Ilan Stavans

Mexican-American author, publisher, TV personality, and teacher

Ilan Stavans (born Ilan Stavchansky, 1961) is a writer and academic who born in Mexico and now lives in the USA. He writes and speaks on American, Hispanic, and Jewish cultures.

A life in two languages is a life experienced twice.
The moment I entered a subway car in New York City, I realized that there wasn't one English language but a multiplicity of them, or that the English language was devouring all sorts of sounds that were coming from different regions in the world, and that some of those sounds could be mine. I could be devoured by the English language, or I could adapt myself, figure out what this language is and try to push it in, rearrange it from within.

Quotes edit

  • sometimes American-Jewish life is too monolingual...But for me Jewish life is multilingual. We don’t experience that in the United States, but if you’re in Israel or in other Diasporas, you hear that a lot.
  • Immigrant life in general is miserable, as one sees in the literature produced by those who experienced the journey.
    • Ilan Stavans Introduction to Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing edited by Alan Astro (2003)

Interview (2023) edit

  • The moment I entered a subway car in New York City, I realized that there wasn't one English language but a multiplicity of them, or that the English language was devouring all sorts of sounds that were coming from different regions in the world, and that some of those sounds could be mine. I could be devoured by the English language, or I could adapt myself, figure out what this language is and try to push it in, rearrange it from within. I think that is the journey that many immigrants feel. We come to the language. The language welcomes us. But we also realize at some point that if we abandon our own immigrant language and we just surrender, fully immerse ourselves in English, we will give up an essential part of who we are. And so it's a negotiation, a give and take. Either way, I feel enormously grateful to this beautiful, magnificent polyphonic language for its openness, its embrace, its capacity to recognize that the homogeneity is boring and that there are all sorts of ways of embracing it.
  • it is essential that we recognize that in the conquering efforts of the American English language, there is also a cemetery, a series of silences of other languages that have succumbed in the process.
  • It's a significant fact that upon arriving to Ellis Island, the first thing supposedly immigrants or future immigrants see is that sonnet engraved in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus. That includes the line, Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses. These are the rejects. This is the refuge of the other nations that have been coming here. And yet it is in English that that sonnet receives those newcomers, a language many of them not yet know.
  • What I want people to engage in, and people already do so, is not only in what others are telling us and what we're telling the others, but in the music that we engage in when we speak. And where that music comes from, language is character, is individual character, is collective character. Language is history too...When we're listening to somebody who doesn't speak exactly like us, it's easy to demonize them, to think that they are less worthy than us. But in the end, we come from that background. We come from others that didn't have the language that we have today. And if we can see the versions, the iterations of the past, in those words, in that music, I think we're going to be more sensitive, compassionate and humble.

Interview (2021) edit

  • I feel Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, the story of Abraham’s calling, Isaac’s Akedah, and Jacob’s ordeal and Moses’ liberation odyssey are imprinted in my DNA. I come from a Jewish-Mexican family in which culture was a form of religion. If pressed, I confess not to remember a specific moment during which I read Genesis. But that’s what the classics are: we get them not through reading but by osmosis.
  • Isn’t that the dream of democracy, to allow its dwellers to have a voice? The only way to achieve that is to allow them to appreciate the voices of the past.
  • What I look for in the classics is a message that is reinvented every time a new reader opens it. Along with the author, it is the role of the introducer and artist to make a case for that fresh take.
  • Reading a classic, I believe, ought to entail an element of foreignness...Classics are windows into an epoch, not only in content but in form.
  • It is crucial that, as culture seeks to represent nonwhite voices, our conception of perennial literature undergoes an expansion. We need to make classics from Asia, Africa, and Latin America available to underrepresented readerships. That means recalibrating our definition of a literary classic and explicitly reaching out to translators for new, undiscovered classics.
  • Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, argued that the theme of the twentieth century was the color line. In my view, the theme of the twenty-first century is immigration. Everything rotates around it: climate change, Covid-19, populism from Trump to other “aspirational” dictators, global finance, etc.
  • Translators have always been agents of change. The Muslim translators of the School in Toledo, in the twelfth century, for example, and later on under Alfonso El Sabio, brought Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Hippocrates into Europe. Or Lucretius’s De rerum natura. Without these translators, there would not be a connection with the classical past.
  • Translators open the window to the past to welcome fresh air. They are surveyors of what is significant somewhere else and want to bring that significance home. As we make room for new voices from the world, we must diversify the database of translators.
  • we need otherness to be less alien.
  • we are currently in the midst of reimagining the classics, making the canon more expansive, less white and Eurocentric. Some titles fall off the shelf as others arrive. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is, it appears to me, less current than it was a few decades ago. I taught it a couple of years ago, and students found plenty to fault and that is difficult to justify these days. At the same time, the work of immigrant writers—I love the novels by Viet Thanh Nguyen, for instance—is opening new vistas. This is as it should be. Literature, at first sight, might feel static, but it is just the opposite: an organic expression of a particular time and place.
  • The relationship we develop with a classic is like a lifelong friendship: it goes through ups and downs. Whenever we reopen the book, we are different, and, as a result, what we read is too. This, I think, is another definition of a literary classic: like a mirror, it reflects what is in front of it.
  • no translator is godlike; on the contrary, all are miserably human, meaning imperfect in their quest. Therefore, the practice of translation exists, as it should, in a state of constant renewal.
  • Without the classics, we are a tabula rasa: we have no memory. We not only open the classics to re-create the past; we also use them to calibrate the present.

Interview (2017) edit

  • narrative is narrative: it needs to entertain, to illustrate, to enlighten. We live by and through narratives because we have an insatiable desire to comprehend our circumstances, to share its basic tenets with others, and to appreciate how others tell their own tales. I don’t like the abyss our civilization has built between fiction and criticism. In my view, they are sides of the same phenomenon. I live, I let myself live, in the connection between these sides. All essays are personal — either we recognize it or not — just as all fiction is autobiographical (and all autobiography is fiction). I love the personal essay. It triggers something instinctual in me: to use the “I” as a Virgil, to elucidate what I see, what I think, what I conceive in ways that aren’t for me alone but for everyone.
  • Unfortunately, criticism has been kidnapped by the academy, which has overwhelmed with rubbish. The academic essay — e.g., the tenure-track essay — is written for an audience of three or four lonely readers — for whom literature long ago ceased to be about pleasure — in order to become part of a profession. Yes, the worse that might happen to literature is institutionalization. For literature is free: free to make up things, free to associate, free to rebel.
  • I tell my students that education isn’t about facts. It isn’t about theories, either. It is about tracking your thoughts, about witnessing how stories are formed in your mind. It is about allowing the mind not to be clogged, about letting it see not what it does but how it does it. The rules of criticism are the same as the rules of other types of literature. These rules boil down to one: finding the right words to tell the right narrative at the right time. Nothing else matters.
  • An accessible language is a language that is beautiful. It is a language of understanding, not of pretension. To be accessible is to write not from Mount Sinai but from below, where the people are. The critic has the exact same words (in English, there are close to a million, according to the editors of the OED) available to write poetry, fiction, theater, autobiography, et cetera.
  • The best conditions for fine criticism to emerge are rather simple: an atmosphere where ideas and stories aren’t in opposition but in partnership, where the act and art of thinking becomes a compelling narrative not about a particular point but about life itself.
  • My advice to young writers of personal essays is made of three steps: read, read, and read. Read what the classics have left for us: Montaigne, Sor Juana, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, Borges. Don’t only read them but read against them. Disagree and debate them. It is untrue that we write along with our contemporaries. Truth is, there is no present tense in literature: in the library, all books are together. I don’t write only for today’s readers. I write for the writers and readers of the past and of the future.

"A Yidisher Bokher in Mexique" edit

2003 article, also in How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020)

  • It was only when I was a newly arrived Mexican immigrant in New York that I came to terms with Yiddish. It happened in a rather unexpected way, as I became exposed to the mixing of Spanish and English (called Spanglish today) in the subway and on the street, on TV, and on the radio. At first that barbaric hybrid, neither here nor there, made me cringe. My beloved Spanish language was being contaminated by an onslaught of Anglicisms. Should I do something to stop the pollution? However, I soon came to recognize that "a new Yiddish" was emerging in the United States, this time among Latinos, a vehicle of communication that depended on jazzy, never-ending code switching, just as Yiddish had done between Hebrew and German plus a variety of Slavic tongues. Yiddish automatically regained a dominant place for me. I not only wanted to reclaim its status, for me and others, but also to study its history, its evolution, in order to measure the potential of Spanglish.
  • I hardly remember reading the Torah in school. On the rare occasion we did, it was always as a series of mythical stories: a plotline with characters, good and evil, who behave all the time like the rest of us, trying to find meaning in life when none is available. Years later, when I was already an adult, I remember feeling struck by the religious emphasis in just about every episode. How could I have missed it? My gut feeling is that our teachers were ambivalent about it, too. They liked storytelling, and that's what they stressed. Today I'm grateful to them for introducing me to the Bible not as a Halakhic (legal) manual but as a depository of collective memory. For that reason, my relationship with it isn't tyrannical.
  • A life in two languages is a life experienced twice.

Interview (1999) edit

  • I don't think Latinos are a separate nation in the U.S. 'We are entering, belonging and sharing that melting pot with many other minority groups.
  • There has been for many years resentment of Spain as the conqueror, but a lot of things about modern Spain have changed, he said. We should talk about the Hispanic world as a much more dynamic body made up of Spain, Latin America, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Latinos in the U.S.
  • In Mexico, I was a Jew. In the U.S., I became a Mexican, but all these dichotomies helped me to see that you can be an outsider and an insider simultaneously. You become a member of another minority, but not fully. Here I'm a Mexican in the U.S. I'm a Latino. I'm a Jew. I'm an American.
  • Because you live in two or three worlds doesn't mean you don't live in any of them.

Quotes about edit

External links edit

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