Ilan Stavans, who was born in Mexico in 1961 to an Eastern European Jewish family, has recently published On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language. This book recounts the way various periods in his life have been shaped by languages: Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English. As such it is a riveting co-mingling of reminiscence and meditation.
Ilan Stavans has also written The Hispanic Condition, The Riddle of Cantiflas, The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories, Art and Anger, Bandido, Latino USA: A Cartoon History and Imagining Columbus. He has been the editor of the Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, Prospero’s Mirror, The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, Tropical Synagogues and The Urban Muse. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Latino Literature Prize and is a Professor of Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College.
Robert Birnbaum: It seemed appropriate not to read On Borrowed Words sequentially. Did you write chapter 1 first, then chapter 2 and so on?
Ilan Stavans: I do not remember very well how I wrote the book. I suspect they were not written sequentially. I, in fact, can tell you there was a chapter somewhere that did not appear in the book. And it was the one that eventually allowed me to enter the book. It was the one I treasured as the door [to writing the book], for a long time. And when the book was finished I realized it had become needless and preposterous.
RB: Like Wittgenstein’s ladder, that you climbed up and then discarded it?
RB: This book is not a straightforward memoir, and when you, in the text, recount your conversation with Richard Rodriguez, it seems to include an apology…
IS: That chapter certainly came at the very end. I worry about straightforward memoirs. I tossed the idea of this book in so many ways. Originally, I wanted to write this as book written in four different languages. It would not only be in English. The first part would be in Yiddish, the second part in Spanish and the third part in Hebrew and eventually the fourth part would be in English. In a perfect Universe — at least as perfect as I envision it — you would start in Yiddish and then slowly as in an Escher painting the letters would become Spanish and slowly moving into the tapestry of Hispanic culture and from there moving into Middle Eastern and Biblical Hebrew and eventually come to English…
RB: And then you thought about the readers…
IS: And then I thought about the readers and the publishers and the real world, the imperfect world, the world in which you write. My goal was to produce a series of reflections that amounted to autobiographical meditation more than a straightforward chronological memoir of “I was born in 1961…”I wanted the broken structure of the book to reflect the broken nature of the thoughts that were appearing. For that reason I wanted to focus one chapter on the issue of being the son, another chapter on being a brother but it would be about my father and my grandmother. In the end, the chapter with Richard Rodriguez literally puts it together. That chapter happened like that. I literally sat with Richard and told him that I had come to this and it’s kind of coming together…kind of a memoir, an anti-memoir, or as memoir in translation with out an original as I mention. Or a series of added comments that come to feel, as there is an overall book. Even looking back, most of what I have done that I consider of any value…I have done a lot that I do not consider of much value….
RB: You have done a lot that you don’t consider of much value? I find that to be an incredible statement.
IS: Well, books that I consider of most value are the books that are just bits and pieces of reviews and comments…
IS: Fragments. And I like that nature of the fragment. But, also in the real publishing world and in the real readers’ world, you have to build longer meditations or longer adventures or fictions.
RB: The Oxford Book of Literary Essays, Oxford Book of Jewish Short Stories, Art and Anger. A profile of a Hispanic gang leader. No novel?
IS: I have written a novella which is only 80 or 90 pages in length. I might die without having written one. I might die feeling my life was left unfinished.
RB: This is a way of saying that writing a novel is something you aspire to?
IS: I would like to write a novel. I do not think I could write a long novel. That novella actually was a long novel. And it grew and grew, and when it was fat I realized it needed a diet, and I shrunk and shrunk it, and eventually it became a novella. It is also very fragmentary and fragmented in many ways.
RB: Is this a characteristic of contemporary Latin literature?
IS: It might be. One of my idols is Walter Benjamin. And what I like most about him is the short meditation, not the long pieces. In Latin America even the big novels are little puzzles that add up and have cutting and pasting — Cortozar and Vargas Llosa. So it might be somewhere there. But then again, what is a big novel? Even a Henry James novel is filled with empty spaces between the major scenes, that even that could be described as fragmented. In English we love systems. We love to systemize the world.
RB: Have you written something like, “English is the perfect language.”?
IS: No, not the perfect language. But it is as comfortable to me as any language that I have come across. It is the one I feel most comfortable in, of all the horizontal languages. But the true language is Hebrew. I feel like when a text of mine is translated into different languages it is just a nice sport. When it is translated into Hebrew I have the sense of coming home. I feel there is a home there. And that is a vertical language, I think.
RB: How many languages are you translated into?
IS: Less than a dozen across language groups. As you can see from the book, I am just fascinated by the in’s and out’s of translation.
RB: You anthologized some translations in Prospero’s Mirror.
IS: I find translators, in many ways, to be the real protagonists of culture. In Art & Anger there is an essay about the role translators played in the conquest of the Americas. I am fascinated by the fact that we go to movies and have subtitles, that there are simultaneous translations in the United Nations. This war between East and West or between the Muslim world and America is as much about language as it is about the sacred books and God. Translators are the underpaid heroes of culture.
RB: Based on false assumptions, which are that…
IS: …they are not creators.
RB: And there is the misguided view that movie should be judged by the book and not seen as a new entity.
IS: Authors need to thank translators. For one thing, just to bring them out of the prison that they are originally set in. And many translators have improved upon the original. Some have even dared insert a new character, a new chapter…a new…I think the translator is as much a creator as the original creator.
RB: Borges didn’t translate his own work, though he knew English?
IS: He knew English very well. He started reading in English and then reading in Spanish. He has a couple of poems that were written originally in English that are part of his Complete Works. He translated Faulkner into Spanish and Virginia Wolf and Whitman. I talked to Joseph Brodsky and he translated from the Spanish and did not have a clue of Spanish.
RB: How did he do that?
IS: Samuel Beckett translated an entire anthology of colonial literature of Latin America and his Spanish was primitive.
RB: Okay, how do you do that?
IS: What Brodsky told me is that languages are mathematical and that you can use a dictionary and invoke. Of course, the result can be disastrous. If you read Beckett’s translations, you’ll see that they bring something to the lack of knowledge — as a result of a lack of knowledge that at times is better than full knowledge.
RB: Because the focus isn’t on the language?
IS: Perhaps when you come with too much of an assumption you turn it into a white carpet. When you come with little assumptions you can see the various colors of the carpet and you embrace this idea that a translator invents a new text. Which is what I think what Beckett did in some cases.
RB: Let me back up a little, Borges wrote in English?
IS: Borges wrote a couple of poems in English that he included, did not exile. He exiled a lot of stuff from his Complete Works, but he included those two. And he wrote an autobiographical essay in English for the New Yorker magazine in 1973 or 1974 that he never allowed anyone to translate into Spanish. In other words, saying this is for an American audience.
RB: I find it fascinating that he would write in Spanish, know English and…what was his relationship to the translations? Did he just let them go?
IS:He let them go. In the case of the DiGiovanni, it has become controversial. Norman Thomas DiGiovanni met Borges here in Cambridge, was infatuated with his work and said to Borges I want to move to Buenos Aires and work together with you for a series of translations. He got Dutton the publisher to publish them. Borges and DiGiovanni met everyday to work on the translations, So you can say that [Borges] was very careful about those. In other cases, people said I want to translate this and Borges by telephone would say yes. Sometimes say yes to the same text with two different translators. He took the English very seriously and the reason it became controversial is because Norman sometimes would say, “Borges, in the original this is not good. Let’s put [it this way] in English.” And Borges agreed because he had n agreeable personality. And then DiGiovanni convinced him to change the Spanish as a result of the translation, to change the original as a result of the translation, in the next edition. Here you have a case of the translator that shapes the original text.
RB: Which speaks to the unfinished nature of literature.
IS: Which I love.
RB: I wonder how you felt when you wrote about — I’m certain I know how you felt when you did it — when you recount the time you were culling out your library and you ended up burning 70 volumes of Borges. It hurt to read about that…
IS: It hurt me to do it. To this day…
RB: Right. But then you wrote about it.
IS: Right. And I was very ashamed of what I had done. And I still have, as I say in the book, some books that survived tinted or burned…
RB: Were you an extreme young man?
IS: I was struggling to be a young writer. Borges was such a forceful influence, that I couldn’t be born, couldn’t find my own voice. Every time I started to move the pen, I felt that Borges was writing through me. I needed some sort of freedom. I am ashamed that I did that. Of course, you can evoke images of the Inquisition and of Kristalnacht…
RB: I have a reverence of books that makes it difficult to get rid of even one…
IS: I have trouble getting rid of books to the extent that…you know that Umberto Eco at one point had so many books in his library that the floor collapsed…
RB: He claimed to have 35,000 volumes in his home in Milan and to have 6 or 7000 volumes in his country home. Not in any particular order…
IS: That’s an another question I mention in On Borrowed Words. How do you order the books? You are not a librarian, you are the owner. So what happens with the new Susan Sontag book when it come in? I don’t have a space next to the old Sontags. Any order is an arbitrary one. My wife is convinced I am the only one that knows where the books are. That’s not true, I don’t know where the books are.
RB: Saxophonist Joshua Redmon says that in his music collection, he just puts the CDs in alphabetical order…meaning he doesn’t care about the categories.
IS: I have followed the pattern of acquisition. A book that was bought today, it will enter somewhere that is closer to me. I wish I could have a more consistent method because sometimes I waste a lot of time just looking for one sentence. At that point, though I know I have a book, I end up going to the library to look for it.
RB: A personal library has a different function…
IS:This business of buying books. Why do I need to buy them if the library is going to have them in a few weeks? And yet I hear of a new Oliver Sacks, as I did yesterday, and I will go and get my own copy.
RB: Not hard to understand. You can do what you want with it…write notes in it…
IS: Plus I feel that they are next to me. And they are mine and it’s not as if it’s an impersonal property that I’m just having a turn at. Although granted, many of these books I will never reopen. I will read them, they will sit there and the day I die they will be thrown away or stored or donated…and it becomes a less free world, in so far as movement is concerned because books take up lot of space.
RB: Yet, there are some books that may not end up in the local library.
IS: And you go immediately for them…
RB: It’s an excuse. Who knows?
IS: Yeah, sure it’s an excuse.
RB: You seem not concerned with the phraseology, ‘Hispanic’ versus ‘Latino’. Does it make any difference?
IS: No, I am more interested that people care about it than in caring about it myself. This whole issue of Latino, Hispanic or the sub-categories, Cuban-American or Mexican-American announces or establishes that we are so involved in shaping an identity. Using language as a category is a way to say who we are in front of a mirror. But in the end, words are perishable. What ‘Negro’ was at one point became offensive and was replaced by ‘black’ and then was replaced by ‘African-American’. The same thing with Native American, today with the word ‘Indian’ that was so offensive, is coming back. So words have a way to shape and reshape. When someone asks how to refer to me, I couldn’t care less. When I speak I choose my words more carefully just because words carry an impact and you are aware of the audience you are talking to…but I don’t care too much about that.
RB: Is there a nascent Latino literature in the United States? I don’t want to use the phrase Latino-American…
IS: I think the word ‘America’ has been co-opted by the United States. It has deliberately raised the issues of North and South. And once you are an American coming from a Latin American country you are becoming twice an American — American nation, American. There is a growing Latino or Hispanic US literature and it’s a fascinating one.
RB: Is it fractured by national origins?
IS: It is fractured by origins but in the end it’s the reader that decides what is fractured and what isn’t. You can read across the border, Dominican, Colombian, or Puerto Rican. The same thing goes for Jewish literature. There is Jewish literature that goes across nations from Russia to Hungary to Latin America. If so, what makes a Jewish writer? Somebody like Babel in the Soviet Union is equally as Jewish as Proust? But in the end it’s the reader that establishes what is Jewish and what isn’t…
RB: That may be true but you have collegiate departments, publishers who need niches and categories, critics…
IS: Readers are much wiser than what publishers and editors dare to think.
RB: If they can get to or become aware of something.
IS: Readers…we are all far more intelligent than the media or the publishers want us to be. My impression about the Latino literature in the USA today is that it is still very much an immigrant literature in the process of becoming, of crossing over.
RB: Meaning still referential to its roots?
IS: What ever the answer is it is about the process of coming, it’s about the place one calls home and it’s about becoming an “American.” If you compared it to, say, the Jewish-American literature of the early writers — Abraham Kahane and Henry Roth — writing about Ellis Island and coming with language and there is a moment when a new generation comes in — the Saul Bellows and the Philip Roths and the Grace Paleys— that goes beyond. It’s still about being an American. In the case of Roth, it is about Middle Eastern politics, Prague, or England and it becomes international in many ways. In the case of Bellow it becomes cosmopolitan. We are still at that stage…
RB: No Latin writer has transcended the immigrant stage?
IS: We are yet waiting for that person that will bridge beyond. Literature is a companion to society. It will happen when Latinos make it. Once you are there your frame of mind is different. The literature you produce as a society is different. We are still in that process.
RB: Did Julio Cortazar produce a new literature?
IS: Cortazar and Borges. Borges made Latin American literature more American by his style.
RB: More American?
IS: More English, English language. It’s very easy to translate Borges into English. Some of his translators might feel offense at this. His syntax is so English. He first read in English and he was so infatuated by Shakespeare, Chesterton, Stevenson, and Henry James. Cortazar did something similar with French. He lived for so many years in Paris and outside Paris that you feel like he is thinking in French but writing in Spanish. Beautifully done the process. He was simply a genius. Genius for me is synthetic and syncretic category. Genius is not one who comes up with an original idea but one who adapts various ideas in the environment and creates links between them. In that sense, Freud was a genius. Most of the ideas were around. He put them together. He reshaped the way we think. Cortazar, in that sense, is the same. And it’s astonishing. As a short story writer he is sublime. Better a short story writer than a novelist. It’s easier to think of the world without one of the islands in the Philippines than without the short stories of Cortazar.
RB: If you started writing On Borrowed Words today, would it be the same book?
IS: No. And tomorrow and yesterday.
RB: Is that true of everything that you write?
IS: Everything. That’s the reason I think a lot of it is imperfect. It is a statement of that particular day. Of course, you want that page you are going to produce tomorrow to be a reflection of that particular day and also a summation of the days you have lived before. I wanted to write this book at a point where my English is still not taking over everything; my Spanish is still very much alive. I was fearful that I was reaching a point as an immigrant I was becoming more and more American or Americanized. For that reason alone I wanted to write this at that particular time. Of all the stuff that I have done it’s been the hardest. I have never suffered from writer’s block. In fact, I have some friends who say they wish I did, to give them time to catch up. I couldn’t come up with the first word of that first chapter. I spent a year walking around the desk and as in the cartoons, there is a path around it. And then a friend said the reason is that you are writing it in the past tense. What you need to do is write in the present tense. If you sit in the past tense you are fossilizing, turning your past into the past. If you make in the present tense then it is as if it is happening. In retrospect it seems the easy way out, but it was the key. Every single chapter begins in the present.
RB: Are you self-conscious or apologetic about offering a memoir?
IS: No. As in every genre we went in to extremes. The memoir is not a form that has been taken in Latin America. I couldn’t have written this in Spanish for that reason. There’s no market, no readership for memoirs in Latin America. We are more introspective, more territorial about our own private thoughts and dreams. The memoir allows something that no other genre allows, which is not to tell your life but to put in context. Looking back in many of my essays there are bits and pieces of memoir.
RB: Memoir as personal essay as opposed to…
IS: I was telling a friend the other day, when I actually got the first copy hot off the press, I felt betrayal. I thought some sense of betrayal would be involved in this. Because writing a memoir in some sense is an act of betrayal to yourself and to your past and to your family. The chapter about my grandmother saying, “This is what you need to write about me.” There is no other option. I write this, and I know my father or my someone is going to say that this is not the way it was. You are becoming the controller of memory of the family, and that’s not fair. It wasn’t that sense of betrayal…it was a sense of betrayal to myself, of having written a book and saying I have turned myself into a book. How much have I censored of myself? How much have I left out? Is this really a reflection of who I am? Or was I catering to someone else. The public side? One day I would like to write an essay, probably titled, “On Becoming A Book.” It’s like when you see an album of photographs of the family and the photographs become the memories. There are other ways of remembering my grandmother, but this is the way I stapled on the page. The way that other people see it, the way my children would see it.
RB: You could write another memoir from a different point of view. If you did, would you review what you have written? Would you reread this book?
IS: I wouldn’t reread it. In my life, I have done much that is strange in literature, as far as I’m concerned. Published a couple of novels under pseudonyms…to this day nobody knows that they are me. Having literally shaped the career of a writer that doesn’t exist…that people have even interviewed. I have reviewed my early work under a pen name and trashed it. The possibility of even reviewing this book is not out of the picture. I would not rewrite it; it’s there already. Or write another one…Is the question, “Would I write in any other way?”
RB: Yes, but I want to know, do you reread your work?
IS: No, and I don’t read reviews either. I would probably go on writing personal essays and probably in 20 years or 30 years, perhaps another personal reflection on this or that issue that will about an aspect of my life that I am yet to see. The experience of writing this book was very painful. I had dreams while writing this book that I had never had before. I don’t much trust psychoanalysis or Jungian therapy. I had clearly Jungian dreams. At one point a friend of mine who had died, just after graduating high school gave me a big treasure chest with a padlock that I couldn’t open. And he left and wasn’t able to open it. This is not the type of dreams I often have. A lot of those dreams were strange, about going back to my school when I was little. You want to move forward and at the same time reflect on who you are.
RB: Is this a time that the personal essay is a much more accepted narrative form?
IS: We saw that in the ’80s and ’90s a lot. Not without reason, it was called the age of I, I, I, of egotism. With Latino literature the same things happens. Literature is ruled by a Darwinian series of laws. And there is a lot that is garbage in front of our eyes. Eventually, very little will survive and we in the present can’t have a clue of what will survive. A book that we saw as second rate will become the Moby Dick of our day. And we would be amazed by that fact. Personal essay regained standing in this society with the Baby boomers becoming 50 and 60. It was a way also to revisit Hawthorne and the Puritans, Whitman and Poe and to look back at certain writers and looking at other cultures for the personal.
RB: Perhaps the renaissance of the personal essay has to do with the banalty of public discourse. People hunger for something challenging and thoughtful in their daily lives and are not presented with that in main stream pop culture.
IS: We need that personal touch. That is an aspect. We have this society of zombies that are hooked to television or radio or to the movies. And when someone questions about US foreign policy, we say, “What! We’re so good. Why do people hate us?” Total shock. This is nothing recent. Flag burning all over the world goes back a long time. [We have] a country that has become Rip Van Winkle that will wake up after a hundred years and realize that the world is so different. Not everyone goes to McDonald’s.
RB: I heard a high New York City official, responding to the question, “What did you tell the children of the firefighters who died at the WTC?”, say “I told them that this was the worst thing that ever happened to any country anywhere, ever.”
IS: It certainly was a traumatic day. We tend to obliterate human history. Every thing is reduced to America. This whole spiel that we are the greatest country in the world…nobody says they are the second greatest. We have made our selves into a big shopping mall of vanities.
RB: Is this a reversible process?
IS: I don’t know. I am not a political scientist or sociologist. If you look deeper inside this country, this country is really made of individuals that really have their own voice. There is such a thing as the American thinking person. Temples that attest to that are even bookstores that we despise such as Barnes & Noble and Borders where people are published by all sorts of publishers — big and small — are looking for some definitions…we also, in literature, in America are so easily lost in the concept of success. We measure the success of the writer by the amount of copies a book sells. But the success of a writer doesn’t have to do with how many people read you, it has to do with how they read you. And what connections are established.
RB: There is that ostensibly American phenomenon of the unread bestseller.
IS: Right, everybody buys it and stores it on their shelf. The Talmud says if it is only one reader that you have, the book has a reason. Only one and a publisher would say, “We would never invest in that.” But that one is the one that can save the world.
RB: I assume that you live in a nice and comfortable academic community in Western Massachusetts. How in touch with the world are you?
IS: I am in a constant tension with a number of facades that I have. Faces. Masks. The one of the academic…whenever I can, as on this occasion, I will speak my voice and tell you that academics are one of the greatest embarrassments in so far as they isolate themselves totally from society. This is not to say that knowledge and scholarship are not valuable. When we forget where we are and when we get the satisfaction of tenure and then society can sink, it is not what scholarship is about. There is much to be done by way of a revolution that is not in the streets; it’s in the classroom. It’s not with the students. It’s with the teachers and the administrators. I am delighted to be close to a bookstore and a college that has a good library. For me that is a synagogue that I pray in. So many of my colleagues quickly forget that the classroom doesn’t end at the four walls and the door. The classroom is just a microcosm and that much comes form the outside and much has to go out. I guess that is my Latin American upbringing. You have fallen in to this role of having a voice because you fought for it or because society gave it to you. But it’s not yours alone. The role of the public intellectual is not about satisfying anybody or become a quota. It’s about moving the waters, I think. It’s about not pleasing but confronting, saying difficult truths, saying them aloud, and saying them in the classroom and in front of a microphone or a television camera. It is crucial in this multiethnic society — that is very often just reduced to that, without the nuances, where all Latinos are this or that — there is much to do. It’s not only in a novel that you do it. To answer your question, I feel lucky to be in a place like that. It’s only a platform to do much that goes beyond…particularly if you spend seven years writing an article read by seven people — the institution will gratify and satisfy you by giving you life long employment — you have totally forgotten the world in which you live. Seven readers can be crucial readers. But if you are going to tell them what they want there’s no point. Literature is not telling people what they want. It’s showing people to think differently. If a book is applauded by everybody, I don’t think there is a reason for that book to exist. If a book infuriates, makes people think, if a book gets nasty reviews, it’s book that I would go and buy.
RB: How do you raise your children?
RB: I mean in this idyllic environment…
IS: By constantly going to New York City and Boston showing them the academics we have in the neighborhood are every nice people but let’s go to the subway and see the comic strips we can get in Spanish Harlem. It’s a challenge to have children. This might sound like a cliché, but all the books can go to hell — in the end it’s what you do in one conversation with your child. I take that particular role very seriously. I remember coming to this country and seeing some upper-class Mexicans in Westchester County, their children had never been to New York City in the subway. This is a marvelous society and a very problematic society with a lot left unfinished.
RB: You said bi-lingual?
IS: Actually tri-lingual English and Spanish and Spanglish. My kids go to Hebrew school, but my kids are not fully lingual[in Hebrew]. People ask me, you talk about life in two worlds: these in between and hyphenated lives. Are your kids going to be fully American? I hope they have a degree of displacement and unhappiness. They are clearly not Mexicans that came here, their father is. They are Americans and they will have to deal with their own issues. But they are Jews, citizens of this world and patriotism is the escape of the wicked…
RB: Or to quote Samuel Johnson, “the last refuge of scoundrels.”
IS: …and if they can see something behind the American flag and feel proud to be in this country — this country is very generous and allows for much — and also see there is much in the world, very complex and it’s complexities are fabulous. If they have a degree of separation or two I think their education will be accomplished.
RB: You don’t want them to fit in exactly.
IS: Not quite.
RB: What are you plans for the next couple of years?
IS: Early next year, hopefully, a dictionary of Spanglish. I am hoping and thinking to write a biography of Garcia Marquez. I don’t want to write a standard biography. I want to do with a biography what I was hoping to do with a memoir. To use him or be used by him to explore a number of crucial issues in politics and culture in the 20th century in Latin America. Explore the Cuban, Colombian and Mexican sides. Garcia Marques is right there at crucial moments in the 20th century. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a book that was written before the world was even created. He was the secretary that typed it…
RB: Any truth to the story that Anthony Quinn had offered Marquez 1 million dollars for the screen rights?
IS: Yes and he said no. And Coppola was also after him. He is so sharp in not allowing anyone to film One Hundred Years of Solitude. As creative as you might be, there is no way you can put this book on the screen. Perhaps a little segment of it. It has nuances in every single paragraph, there are so many things that are happening, and it’s like a Turkish tapestry of colors…So his biography would be an excuse to examine crucial issues.
RB: That would better part of a biography?
IS: It’s not him, it’s about what happened in Bogota in the ’30s and ’40s. And the counterrevolutionary forces trying to bring down the revolution and the drug trafficking as seen by him and by others that criticized him, and the Zapatistas and his persona as a mediator with Fidel and Cubans in Miami.
RB: Anything else?
IS: And then there is that novel I was as telling you about. I have it written in my mind. I can tell you exactly what happens everywhere. I just have to sit and type it. I have the main characters and the names. It will come one day.
RB: Good. I hope so.