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 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 at 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.[clarification needed] 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 topics 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 on historical analysis of 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), Nuyorican (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 de 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.
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 followed in the footsteps of similar ventures devoted to women's 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 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.” However, it was criticized for its subjective approach, including few authors born in Central America.
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.
Since 2013, Stavans has been the publisher of Restless Books, 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." 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."
Conversations with Ilan Stavans (PBS, La Plaza)