Stavans has also recently published “The Essential Ilan Stavans,” an eclectic collection of essays and short stories that provide an insightful study of Jewish and Latino pop culture in the United States and Latin America.
Both books seek to examine the roots of Hispanic culture in order to better understand what it has become today. This topic is one of great importance to Stavans, a native of Mexico who completed his graduate work at Columbia University and joined Amherst as a faculty member of the Spanish department and part-time faculty member of the Creative Writing and European Studies departments in 1993.
However, the written word has remained Stavans’ passion. “Writing is like breathing; I do it all the time,” he said. “I see myself as a writer, then a teacher.”
Experts in the field see Stavans similarly, if his numerous distinctions, including the Latino Literature Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, are any indication. These awards recognize Stavans’ command of language, which he has worked hard to cultivate but which he discovered by chance.
“If I hadn’t arrived in New York, I wouldn’t be a writer today,” Stavans said. “New York tests you as a writer; there are so many there that are so good.”
For “Latino USA” Stavans worked with cartoonist Lalo Lûpez Alcaraz, creator of “La Cucaracha” in LA Weekly and editor of Pocho magazine, to present not just an accurate history of Latin America, but also to impart a sense of the culture to the reader.
Since the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are as widely encompassing as “Caucasian,” Stavans explained that his attempt to create a singular history was a difficult task, but he turned to parody of stereotypes and even a caricature of himself to make the book accessible.
For example, even the book’s characters are displeased with the author’s choice to label Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492 as the beginning of Latino history. The calavera-or skeleton figure-in “Latino USA” asks, “Is it really necessary to start with him? Every history starts with this poor misunderstood Italian. Couldn’t we begin elsewhere?”
In “Latino USA,” the author is quickly bumped out of the story by the characters, who later imprison Stavans. In “The Essential Ilan Stavans,” however, his opinions are clearly voiced.
The book’s most controversial piece, an essay entitled “The Sounds of Spanglish,” contemplates the legitimacy of Spanglish-a blend of Spanish and English that includes American pop jargon and Internet lingo called “cyber-Spanglish”-as an official language.
Stavans believes that Spanglish, which is the subject of a course he is teaching at Amherst this year, is a legitimate form of communication that ought to be taken seriously. He writes in “The Sounds of Spanglish:” “What is at stake here is not the future of Spanglish, already solid and commanding, but broad acceptance of it.”
In addition to writing, Stavans also works to share the diverse Hispanic world with others through his editorial work on Hopscotch, a quarterly nonacademic magazine published by Duke University Press. Hopscotch includes profiles, essays and pictures that offer a glimpse into Hispanic culture.
Hopscotch also deals with cross-cultural issues, such as Hispanic-Asian and Hispanic-African relations. “There’s this perception that Asians are like this, Hispanics are like this,” said Stavans. “It’s not like that.”
In addition to his two latest works, Stavans is the author of six other books, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as numerous short stories. His works, which address a range of topics from the Holocaust to issues in Eastern Europe, have been translated into half a dozen languages.
Despite all of his experience with different forms and genres of creative writing, Stavans said, “I have a special affection for short stories.” Fittingly, “The Essential Ilan Stavans” is an anthology of some of his short works.
One story reprinted in the book is “Xerox Man,” which Stavans called his “most personal” work. He wrote it after receiving a request from BBC Radio London to produce a story for broadcast in a week. Stavans felt rushed at first, but was pleasantly surprised by the writing process that grew out of the time restraints.
Rather than honing the story, as he would with other works, Stavans wrote the story in one night and left it at that. “I felt that I didn’t write it, that it was dictated to me,” he explained.
Stavans’ next book, to be published within the year, is a memoir entitled “On Borrowed Words.” In it, he recounts his experiences as a Mexican Jew and his transition to the United States.
One of the memoir’s main themes deals with Stavans’ sensitivity to his Jewish self in Mexico and to his Chicano self in New York City.
Having grown up fluent in both Yiddish and Spanish, Stavans said that he feels like a different person every time he changes languages. This complex interplay between words and self has even manifest itself in the mode of Stavans’ dreams. “I don’t hear the language [being spoken by the people in the dreams], but I understand,” he said.
Stavans is also presently working on three more books: a novel, a biography of Gabriel García Marquez and a collection of essays profiling prominent Hispanic people, including historically significant figures and pop icons.
“I’m very interested in how the individual in a particular moment can be used to see a society in general,” he explained.