Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans (born Ilan Stavchansky on April 7, 1961, in Mexico City) is a Mexican-American intellectual, essayist, lexicographer, cultural commentator, translator, short-story author, TV personality, teacher and man of letters known for his insights into American, Hispanic, and Jewish cultures.


Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico to a Jewish family from the Pale of Settlement, lived in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, and 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 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.) 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-Hispanism.


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." His themes 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.

Cultural Studies

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 Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos who have attempted to discredit him for writing on Hispanic culture while being Jewish and Caucasian .


Complete book-length original works

  • 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.

Edited works

  • 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 - The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays, edited by Ilan Stavans.
  • 1996 - New World: Young Latino Writers, edited 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.

Critical bibliography

  • Allatson, Paul (2006). "Ilan Stavans's Latino USA. A Cartoon History (of a cosmopolitan intellectual)." Chasqui (Magazine/Journal)
  • Sokol, Neal (2004). Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations


Conversations with Ilan Stavans (PBS, La Plaza)


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


External links

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