Ilan Stavans may be one of the sharpest pens in North America. He's one of the fastest too: since 1993 the acclaimed author has produced 48 books, enough to snap a small bedside nightstand. Those books include fantastical tales of heaven, a scholarly critique of Octavio Paz, even an ode to Hebrew, a nod to Stavans' Jewish roots.
The author says he knew from the beginning his latest work would be an entirely different animal — nothing he could complete in a season. This month, after 13 years of writing and editing, his Norton Anthology of Latino Literature arrives on bookstore shelves. It is undoubtedly Stavans' magnum opus.
Don't expect to pick it up with one hand. The anthology is over 2,600 pages long, a treasure trove of stories, poems, song lyrics and various detours along unexplored paths of American history. Stavans says he had no interest in producing a standard collection of tales from celebrated Latino writers. His anthology does contain pieces from a few modern masters — Isabel Allende, William Carlos Williams, Octavio Paz — but the scope of his vision is far greater than them. The collection begins in the year 1539, with a letter written by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, continuing on through César Chávez's rousing political speeches, Junot Díaz's biography of a sci-fi-obsessed dork, the cartoons of Gus Arriola, Broadway-style hip hop from Lin-Manuel Miranda, even club lyrics from Ricky Martin and the Spanglish rap of Cypress Hill.
That breathtaking span is one reason the Norton Anthology feels less like a book and more like a magic carpet ride through time and space, with Stavans' hand on the rutter, introducing every author with a crisply written biography, explaining every political and cultural reference with an ongoing series of footnotes. Through it all, you can almost hear the happy bounce of Stavans' fingers on the keyboard, a joy I first noticed 14 years ago as his student at Amherst College, where he is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture.
Stavans and I reconnected recently to discuss his new anthology, the clash of high and low culture in the collection, how his father shaped his literary outlook, and what exactly makes him qualified to decide who is in and who is out of the Latino literary canon.
Kors: Thirteen years. Damn.
Stavans: I know. Thirteen years and a lot of white hair. A lot of disappearing hair too.
Kors: It must be a huge relief to complete a project this big.
Stavans: It is. It's an enormous relief. It's incredibly exciting too: to think, after all these years, it all finally coalesced. I felt like I didn't have the stamina, the character to make it to the end — I can't tell you how many minefields there were along the way — but to create a collection like this was a lifelong dream. (Stavans laughs.) And now that I've reached the top of this hill, I feel ready to tackle other, more modest hills.
Kors: What made this book such a challenge?
Stavans: Oh, the challenges were enormous. This book is a symphony of voices, and to gather each of them together, to massage all of the egos involved, it was enough to drive you insane. At certain points, it almost did drive me insane. Whenever I'd get depressed and anxious, I'd turn to other prijects where I could more easily see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Kors: Were the egos the biggest mine in the minefield?
Stavans: No, the biggest was the basic question: why me? Who am I to define the canon of Latino literature? That is what this project is all about: defining the canon, who is in and who is out. These are explosive questions, especially since the lines of Latino literature don't always intersect. We're talking about different countries, different traditions, cultures, races. Our literature is more like a river with various tributaries, and my job was to capture them for this book, to have them all flow into this one space. ... I think anyone who stepped forward would have heard that question: "Why him?" But when people looked at my credentials, saw that I was ready to drive this project forward, I got a lot of support.
Kors: The anthology is so wide-ranging. Do you think it has a theme or a message?
Stavans: Absolutely. This book is proof that Latinos are an integral part of America, that our literature should be recognized, studied, respected. There's still a sense out there that most Latinos are incapable, illegal, not part and parcel of what this country is about. This collection, with real style, wipes away that notion forever.
Kors: The scope of this book is extraordinary, and it knocked me flat because with "literature" in the title, I'm thinking Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz. But you begin with the writings of De Soto, the Spanish explorer, and De La Vega, the famous 16th century soldier, and move on by the end to Ricky Martin and Cypress Hill. That got my head spinning.
Stavans: (Stavans laughs.) That's good. That's what literature is supposed to do: make you question, "What is literature?" With "Livin' La Vida Loca," that was one of the most popular songs of the '90s. It helped define how Latinos are seen. ... My goal was to press beyond that old fashion view of literature as just short stories and novels. This is a real anthology of what Latinos have achieved.
Kors: Yeah, it seems "literature" to you is every time an exceptional pen meets paper.
Stavans: Why limit it to paper and pen? I'd say, literature is every time a word becomes alive and enriches the world beyond its author. And I wouldn't even limit it to words. The image, the graphic novel is just as important an exploration of modern life.
Kors: You wrote Spanglish, arguing that this amalgam is a valid form of expression, not a slumland corruption of two great languages. Now in the Norton Anthology, you include a narcocorrido, a song of praise drug lords sing about their fallen gang members. I'd say you have a passion for defending low culture.
Stavans: I'd say there is no such thing as "low culture." That's a category invented by snobby intellectuals, aimed at the art of the lower class. Great music, poetry, these things often come from the lower strata and trickle up, not trickle down. Look at jazz. Jazz was created by people who couldn't read music. Now it's the music of Carnegie Hall. We live in a society that's always looking for the shock of the new. Once those new art forms reach the middle class, they're kidnapped by Madison Avenue and marketed to a wider audience. That's just how it works.
Kors: I read through this book wondering, "Who is this book for?"
Stavans: A variety of people. Students hopefully are going to use it in the classroom, and I'm talking with professors at different universities who plan to introduce the book into their courses. Really, the collection is for anyone interested in this country's literature, an exploration of one of our cultures, just like the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.
Kors: Okay, but let me be obnoxious for a moment. This is the question my buddies at the gym would ask. The Dominicanos who got all the tattoos, lift weights with me, then get drunk at the clubs, they're not going sit down and read a 2,600-page book. And their parents don't have the English you'd need to read this anthology. So ... is this for the Latino elite? Is that an unfair question?
Stavans: No, it's not. But it's a near-sited view. It's true that among the 50 million Latinos in this country, many wouldn't want to buy the book for those reasons. But the real truth, Joshua, is that this anthology, it's not just for today's Latinos. It's for families with children, children who want to find out about their roots. It's a place where future generations can discover their history.
Kors: How did this project start?
Stavans: It started in 1997, when I heard that the Anthology of African-American Literature was about to come out. And I thought, "What a wonderful thing," that we needed a book like that, and that we needed one for Latinos too. I got in touch with Norton, and we set up a time frame.
Kors: You have the most amazing control of the footnotes, speaking right to the reader, explaining every reference, shaping our experience of the stories. I kept thinking of my mother. We went to see In the Heights the other day, which is this fantastic mix of Spanglish and rap. My mom said, "I loved it. But I didn't understand half of what they were saying." With this book, I kept picturing us seeing the show again, this time with you whispering in her ear, translating every Spanglish phrase, explaining every movie reference.
Stavans: (Stavans laughs.) That's great to hear. Those footnotes are hard to write. They're a tool to help make sense of a tradition for readers outside of it. But you have to make sure you're enhancing the experience, not a continual distraction. ... Perhaps, em, perhaps we could see the show and talk it over at dinner afterward.
Kors: Gringos won't be the only ones to utilize the footnotes.
Stavans: Absolutely not. Everyone could use explanation, context. Especially for the older pieces. Culture changes so fast.
Kors: Yeah, I think of this old "Loveline" episode I was listening to the other day. Dr. Drew was telling this story about his college roommate, who came home so drunk, he urinated all over the record player because he confused the record player's lift-up casing for the toilet seat. The funny thing was, he virtually killed the joke because he had to explain, "Okay, record players came with this plastic casing, and to play a record, first you had to lift up the casing to expose the turntable."
Stavans: Right, right. Because none of the young listeners had ever owned a record player. ... Em, you know, there will come a time when Jerry Seinfeld will need footnotes too. And it will be the same challenge: how do we explain Jewish culture, the Upper West Side, without killing the comedy?
Kors: This anthology made me laugh when it captured culture differences that rang true to me, like Richard Rodriguez, who writes about how his parents struggled to pronounce vowels with the American inflection. It reminded me that you, when you're stumbling and stuttering, you say "em" while most Americans say "um."
Stavans: I do? Oh boy. I hate when people are constantly stumbling.
Kors: You don't stumble much. But you do say "em." I've always wanted to tell you that.
Stavans: (Stavans laughs.) I think it's great that you picked up on that. It goes to show how a single sound can separate generations, be a dividing line between cultures.
Kors: You're the author of Octavio Paz: A Meditation and The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Literature. I can't imagine you around the house, playing Cypress Hill for your son Joshua, or the narcocorrido you included in this book.
Stavans: Oh yes, I do. My Josh, who is going to college now, he's a hip hop artist himself. Narcocorridos should be a part of this book. They tell stories of heroism. But mainstream culture doesn't want them. They say it doesn't belong in the classroom. I say it does. If we don't include the music of our gangs, then it gains an unhealthy power, an allure of the forbidden that draws people in.
Kors: Better to be seen and discussed, to have this real part of our culture on the table than ignored, with academia pretending it isn't happening.
Stavans: Absolutely. Let's talk about what these communities are saying rather than ignore them.
Kors: You're seeking to deghettoize Latino culture?
Kors: I have to ask you about one of the Junot Díaz pieces, a slice from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a fat, comic book-loving social reject. The piece is just littered with references to Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, the 1970's TV show Land of the Lost.
Stavans: That's right. Science fiction is a great example of how the dividing lines between communities get erased. These fantastical stories resonate across cultures, across countries. Hey, Spider-Man doesn't know if you're Irish or Italian or Puerto Rican.
Kors: True, true. I also love how Díaz loads his story with footnotes, each of them detours and backstories about his characters, and there you are at the bottom of the page, with your own footnotes, fighting him for space.
Stavans: (Stavans laughs.) I suppose that's true. I love that piece by Díaz too. His embrace of science fiction is another example of how culture travels from the bottom up, not the other way round.
Kors: Your passion for low culture, it comes from your father, doesn't it? He was a Mexican soap opera star, right?
Stavans: Was? Is. He's been in 50 different soap operas. ... I think you're right. I grew up with my father, a true devotee of Checkov and Ibsen, who made his career performing in soap operas. I saw no contradiction in that at all. Sometimes the very same actors in the soaps with him, they'd do the telenovelas in the morning, then head to the theater to perform Shakespeare. As a scholar, I set out to be the same way. I make my books for elite audiences, mainstream audiences, families in the barrio. That's not a contradiction. It's a full life.
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