans's native Spanish and in English, are admired for their wide-ranging scholarship and incisive opinions; indeed, his publications have been so prolific that Chronicle of Higher Education writer Scott Heller dubbed him "the Skip Gates of Latino studies."
Stavans first gained significant attention for his 1989 novel Talia y el cielo. The book is "cowritten" with Zuri Balkoff, which is actually Stavans's pseudonym, and has its genesis in a series of ideologically opposed newspaper columns written by Stavans and Balkoff. Variations of both authors appear as characters in the book. The story revolves around a young woman named Talia Kahan, who is the daughter of a concentration camp survivor. Fleeing an overly possessive mother, Talia arrives in the imaginary Latin American country of Paranagua. There she meets a college professor named Ilan Stabans. Talia soon discovers that Stabans has a dual personality; his other half is a journalist named Igal Balkoff. In addition to its Spanish version, Talia y el cielo exists, in excerpts, in an English translation by Amy Price with an introduction by Stavans under the title Talia in Heaven.
Such unconventional approaches to narrative structure are also evident in Stavans's short fiction. In "House Repossessed," from The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, he expands on Julio Cortazar's classic story, "House Taken Over," in which an unnamed and invisible "they" slowly drive an aging sister and brother out of their family home. When Los Angeles Reader interviewer Elizabeth Shostak asked him about the story, Stavans replied that "the idea of having been born before or having to come after a number of important writers who have all made incredible literary contributions interests me very much. [‘House Repossessed’ is an attempt] to find originality and authenticity in the lack of originality and the lack of authenticity. In many ways, that is what Latin America is all about." Though New York Times Book Review contributor Bill Christophersen found Stavans's literary appropriations often ingenious, he added that, at times, the author's "cribbings of signature motifs from Borges … seems compulsive."
Other stories in The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, as Shostak noted, reveal the influence of such Eastern European writers as Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. "I think of myself more as a Jewish writer than a Mexican writer," he said. "But as a Jew, I think of diaspora writers as reinventing all our cultures; we are chameleons, adapting the languages of an environment, adapting the style and the culture and then trying to put them together in some distinctive way that is Jewish."
In The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories, Stavans continues his exploration of the theme of the Jewish diaspora in Mexico. The collection of two stories and a novella includes the title story, in which an actor stages his own kidnapping. Reading the obituary of the actor, who may or may not have ended his days in Israel, the narrator muses on the meanings of Jewish exile. The novella, "Morirse esta en hebreo," tells the story of a Mexican Jewish family during the social and political upheavals of the presidential campaign of 2000, which resulted in the election of Vicente Fox. The final story, "Xerox Man," is, in the opinion of Library Journal reviewer Margaret Mary Benson, the collection's true gem. Benson described the story as a "mystery about a book thief and his theologically bizarre obsessions." Though Benson gave The Disappearance high praise, a writer for Publishers Weekly considered the book rather "slight," observing that the stories "read almost like newspaper dispatches, conveying facts and stopping short of analysis." Nevertheless, the reviewer found the book a "thoughtful" work that would appeal to Stavans's fans.
In 1995, Stavans issued The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America, in which he makes a number of pronouncements regarding literature as well as several minority groups in the United States, including Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, among others. The work aroused controversy, noted Dan Cryer in Newsday, because "sometimes, Stavans seemed deliberately provocative." For example, among other things, he characterizes the respected Mexican labor activist Cesar Chavez as a "good Hispanic dictator, intolerant, undemocratic, authoritarian" regarding Chavez's dealings with the farm workers union he led. Such contentions riled some reviewers, they charged that Stavans did not have enough experience or data to support his conclusions. In response, noted Cryer, Stavans "wonders how long a period of residence would appease his critics."
Stavans's interest in Jewish literature and in cross-cultural studies is the focus of much of his critical writing. His edition of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories earned considerable praise in the United States. A Publishers Weekly reviewer hailed it as a "superb selection" of fiction from around the world, concluding that "Stavans's illuminating introduction serves as a suggestive road map of Jewish literature from shtetl to Holocaust to modern Diaspora." George Cohen, in Booklist, praised the anthology as "extraordinary" and appreciated its range of themes. Times Literary Supplement contributor Brian Cheyette, however, faulted the book as an "arbitrary" selection based on a "confused" premise. "Stavans makes two contradictory claims," Cheyette wrote. "Most frequently, he argues that there is a unified and homogenous modern Jewish literature…. But, at the same time, he also stresses the transcultural and polyglot nature of this literary canon which may, or may not, address Jewish history and culture." Complaining that the volume slighted modern Jewish writers from Britain and Israel, Cheyette found the book's focus on American writing a fault; by representing Holocaust writing through the work of such Americans as Cynthia Ozick and Rebecca Goldstein instead of actual survivors, Cheyette suggested, Stavans appropriates much Jewish history "in the name of a spurious universality." Despite his criticisms of the book, however, Cheyette admitted that its attention to Jewish writers from Latin American is especially welcome, and is the collection's greatest strength.
Two collections of Stavans's criticism on Latin American themes have received particular attention. The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, a compilation of seventy-seven pieces, was hailed as an important and enjoyable book. In his introduction, as Barbara Mujica noted in her Americas review, Stavans writes that Europeans and North Americans do not associate Latin American culture with the kind of critical thinking required by the essay form, and that essay writers in Latin America are often "forced to the fringes" and considered "outcasts" because they challenge the status quo. At the same time, however, the essay holds an important position in Latin American literature because it is an effective tool by which to analyze society. Booklist reviewer Brad Hooper considered Stavans's introduction "a strikingly original definition of the qualities of the essay and its appropriateness to the Latin American voice," and deemed the collection "a feast." Praising Stavans for his "excellent choice of material," Mujica commented that "he is at his best when analyzing broad concepts such as the essence of language, the feasibility of translating cultural concepts from one tongue to another, or the effects of technology on the art of the essay." She found Stavans less effective, however, in his comments about history—many of which she claimed are inaccurate.
A second collection, Mutual Impressions: Writers from the Americas Reading One Another, examines parallels between the literary traditions of the English-speaking and the Spanish-speaking Americas. A Publishers Weekly contributor deemed it an "exquisite" collection, and especially admired its organization into "dialogues" between writers of the North and the South. "There are stimulating pieces by [José] Martí on Walt Whitman, Mario Vargas Llosa on Ernest Hemingway and on himself … Octavio Paz on William Carlos Williams … and from Stavans himself on Julia Alvarez," wrote Jason Wilson in Times Literary Supplement. Wilson also admired the pieces in which John Updike comments on Roa Bastos, Thomas Pynchon analyzes a novel by Garcia Marquez, and Susan Sontag considers Machado de Assis, "Latin America's ‘greatest author,’" according to Wilson.
Stavans's edition of the poetry of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a Nobel laureate and universally regarded as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, drew many favorable reviews. Stavans includes six hundred poems, drawing on English translations by thirty-six different translators. In a starred review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda in Library Journal, Jack Shreve noted that the collection was just the thing to inspire renewed interest in Neruda's work. Jay Parini, writing in Nation, praised the book's "informative, lively commentary" by Stavans, concluding that "in its comprehensive amplitude, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda will doubtless attract many new readers to the poetry and surprise those who thought they knew it well." Harvard Review contributor Christopher Winks, however, found the volume disappointing. Winks objected to Stavans's method of arranging poems, which sometimes disrupt Neruda's original sequences, and to Stavans's casual approach to choice of translations. Phoebe Pettingell, writing in New Leader, also noted the occasional confusion of the variety of translations, but suggested that this was an almost inevitable result of the huge range of Neruda's work. "Stavans's compilation conveys Neruda's scope admirably," she observed, concluding that "for those unable to read his work in Spanish, Stavans's voluminous collection provides a starting point to measure Pablo Neruda's influence on the poetry written in our own corner of the Americas."
Stavans explores a new genre with Latino USA: A Cartoon History. This graphic book, according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "focuses on creating a historical narrative that draws heavily from popular culture and celebrates the mixture of backgrounds that find expression in present-day ‘spanglish.’" Its characters include a teacher, a toucan, an actor, and Stavans himself; the book, which the Kirkus writer deemed "painless, witty, and inviting," gives alternative accounts of historical events such as the siege of the Alamo, and provides what critics considered an exceptionally good analysis of the growing Latino presence in the United States.
Many of the major themes from his work are rearticulated in Stavans's autobiography, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language. According to Dan Cryer, writing in Newsday, this memoir recounts Stavans's "intellectual-emotional journey from Mexico to the United States." Organized around various members of Stavans's family and their relationship to the various languages they spoke, the book conveys, remarked Cryer, "language … as a shaper of world views, a means of artistic expression, a frustrating obstacle course or a key to opening up enchanting alternative worlds." Writing in the Jerusalem Report, Gabriel Sanders noted that "although written in English, with a sprinkling of Spanish, the book is infused with the spirit of many languages," ultimately helping the author "synchronize his steps" to let him "better see himself." In doing this, the work goes beyond a focus on the role of language, also helping Stavans trace his own search for identity, from his birth and life in Mexico to his eventual move to the United States. "This beautifully written memoir is the tale of a search—for a homeland, for a language and for a calling," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly, who went on to point out that the book "should resonate with Americans of many ethnic backgrounds, not only Jewish and Latino."
Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language explores the hybrid mix of Spanish and English that, in the words of an Economist reviewer, represent a "chaotic collision" between the two languages, forming an "‘intra-ethnic’ dialect" through which speakers can "communicate with each other in a sometimes hostile dominant culture." As Stavans explains in the book, Spanglish is something like Yiddish, which is a mixture of Hebrew and German. For many Latinos, Spanglish offers a transition into mainstream American culture. Stavans, however, argues that this hybrid language is much more than just a temporary development, but is also an influential linguistic phenomenon that will exert a lasting effect on both of its root languages. The book contains a lexicon of some six thousand words and phrases that are examples of Spanglish, including various everyday phrases and even a Spanglish version of the first chapter of Don Quixote. As the Economist reviewer pointed out, Stavans likens Spanglish to jazz in its creativity and adaptability. Though the critic was not entirely convinced by Stavans's argument that Spanglish is truly a new idiom, the writer found Stavans's fascination infectious. "Spanglish is an incredibly creative, even artistic expression of communication. It's also a demonstration of an enterprising business spirit that uses whatever language it can to communicate, even if this angers academics and experts," Stavans told an EFE World News Service reporter. He further noted that, though Spanglish originally developed among working people, those with more education have increasingly been drawn to it. "In the end," he observed, "people, not scholars, are the real owners of a language."
Words and memory again provide Stavans's subject in Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion, a collection of essays about the pleasures of browsing in dictionaries, thesauruses, and other books about language. As Stavans points out, he became fascinated by such books at an early age; in fact, he used Appleton's New English-Spanish and Spanish-English Dictionary to learn enough English to read Moby Dick shortly after moving to New York City from Mexico. He muses about definitions, the evolution of phrases, slang, and even curse words, and his enthusiasm extends beyond English and Spanish to such languages as Arabic, Chinese, and Sum- erian. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book a "discursive and charming" collection. Stavans chooses subjects "with eclectic abandon," wrote Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman, who concluded that readers similarly attracted to lexicographical matters would "relish" Dictionary Days.
Stavans served as editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States, a reference book widely admired for its scope and insight. A contributor to Reference & Research Book News described it as a "terrific" resource that is "rich and thought-provoking." In addition to covering such expected topics as Columbus's voyage of 1492, religion, and social class, the book includes entries about such subjects as Islam, jazz, and the Vietnam War. Booklist reviewer Diana Kirby hailed Encyclopedia Latina as an "impressive" work that succeeds in presenting the diversity of Hispanic civilization in the United States. Its "broad historical sweep and multidisciplinary coverage," wrote Kirby, make the encyclopedia "an indispensable reference resource."
Stavans once told CA: "I was born in Mexico City, 7 April 1961, on a cloudy day without major historical events. I am a descendant of Jews from Russia and Poland, businessmen and rabbis who arrived by sheer chance to Veracruz, Mexico, on the Atlantic coast next to the Yucatan peninsula. I am a sum of parts and thus lack purity of blood (what proud renaissance Iberians called la oureza de sangre): white Caucasian with a Mediterranean twist, much like the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and only marginally like the Aztec poet Ollin Yollistli. My idols, not surprisingly, are Spinoza and Kafka, two exiles in their own land who chose to switch languages (Czech to German, Portuguese and Hebrew to Latin) in order to elevate themselves to a higher order, and who relentlessly investigated their own spirituality beyond the realm of orthodox religion and routine. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Essays: Second Series (1844), says that the reason we feel one man's presence and not another's is as simple as gravity. I have traveled from Spanish into Yiddish, Hebrew, and English; from my native home south of the Rio Grande far and away—to Europe, the Middle East, the United States, the Bahamas, and South America—always in search of the ultimate clue to the mysteries of my divided identity. What I found is doubt.
"Mother tongue. The expression crashed into my mind at age twenty, perhaps a bit later. The father tongue, I assumed, was the adopted, alternative and illegitimate language (Henry James preferred the term ‘wife tongue’), whereas the mother tongue is genuine and authentic—a uterus: the original source. I was educated in (into) four idioms: Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Spanish was the public venue; Hebrew was a channel toward Zionism and not toward the sacredness of the synagogue; Yiddish symbolized the Holocaust and past struggles of the Eastern European labor movement; and English was the entrance door to redemption—the United States. Abba Eban said it better: Jews are like everybody else … except a little bit more. A polyglot, of course, has as many loyalties as homes. Spanish is my right eye, English my left; Yiddish my background and Hebrew my conscience. Or better, each four represents a different set of spectacles (near-sight, bifocal, night-reading, etc.) through which the universe is seen.
"This multifarious upbringing often brought me difficulties. Around the neighborhood, I was always el guerito and el ruso. Annoyingly, my complete name is Ilan Stavchansky Slomianski; nobody, except for Yiddish teachers, knew how to pronounce it. (I get mail addressed to Ivan Starlominsky, Ivan Estafchansky, and Allan Stevens.) After graduating from high school, most of my friends, members of richer families, were sent abroad, to the United States or Israel, to study. Those that remained, including me, were forced to go to college at home, to face Mexico tete a tete. The shock was tremendous. Suddenly, I (we) recognized the artificiality of our oasis. What to do? I, for one, rejected my background. I felt Judaism made me a pariah. I wanted to be an authentic Mexican and thus foolishly joined the Communist cause, but the result wasn't pleasing. Among the camaradas, I was also ‘the blondy’ and ‘the Jew.’ No hope, no escape. So I decided to investigate my ethnic and religious past obsessively and made it my duty to fully understand guys like Maimonides, Arthur Koestler, Mendelssohn, Judah Holevi, Hasdai Crescas, Spinoza, and others. It helped, at least temporarily. Nothing lasts forever.
"I must confess never to have learned to love Mexico. I was taught to adopt a sense of foreignness—as a tourist without a home. The best literature I know about Mexico is by Europeans and U.S. writers: Andre Breton, Jack Kerouac, Graham Greene, Joseph Brodsky, Antonin Artaud, Katherine Anne Porter, Malcolm Lowry, Harriet Doerr; I only love my country when I am far and away. Elsewhere—that's where I belong: the vast diaspora. Nowhere and everywhere.
"I honestly never imagined I could one day pick up my suitcases to leave home once and for all. And yet, at twenty-five I moved to New York. I was awarded a scholarship to a master's program at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, afterward, perhaps a doctorate at Columbia University or elsewhere. I fled Mexico (and Spanish) mainly because as a secular Jew—what Freud would call ‘a psychological Jew’—I felt marginalized, a stereotype. (Little did I know!) A true chameleon, a bit parochial and near-sighted, a nonconformist with big dreams and few possibilities. Like my globe-trotting Hebraic ancestors, I had been raised to build an ivory tower, an individual ghetto. By choosing to leave, I turned my past into remembrance: I left the basement and ceased to be a pariah. Talia in Heaven exemplified that existential dilemma: its message simultaneously encourages Jews to integrate and openly invites them to escape; it alternates between life and memory. Paraphrasing Lionel Trilling, its cast of characters, victims of an obsessive God (much like the Bible's) who enjoys ridiculing them, are at the bloody crossroad where politics, theology, and literature meet.
"Once settled, I suddenly began to be perceived as Hispanic (i.e., Latino)—an identity totally alien to me. (My knowledge of spoken Latin is minimal.) To make matters worse, my name (once again?), accent, and skin color were exceptions to what Americans knew as ‘the Hispanic prototype.’ In other words, in Mexico I was perceived as Jewish; and now across the border, I was Mexican. Funny, isn't it? (In fact, according to official papers I qualify as a white Hispanic, an unpleasant term if there was ever one.) Once again, an imposter, an echo. (An imposter, says Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, is a rival aspirant to public honors.)
"Nowhere and everywhere. In 1985 I was assigned by a Spanish magazine to interview Isaac Goldemberg, a famous Jewish-Peruvian novelist who wrote The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner. When we met at the Hungarian Pastry Shop at Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street, he told me, among many things, that he had been living in New York for over two decades without mastering the English language because he didn't want his Spanish to suffer and ultimately evaporate. Borges says in his short story ‘The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874)’: Any life, no matter how long or complex it may be, is made up essentially of a single moment—the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is. That summer day I understood that my linguistic future lay in the opposite direction from Goldemberg's: I would perfect my English and thus become a New York Jew, an intellectual animal in the proud tradition celebrated by Alfred Kazin … and I did. In just a single moment I understood who I could be.
"To write is to make sense of confusion in and around. Didn't somebody already say this? Jean Genet, Mario Vargas Llosa, John Updike? I am a copy, an instant replay, a shadow, an impostor. Everything is an echo. To live is to plagiarize, to imitate, to steal.
"Acting—my father's trade. As I was growing up, I remember feeling amazed by his incredible talent. I adored him. Watching his performances, I would be pushed to what Soren Kierkegaard regarded as ‘an existential vacuum—a mystery.’ Was he really the man I knew or, instead, an impostor, a mask-carrier? In my eyes, the entire universe was a vast and mysterious theater in which He (Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, the Holy Spirit, the Father of Fathers) would capriciously establish what people, the actors, are to do, to say, to think, to hope. My dad's actual stage was a microcosmos that inspired me to philosophize about religion and eschatology, about freedom and determinism. I wondered: while acting, was my father free to refuse pronouncing a certain line of the script?; could he talk to me at least once during the performance (through his real and unimported self)? I also wondered if I, Ilan Stavans, was free to stop being his son? Could I also become other people—like Shakespeare, be one and many? To answer these many questions, I became a novelist. To write is to make sense of confusion in and around. (It was me who said that.)
"To write, perchance to dream (or vice versa?). Not long ago an interviewer asked me why didn't I follow my father's footsteps and enter the stage. My response was short and somewhat condescending. Deep inside, I dislike actors. I find their vulnerability, their trendiness and exhibitionism, disturbing. I would rather live in the shadow than in the spotlight. Besides, I love the theater of the mind and have a terrible fear of dying. It might sound absurd, but I see literature as brother to memory and theater as a symbol of the ephemeral present. I write in order to remember and be remembered. Death is the absence of recollection—what Luis G. Rodriguez calls ‘total forgetery.’ Theater, on the other hand, is a performance art, a transitory game. It is only alive during a night show, afterward it's gone … forever. Nothing remains, nothing. Except perhaps a handful of yellowish photos and (luck permitting) an award or two. And if theater is like a vanishing photograph, writing is signing one's name on concrete: a proof of existence (‘I was here’). By incorporating past and present images, a narrative plays with Time (with capital ‘T’) in an astonishing fashion: it makes reality eternal. Marcel's desire for his mother's goodnight kiss in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is not a pre-World War I scene alone but, unquestionably, an image for the ages. When death turns me into a ghost, at least something, an ingenious thought or a breath of life, will remain—a written page like those of Virgil, Dante, and Cervantes. Perhaps and perhaps not. The only certainty is that a library is a triumph over nothingness. And yet, the warm human contact my dad encounters while performing is always invigorating. Literature, on the other hand, is a secluded activity. Isolation, silence, detachment, escape. You hope someone will read you someday, although nothing (not even the timing of God's laughter) is certain. Thus, decades away from those Sunday afternoons when my father would take me along to his show, I still confess to feel envy: He can be happy, I cannot. I honestly wish I could at times take vacations from myself—like him, have another self. It must be refreshing. Isolation, silence.
"My themes always dealt with God as manipulator of human conscience, and my existential journey could be reduced to a verse by the Nicaraguan modernista poet Ruben Dario: ‘To be and not to know.’ My style was precise and direct, akin to elegious insights. Cyril Connolly says in Enemies of Promise: ‘The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the function of the writers is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.’"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Stavans, Ilan, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Afterimage, July 1, 2005, Amber Hares, review of Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion, p. 48.
American Book Review, August, 1996, review of The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, p. 17.
Americas, January-February, 1998, Barbara Mujica, review of The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, p. 63.
Booklist, August, 1997, Brad Hooper, review of The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, p. 1870; May 15, 1998, Michael Spinella, review of Prospero's Mirror: A Translator's Portfolio of Latin American Short Fiction, p. 1589; October 1, 1998, George Cohen, review of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, p. 308; February 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Wáchale: Prose and Poetry on Growing up Latino, p. 935; March 15, 2005, Hazel Rochman, review of Dictionary Days, p. 1252; October 1, 2005, Diana Kirby, review of Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, and Society in the United States, p. 79; January 1, 2006, "Reference Sources," p. 19.
Book Report, March-April, 1996, Sherry York, review of The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America, p. 55.
Bookwatch, September, 1998, review of Prospero's Mirror, p. 3; October 1, 2004, review of Lotería!; July 1, 2005, review of Dictionary Days.
Boston Globe, August, 20, 2001, Jules Verdone, "Four Languages Intersect in ‘Borrowed Words,’" p. B9.
Choice, September, 1996, review of Julio Cortazar: A Study of the Short Fiction, p. 134; February, 1997, review of Art and Anger: Essays, 1986-1995, p. 971; January, 1998, review of Antiheroes: Mexico and Its Detective Novel, p. 826; April, 1998, review of The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, p. 1379; November, 1998, review of Prospero's Mirror, p. 528.
Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 1998, Scott Heller, "‘Living in the Hyphen’ between Latin and American."
Economist, October 25, 2003, "Not for the Purists; Latinos in the United States," p. 76.
EFE World News Service, September 15, 2003, "Spanglish Catching on in U.S., Says Author Ilan Stavans," p. 1008258.
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Hispanic, January-February, 1997, Concepcion Hopinks, review of New World: Young Latino Writers, p. 112.
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Jerusalem Report, September 24, 2001, Gabriel Sanders, "A Journey from Guns to Books," pp. 48-49.
Jewish Quarterly, summer, 2001, Moris Farhi, "Eagle-eyed Critic," pp. 84-86.
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Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1996, review of New World, p. 1562; May 15, 1998, review of Prospero's Mirror, p. 692; September 15, 1998, review of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, p. 1327; November 1, 1999, review of Mutual Impressions: Writers from the Americas Reading One Another, p. 1729; October 1, 2000, review of Latino USA: A Cartoon History, p. 1386.
La Opinion (Los Angeles), December 22, 1991, p. 8; November 15, 2004, review of The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, p. 1070; February 1, 2005, review of Dictionary Days, p. 171.
Library Journal, February 15, 1996, Molly Abramowitz, review of The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, p. 178; January, 1997, Erin Cassin, review of New World, p. 152; October 1, 1997, Rebecca Martin, review of The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, p. 82; January, 1998, Paul E. Hutchison, review of The Urban Muse: Stories on the American City, p. 147; June 15, 1998, Rebecca Martin, review of Prospero's Mirror, p. 80; May 15, 1999, Eric Bryant, review of Hopscotch: A Cultural Review, p. 58; December, 1999, Sue Samson, review of Mutual Impressions, p. 134; November 1, 2000, Silvia Heredia, review of The Essential Ilan Stavans, p. 118; April 1, 2001, Loren Rosson III, review of The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture, p. 105; July, 2001, Gene Shaw, review of On Borrowed Words, p. 92; June 1, 2003, Jack Shreve, review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, p. 126; October 1, 2003, Paul D'Alessandro, review of Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language, p. 76; February 15, 2005, Gene Shaw, review of The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, p. 130; May 1, 2005, Jan Brue Enright, review of Dictionary Days, p. 85; June 15, 2005, Nedra Crowe-Evers, review of Encyclopedia Latina, p. 100; July 1, 2005, "Soccer, Salsa, and Stereotypes," p. 122; August 1, 2006, Mary Margaret Benson, review of The Disappearance, p. 79; November 15, 2006, Nedra Crowe-Evers, review of Lengua Fresca: Latinos Writing on the Edge, p. 72.
Los Angeles Reader, March 8, 1996, Elizabeth Shostak, "Exile and the Kingdom," p. 15.
Modern Language Review, October 1, 1998, Phillip Swanson, review of Antiheroes, p. 1143.
Nation, December 22, 2003, Jay Parini, "A Poet of Multitudes," p. 44.
New Leader, July 1, 2003, "The Many Voices of Pablo Neruda," p. 29.
Newsday, August 28, 2001, Dan Cryer, "One-Man Mosaic," pp. B6-7.
New York Times Book Review, March 10, 1996, David C. Unger, review of Bandido: Oscar "Zeta" Acosta and the Chicano Experience; May 5, 1996, Bill Christophersen, review of The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories; September 12, 2004, William Deresiewicz, "Sex and the Shtetl," p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, April 27, 1992, review of Sentimental Songs, p. 259; January 11, 1993, review of Growing up Latino: Memoirs and Stories, p. 59; January 1, 1996, review of The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, p. 59; April 20, 1998, review of Calvert Casey: The Collected Stories, p. 48; September 28, 1998, review of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, p. 72; November 29, 1999, review of Mutual Impressions, p. 63; July 2, 2001, review of On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, p. 61, Sarah F. Gold, "PW Talks with Ilan Stavans," p. 61; March 11, 2002, "Rhyme Time," p. 74; March 14, 2005, review of Dictionary Days, p. 57; June 12, 2006, review of The Disappearance, p. 31.
Reference & Research Book News, August 1, 2005, review of Conversations with Ilan Stavans, p. 269; August 1, 2005, review of Encyclopedia Latina, p. 62; May 1, 2006, review of Dictionary Days.
Reference & User Services Quarterly, winter, 2005, Eileen Oliver, review of Encyclopedia Latina.
Reviewer's Bookwatch, April 1, 2005, review of "Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side."
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1996, review of The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, p. 156.
School Library Journal, December 1, 2005, Ginny Gustin, review of Encyclopedia Latina, p. 94.
Studies in Short Fiction, fall, 1996, review of Julio Cortazar, p. 605.
Times Literary Supplement, April 30, 1999, Brian Cheyette, review of The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories; May 11, 2001, Jason Wilson, review of Mutual Impressions.
Translation Review Supplement, July, 1999, review of Prospero's Mirror, p. 3.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1999, review of Prospero's Mirror, p. 50.
Washington Post Book World, January 3, 1993, p. 15; August 4, 1996, review of The One-handed Pianist and Other Stories, p. 9.
World and I, January 1, 2005, Bruce Allen, "Of Mischief and Havoc: Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer in His Centennial Year."
Amherst College Web site,http://www.amherst.edu/ (July 3, 2007).