Ilan Stavans

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Ilan Stavans
Stavans at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
Stavans at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
BornIlan Stavchansky
(1961-04-07) April 7, 1961 (age 58)
Mexico City, Mexico
EducationJewish Theological Seminary
Columbia University
RelativesAbraham Stavans (grandfather)

Ilan Stavans (born Ilan Stavchansky on April 7, 1961) is a Mexican-American essayist, lexicographer, cultural commentator, translator, short-story author, publisher, TV personality, and teacher known for his insights into American, Hispanic, and Jewish cultures. He is the author of Quixote (2015) and a contributor to the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010).


Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico in 1961 to a middle-class Jewish family; his father's ancestors had immigrated from the Russian Pale of Settlement. His parents were both born in Mexico City. His father, Abraham Stavans, had become a popular Mexican telenovela actor.[1] His mother, Ofelia Stavans, taught theater.[1]

After living in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, Stavans immigrated to the United States in 1985. He earned a master's degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Doctorate in Letters from Columbia University.

He married Alison, and they had two sons, Joshua and Isaiah. When Stavans completed his graduate education in New York City, the family settled in New England. 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.[2] He has also taught at various other institutions, including Columbia University.

He was the host of the syndicated PBS show Conversations with Ilan Stavans, which ran from 2001 to 2006.


Stavans's work is wide-ranging, and includes both scholarly monographs such as The Hispanic Condition (1995), and comic strips, as in his graphic book Latino USA: A Cartoon History (with Lalo Alcaraz) (2000).

Stavans has edited 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.

His journey is the topic of his autobiography On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (2001). He is best known for his investigations of language and culture. His love for lexicography is evident in his memoir, Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (2005).

He has continued with 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. He wrote a book about the board game Lotería! (with Teresa Villegas), which includes his own poems. Stavans was featured in one of the Smithsonian Q&A books.

Honors and awards[edit]

In 1997, Stavans was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has also received international prizes and honors for his writings, including the Latino Literature Prize, Chile's Presidential Medal, and the Rubén Darío Distinction.


Stavans has portrayed Jewish-American identity as Eurocentric and parochial. He has been a critic of the nostalgia in this community for the past of the Eastern European shtetls 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 published by the University of New Mexico Press. His anthology, The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature (2005), received the National Jewish Book Award. In his The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture (2001), he explores Jewish writing in every major language, including variations such as Yiddish, Ladino, and others. His work has been translated into a dozen languages.

He has been inspired by writers from several continents, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Edmund Wilson, and Walter Benjamin. (In his autobiography, Stavans says that in the early stages of his career, 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 Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, a Chicano lawyer. He wrote a book-long meditation on Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

In 2005, in a series of interviews with Neal Sokol published as Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations, Stavans traces his beginnings, and calls Hispanic civilization to task for its reluctance to undertake constructive self-criticism. In addition, he discusses the work of numerous writers: Borges, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem, Gabriel García Márquez, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Octavio Paz, Samuel Johnson, Edward Said, Miguel de Cervantes, and others. He also reflects on anti-Semitism and anti-Hispanic sentiment.

Stavans has devoted many years of study to the work of Márquez. He wrote a biography, Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years (2010), the first of two planned volumes. Stavans traces the artistic development of Márquez from childhood to the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish in 1967 (it was translated by Gregory Rabassa and published in English in 1970). Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, described this biography as

"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."

[citation needed]

In his book A Critic's Journey (2009), Stavans addresses his work as a cultural critic. He gathers pieces that address three cultures: Jewish, American, and Mexican. It includes pieces on writing On Borrowed Words, the effects of the Holocaust in Latin America, the growth of Latino studies in the U.S. academy, Stavans's relationship with The Jewish Daily Forward, and translation in the shaping of Hispanic culture. He also includes pieces on writers Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodríguez, Isaiah Berlin, and W. G. Sebald, and close readings of Don Quixote and the oeuvre of Roberto Bolaño.

Conversations and dialogues about literature[edit]

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 topics in intellectual depth. Neal Sokol's interviews with Stavans about his Jewish and Latino heritage were collected in a book-long volume, Eight Conversations (2004) (as described above).

In Love and Language (2007), Stavans and translator Verónica Albin are co-authors, discussing the way the word "love" has changed through the ages. Similarly, in Knowledge and Censorship (2008), the first section consists of four essays by Stavans about the "acquisition of knowledge in multi-ethnic environments, the role that dictionaries play in the preservation of memory, the function of libraries in the electronic age, and the uses of censorship." In the second section, he and Albin engage in a dialogue about these topics, and she is listed as co-author.

Canadian journalist Mordecai Drache, who writes for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, discusses with Stavans the Bible as a work of literature in With All Thine Heart (2010). In the U.S. Latino literary tradition, writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Richard Rodriguez have also practiced the conversation as a meditative form. In 2019, Steven G. Kellman published The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside (University of Pittsburgh Press),the first book-length study of the author and his work.


As a sociolinguist, Stavans is known as a world authority in Spanglish, the hybrid form of communication that emerges at the crossroads where Spanish and English speakers interact. He has edited a dictionary of Spanglish words called Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (2003), which includes an essay on historical analysis of the development of this linguistic form. Stavans says it first developed after 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed after the Mexican–American War ended and a large portion of Mexican land was ceded to the United States. There was much more interaction between Spanish and English speakers after that.

He describes various distinctive varieties of Spanglish, such as Cubonics (Cuban-American), Dominicanish (Dominican-American), Nuyorican (Puerto Rican in New York), and Chicano (Mexican American). He defines differences across generational and geographical lines, stating that recent immigrants are prone to use a type of Spanglish that differs from that of 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 a Spanglish translation of the first chapter of Cervantes's Don Quixote de la Mancha in the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia. This translation generated controversy throughout the world, attracting praise 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 in interviews, saying that Spanglish is today's manifestation of "mestizaje," the mixture 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[edit]

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 on 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 was published after similar projects devoted to women's literature and African-American literature. It was greeted enthusiastically. Booklist gave it a starred review. It was reviewed by The Boston Globe, Smithsonian, the American Book Review, World Literature Today, Literal, and NPR's On Point with Tom 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 also criticized for his subjective selection; there were few authors born in Central America.

Cultural studies[edit]

Stavans's views on language are polemical in his 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. He suggests that such continuity, especially in the age of rapid electronic communication, is fatuous. He accuses the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in Madrid of colonialism, among other things. He has studied the Iberian conquest of the Americas in the 16th century from a linguistic perspective. Stavans believes that translation represents cultural appropriation. He defines modernity as "a translated way of life". He has written and lectured on the role translators perform as "communicating vessels" across epochs and habitats.


Since 2013, Stavans has been the publisher of Restless Books,[3] an imprint based in Brooklyn. Producing books of fiction and nonfiction, graphic novels, travel writing, criticism, and visual arts, the company describes itself as "an international publisher for readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives."[4] James Bridle of The Guardian wrote that Restless "finally delivers on the promise of electronic books to go wider and deeper into world literature than paper publishing has ever been able to do."[5]


Complete book-length original works[edit]

  • 2015 - Quixote: The Novel and the World
  • 2014 - A Most Imprefect Union (with Lalo Alcarez)
  • 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.
  • 1994 - Tropycal Synagogues.
  • 1993 - Imagining Columbus: The Literary Voyage.


Conversations with Ilan Stavans (PBS, La Plaza)[6]


Morirse está en hebreo / My Mexican Shivah (2006) Directed by Alejandro Springall.[7]


  1. ^ a b "Fallece el actor y director teatral Abraham Stavans". Diario Judío México. 2019-03-06. Archived from the original on 2015-04-07. Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  2. ^ [1], The Common
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ "About", Restless Books
  5. ^ [3], The Guardian, 29 December 2013
  6. ^ "Conversations with Ilan Stavans". The University of Arizona Press. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
  7. ^ "MY MEXICAN SHIVAH [DVD]". Queens Library. Retrieved 18 January 2017.

External links[edit]