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Ilan Stavans (born Ilan Stavchansky on April 7, 1961, in Mexico City) is a Mexican-American, essayist, lexicographer, cultural commentator, translator, short-story author, TV personality, and teacher known for his insights into American, Hispanic, and Jewish cultures.
Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico to a middle-class Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement. His father Abraham was a popular Mexican soap opera star. Living in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, he ultimately immigrated to the United States in 1985. Upon completing his graduate education in New York City, he settled in New England where he lives with his wife, Alison, and his two sons, Joshua and Isaiah. His journey is the topic of his autobiography On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (2001). He received a Master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Doctorate in Letters from Columbia University. He was the host of the syndicated PBS show Conversations with Ilan Stavans, which ran from 2001 to 2006.
He is best known for his investigations on language and culture. His love for lexicography is evident in Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (2005).
Stavans's work is wide-ranging, and includes both scholarly monographs such as The Hispanic Condition (1995) and comic strips in the case of Latino USA: A Cartoon History (with Lalo Alcaraz) (2000). Stavans is editor of several anthologies including The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998). A selection of his work appeared in 2000 under the title The Essential Ilan Stavans. In 2004, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Pablo Neruda’s birth, Stavans edited the 1,000-page-long The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. The same year he edited the 3-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories for the Library of America.
He has also displayed a strong interest in popular culture. Among other topics, he has written influential essays on the Mexican comedian, Mario Moreno ("Cantinflas")," the lampooner José Guadalupe Posada, the Chicano leader César Chávez, and the Tejana singer Selena, as well as a book about the board game Lotería! (with Teresa Villegas), which includes Stavans’s own poems. He was also featured in one of the Smithsonian Q&A books.
Since 1993 he has been on the faculty at Amherst College, Massachusetts, where he is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture. He is on the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, based at Amherst College. He has also taught a various other institutions, including Columbia University. In 1997, Stavans was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and has been the recipient of international prizes and honors, including the Latino Literature Prize, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Rubén Darío Distinction.
He has portrayed Jewish-American identity as Eurocentric and parochial. He has been a critic of the nostalgia generated by life in the Eastern European shtetl of the 19th century. He is recognized for his explorations of Jewish culture in the Hispanic world. In 1994 he published the anthology Tropical Synagogues: Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers (1994). From 1997 to 2005 he edited the Jewish Latin America series at the University of New Mexico Press. And his anthology The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (2005) was the recipient of the National Jewish Book Award. Some of his essays on Jewish topics are included in The Inveterate Dreamer. His work has been translated into a dozen languages.
His inspirations range from Jorge Luis Borges to Edmund Wilson and Walter Benjamin. (In his autobiography, Stavans recounts the episode, in the early stages of his career, when, in order to find his own style, he burned his collection of dozens of Borges’s books, p. 9.) He has written a small biography of the Chicano lawyer Oscar "Zeta" Acosta and a book-long meditation on Octavio Paz. In 2005, in a series of interviews with Neal Sokol called Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations, Stavans traces his beginnings, calls Hispanic civilization to task for its allergy to constructive self-criticism, discusses the work of Borges, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, Gabriel García Márquez, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Octavio Paz, Samuel Johnson, Edward Said, Miguel de Cervantes, and others, and reflects on anti-Semitism and anti-Hispanic sentiment.
Stavans has devoted many years of study to the work of Gabriel García Márquez. His biography, Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years, slated for publication in 2010, is the first of two planned volumes. The biography traces Gabriel García Márquez's artistic development from childhood to the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish in 1967 and its English translation by Gregory Rabassa in 1970. Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, has called this biography "an engaging, informative study tracking the small beginnings of a literary giant and his magnum opus. It is also a love story: that of an important contemporary critic and thinker with a writer, his life, and his text. Stavans enlightens us, not just about one literary figure, but about the culture and history of a whole hemisphere in a book that never feels plodding or overtly academic. Stavans is a magical writer himself."
In A Critic’s Journey, published in 2009 by University of Michigan Press, Stavans writes about his life and work as a cultural critic. The book is a collection of pieces that brings together three cultures: Jewish, American, and Mexican. It includes pieces on writing On Borrowed Words, the Holocaust in Latin America, the growth of Latino studies in the U.S. academy, Stavans’ relationship with the Jewish Daily Forward, and translation in the shaping of Hispanic culture, as well as pieces on Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodríguez, Isaiah Berlin, and W. G. Sebald, and close readings of the Don Quixote and the oeuvre of Roberto Bolaño.
Since the late 1990s, Stavans has devoted his energy to reinvigorating the literary genre of the conversation not as a promotional tool but as a patient, insightful instrument to explore them in intellectual depth. Neal Sokol interviewed Stavans in a book-long volume Eight Conversations (2004) on his Jewish and Latino heritage, translator Verónica Albin discussed the way the word “love” has changed through the age in the book Love and Language (2007) as well as on topic like libraries and censorship in Knowledge and Censorship (2008), and Canadian journalist Mordecai Drache (Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture) probes him on the Bible as a work of literature in With All Thine Heart (2010). In the U.S. Latino literary tradition, writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Richard Rodriguez have also practiced the conversation as a meditative form.
As a sociolinguist, Stavans is known as a world authority in Spanglish, the hybrid form of communication that emerges at the crossroad where Spanish and English speakers interact. He has edited a dictionary of Spanglish words called Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003) that includes an essay in historical analysis on the development of this linguistic phenomenon. Stavans writes that its first manifestations date back to 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed after the Mexican-American War ended and a large portion of Mexican land was sold to the United States. He describes various distinctive varieties of Spanglish, such as Cubonics (Cuban-American), Dominicanish (Dominican-American), Nuyorrican (Puerto Rican in New York), and Chicano (Mexican American). He also establishes differences across generational and geographical lines, stating that recent immigrants are prone to use a type of Spanglish that differs from second- or third-generation Latinos. Stavans studies Spanglish by making comparisons with Black English and with Yiddish as well as Yinglish (the type of Yiddish used by Jewish immigrants to the United States and their children). And he reflects on the cultural similarities between Spanglish and jazz, rap, hip-hop, and graffiti.
In 2002, Stavans published in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia a Spanglish translation of the first chapter of Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha. The translation has been controversial throughout the world, garnishing celebrations and attacks. Critics accuse Stavans of using Spanglish to call attention to himself. Supporters say that the translation is an indication that the Latino community in the United States has come of age. Stavans has responded to the reactions with interviews in which he argues that Spanglish is today’s manifestation of “mestizaje,” the crossbreeding of racial, social, and cultural traits of Anglos and Latinos similar to what occurred during the colonization of the Americas in the sixteenth century.
The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature
In 2011, after thirteen years of preparation, Stavans, as general editor, published The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, a 2,700-page compendium that includes more than two hundred authors and covers from the colonial period (the earliest author included is Fray Bartolomé de las Casas) to the present time. The anthology features Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans in the island and the mainland, and other Latinos. It also features a section with samples by Latin American writers such as Octavio Paz and Roberto Fernández Retamar discussing the United States.
The Norton Anthology followed in the footsteps of similar ventures devoted to women literature and African-American literature. It was greeted with an enthusiastic reception. Booklist gave it a starred review. It was noted in, among other places, The Boston Globe, Smithsonian, the American Book Review, World Literature Today, Literal, and NPR’s On Point with John Ashbrook. Erica Jong said “Ilan Stavans has spread a feast of Latino literature before us.” Cornel West called it ”an instant classic.” And Felipe Fernández-Armesto of University of Notre Dame stated: “Imaginatively conceived, painstakingly executed, stunningly broad, profoundly stirring, endlessly engaging, this book can change the way the world thinks about America, and the way Americans think about themselves.” It was criticized also for including few authors born in Central America.
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Stavans’s short stories are included in The One-Handed Pianist (1996) and The Disappearance (2006). One of them, "Morirse está en hebreo," about Jewish life in Mexico at the time of the 2000 presidential election, which appeared in the later anthology, was turned into a movie directed by Alejandro Springall called "My Mexican Shivah." The film was praised by Martin Tsai in the New York Sun ("Lifetimes To Go in Old Mexico." August 29, 2008). Mr. Tsai writes "My Mexican Shivah offers so much profundity that almost every viewer can walk out of the theater with something to mull...Mr. Springall and screenwriter Jorge Goldenberg have so skillfully infused the film with an intriguing story, convincing performances, and a breezy pace that one nearly forgets that the action unfolds almost entirely within the confines of one house. The film's coda may be somewhat anticlimactic because the confrontations do not boil over as anticipated. But, like the rest of the film, it rings utterly true."
The themes in Stavans' fiction range from redemption and revenge to cultural authenticity and political activism. In "A Heaven Without Crows," he imagines Kafka's final letter to Max Brod, suggesting that maybe he shouldn't burn his œuvre. "The One-Handed Pianist" deals with a rare disease affecting a piano concert player, impeding her the use of one hand. In "Xerox Man," written for the BBC, about an Orthodox Jewish thief of rare books, Stavans meditates on imperfection. And in "The Disappearance," about the kidnapping of a famous Jewish stage actor in the Low Countries, Stavans explores the perils of silence. "The Disappearance" serves as the basis of a play he created with the Double Edge Theater Company. The play's premiere was staged at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on October 16, 2008 (see Mike Boehm's article "Seeking Haven on Earth." Los Angeles Times October 15, 2008).
His graphic novel "Mr. Spic Goes to Washington" (2008) was hailed by the writer Rigoberto González as "Stavans' latest contribution to a stellar career in literary troublemaking." Mr. González states in the El Paso Times (Texas) "Unlike "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the Jimmy Stewart vehicle that inspires the title and premise of this book (a film that, incidentally, did not thrill Congress back in 1939 because of its depiction of a corrupt and self-absorbed branch of government), "Mr. Spic" inhabits a grittier version of this fantasy story line: There really is no place for such a pro-Latino agitator like him in Washington. And so his political career is cut short, though Stavans assures us that the ideas, dreams and visions of a pioneer do not vanish with his martyrdom." ("What If You Voted for the Vato?" El Paso Times October 19, 2008) Elaine Ayala writes in the San Antonio Express-News ""Mr. Spic" delivers Latino history lessons with comedic bows not only to Mr. Smith but Cervantes' Don Quixote, Woody Allen's "Zelig," JFK conspiracy theories, even Bill Clinton...The 110-page book is a quick, entertaining read that will appeal to a wider and younger audience than has read Stavans before. Fans of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" will enjoy its comedic value and caustic satire." ("Idealistic Mr. Spic Shocks and Provokes." San Antonio Express-News July 27, 2008)
His views on language are polemical in their approach to word and structure formation. Stavans believes that dictionaries and language academies are buffers whose improbable function is to provide continuity for a language, but suggests that such continuity, especially in the age of electronic communication, is fatuous. He accuses the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in Madrid of colonialism, among other things. He has also studied the Iberian conquest of the Americas in the 16th century from a linguistic perspective. Translation, for Stavans, represents appropriation. He defined modernity as “a translated way of life” and has written and lectured on the role translators perform as communicating vessels across epochs and habitats.
He has been criticized by some academics and scholars who have taken issue with his formulation of US Latino identity and/or with his research in literary studies, for example, concerns regarding factual errors in his published output.
- Allatson, Paul (2006). "Ilan Stavans's Latino USA. A Cartoon History (of a cosmopolitan intellectual)." Chasqui 35(1): 21–41. (Academic Journal)
- Dalleo, Raphael and Elena Machado Sáez (2007). The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (Book)
- Flores, Juan (2000). From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press. (Book)
- Luis, William (1997). Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean Literature Written in the United States. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP.
- Sokol, Neal (2004). Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations (Book)
- Machado Sáez, Elena (2009). "Reconquista: Ilan Stavans and Multiculturalist Latino/a Discourse." Latino Studies 7.4 (2009): 410–434. (Academic Journal)
- Mendoza, Louis (2001). "On Buffaloes, Body Snatching, and Bandidismo: Ilan Stavans’s Appropriation of Oscar Acosta and the Chicano Experience."  Bilingual Review 26(1): 79–86. (Academic Journal)Scholar search
- Modroño Garcia, Luz (2009). "Ilan Stavans, icono del seudointelectual norteamericano." Cuba Nuestra Digital  (Magazine Article)
- Richardson, Lynda (1999). "How to Be Both an Outsider and an Insider; 'The Czar of Latino Literature and Culture' Finds Himself Under Attack." The New York Times. (Newspaper Article)
- (1998). "'Living in the Hyphen' Between Latin and American." The Chronicle of Higher Education.  (Magazine Article)
- (2009). "El esencial difamador Ilan Stavans/The Essential Slanderer Ilan Stavans." Vegamedia Press.com Source Cannot be Confirmed (Magazine Article)
Complete book-length original works
- 2012 - El Iluminado (with Steve Sheinkin).
- 2012 - Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots.
- 2011 - José Vaconcelos: The Prophet of Race.
- 2011 - What is la hispanidad?: A Conversation (with Iván Jaksic).
- 2010 - With All Thine Heart: Love and the Bible (with Mordecai Drache).
- 2010 - Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years.
- 2009 - A Critic's Journey
- 2008 - Resurrecting Hebrew.
- 2008 - Mr. Spic Goes to Washington, illustrations by Roberto Weil.
- 2008 - Knowledge and Censorship (with Verónica Albin).
- 2007 - Love and Language (with Verónica Albin).
- 2006 - The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories.
- 2005 - Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion.
- 2005 - Conversations with Ilan Stavans (with Neal Sokol).
- 2003 - Lotería!, art by Teresa Villegas, essay and riddles by Ilan Stavans.
- 2003 - Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language.
- 2001 - On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language.
- 2001 - Octavio Paz: A Meditation.
- 2001 - The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Literature.
- 2000 - The Essential Ilan Stavans.
- 2000 - Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History, illustrations by Lalo López Alcaraz.
- 1998 - The Riddle of Cantinflas: Essays on Popular Hispanic Culture.
- 1996 - Art and Anger: Essays on Politics and the Imagination.
- 1996 - The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories.
- 1995 - Bandido. Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta and the Chicano Experience.
- 1995 - The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America.
- 1993 - Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage.
- 2012 - Encyclopedia of Latin Music, edited by Ilan Stavans (four vols.).
- 2012 - All The Odes: Pablo Neruda, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 2011 - Béisbol (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2011 - Fútbol (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2011 - Mexican-American Cuisine (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2011 - The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - One Hundred Years of Solitude (Critical Insights), edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - Border Culture (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - César Chávez (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - Health Care (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - Quinceañera (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2010 - Telenovelas (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2009 - Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2008 - Latina Writers (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2008 - Spanglish (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2008 - Immigration (The Ilan Stavans Library of Latino Civilization), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2008 - An Organizer's Tale: Speeches, written by César Chávez, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2007 - I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems, written by Pablo Neruda, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2007 - A Luis Leal Reader (Latino Voices/Vidas), edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2006 - Lengua Fresca, co-edited by Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum.
- 2005 - Rubén Darío: Selected Writings, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 2005 - Encyclopedia Latina, edited by Ilan Stavans (four vols.).
- 2005 - The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 2004 - Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories, edited by Ilan Stavans (3 vols.).
- 2003 - The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 2002 - The Scroll and the Cross: 1,000 Years of Jewish-Hispanic Literature, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 2001 - Wachale! Poetry and Prose on Growing Up Latino, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1999 - Mutual Impressions: Writers of the Americas Reading One Another, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1998 - The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1997 - Calvert Casey: The Collected Stories, edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 1997 - The Urban Muse, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1997 - The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1996 - Oscar "Zeta" Acosta: The Uncollected Works, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1996 - New World: Young Latino Writers, edited with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
- 1994 - Tropical Synagogues. Short Stories by Jewish-Latin American Writers, edited by Ilan Stavans.
- 1993 - Growing up Latino: Memoirs and Stories, co-edited by Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum.
Conversations with Ilan Stavans (PBS, La Plaza)
- Voices on Antisemitism Interview with Ilan Stavans from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Stavans on the Art of Cultural Criticism, ThoughtCast, Interview by Jenny Attiyeh
- Stavans on Censorship, Translation Journal, Interview by Verónica Albin
- Stavans on Dictionaries, Translation Journal, Interview by Verónica Albin
- Stavans on Libraries, The Vocabula Review, Interview by Verónica Albin
- Stavans on Literature and Prayer, AGNI, Interview by Kim Ben-Porat
- Stavans on Translation, Literary Review, Interview by Neal Sokol
- Stavans on Spanglish-NPR interview
- Stavans on Spanglish-PBS interview
- COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. "ARTICLES ABOUT COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
- Profile of Stavans in Village Voice
- Profile of Stavans in the Chronicle of Higher Education
- Stavans on Spanglish in Newsweek
- Translation of Don Quixote
- PBS Conversation with Ilan Stavans
- The Salvation of Anarchy: A Review of The Disappearance nthWORD Magazine
- Stavans en Cuadernos Cervantes
- Traducción de Don Quixote
- Stavans por Jorge Ramos
- Stavans en Instituto Cervantes
- Stavans lee a Pablo Neruda
- Stavans en Barcelona Review
- En mi opinion, a blog hosted by Ilan Stavans
- En mi opinion, a blog hosted by Ilan Stavans
- radio interview with Ilan Stavans