Only 40 with 17 Books? How Does Ilan Stavans Do It? His Is Less the Voice of a Displaced Hispanic Than of an American ‘Making His Mark’: On Borrowed Words; The Essential Ilan Stavans

Only 40 with 17 Books? How Does Ilan Stavans Do It? His Is Less the Voice
of a Displaced Hispanic Than of an American `Making His Mark’; On Borrowed
Words; The Essential Ilan Stavans

More often than not, Latin American Jews feel like the Jewish community’s
long-lost cousin, as if Israelites were a species native to the United
States and to Europe, with a few strays to be found in northern Africa. If
you are from Mexico or Panama or Chile and claim to be Jewish, it seems,
you carry an onerous double burden of exoticism. North Americans still tend
to view Hispanic and Jewish cultures as mutually exclusive universes; when
brought together they have the feel and attractiveness of a laboratory
hybrid, compelling yet just outside the norm.

In contrast, it is by now gracefully accepted that in certain American
circles undeniable elements of Jewish culture — bagels, chutzpah, the word
“tchotchke” — have been assimilated as commonplace if slightly highbrow
Americana.

Two things occur: Bagels and lox, having been adopted by the gentile
majority, are transformed, and in the American psyche become
representations of Jewishness itself. Indeed, American Jews and non-Jews
alike are often perplexed by their absence in such Jewish environs as
downtown Jerusalem. On the other hand, in these same circles Hispanicism,
let us say Puerto Rican, Mexican or Cuban culture, is still seen all too
often as remote, alien, deeply other.

Many are caught in this trap. As a new immigrant to the United States I
once faced an excruciating situation in which a young girl, a fellow
student in an affluent, suburban California high school, overhearing me
speak with my mother and wanting to help me fit in, offered the following
advice: “You shouldn’t talk in Spanish; you don’t look like a spic.”

Into this rigid and categorical grid tumbles Ilan Stavans, a professor of
Spanish literature at Amherst College and a prolific and wide-ranging
writer, essayist, compiler and cultural analyst, who positions himself as
an intellectual Mexican Jew searching to identify his own shining stone in
the North American mosaic. More accurately, that should be in the mosaic
that is New York City: The heart of his latest book, “On Borrowed Words,” a
memoir coming out at the end of August, is a paean to New York City — he
quotes George Steiner describing the city as “the capital of the 20th
century” — and to the English language, “precise, almost mathematical —
the tongue I prefer today, the one I feel happiest in.”

The book, a combination family history and linguistic autobiography, is a
profoundly contemporary and unsentimental snapshot of one multi-racinated,
perhaps globalized life. It is difficult to avoid the ironic frisson that
comes with the realization that such a multi-racinated, globalized,
contemporary Jew is very close to the early 20th-century figure of the
cosmopolitan, multilingual, unfettered Jew. The question of loyalties
inevitably arises, and more than one reader will feel a twinge as Mr.
Stavans points his finger directly at the Jewish education he was given in
childhood as the factor that kept him detached from, and eventually alien
to, identification with the Mexican masses. Mr. Stavans, the product of
Jewish schooling, Zionist parents who spoke Spanish and Yiddish at home, a
public-university education in Mexico and an American marriage and career,
struggles as an adult to find “lo mexicano” in himself, eventually turning
away from this quest and settling for ambivalently adoring the Spanish
language.

Judaism delights him, but Mr. Stavans seems the least attached to his
identity as a Mexican, perhaps even to his Hispanic self. It is a point
worth pondering that a man who dedicates his teaching life and much of his
writing to the literature of Latin America should come to feel that while
it is a professional passion, it is no longer where his heart resides. For
that, he has New York City and, more recently, New England. Mexico — its
cultures, language and intricate history — seem to be no more than an
accident of birth for Mr. Stavans, the son and grandson of Eastern European
immigrants.

“On Borrowed Words” thus points us to an important and often overlooked
reality: The visible geographical map of our lives — Mexican birth, for
example, or adulthood in New England — is not necessarily the outline of
our lives. Frequently it comes to no more than being an incidental fact of
life. In the end, we live in the winding roads and hills and valleys of our
own minds. The real life of this intellectual is lived within, in an
intimate, interior dialogue with it variegated and diverse vocabulary.

Nevertheless, it would be an error to make too much of this. Mr. Stavans,
only 40 and already the author or editor of 17 books, has recently
published a virtuosic compilation of his work, “The Essential Ilan
Stavans.” Less personal than his autobiography and consequently less
absorbing, it is nevertheless a grand sweep of a book, a collection of taut
academic and journalistic essays (several first published in the Forward)
ranging, it is tempting to say, over all of the Hispanic world: Argentine
Borges and Mexican Cantinflas, Spanglish and kitsch, Rigoberta Menchu,
Octavio Paz and Alberto Fujimori. This is not the voice of a disengaged
Hispanic. Rather, it is the voice of a man making his mark upon the
American academy.

Perhaps this is his place — as a Jewish Hispanic in the raucous vortex of
the United States. One senses that the Jewish identification that kept Mr.
Stavans from wholeheartedly joining the Mexican cacophony is the same one
that brings him unrestrained and fully committed into the roiling midst of
its northern American counterpart.

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