Interview with Ilan Stavans

The Writer in Exile

Are you a writer or a Mexican writer?

I like to think that I am simply a writer but I'm afraid that I will inevitably remain a Mexican-or rather, a Hispanic-writer. Hispanic because language is the main factor here, the vehicle of one's thoughts. Of course, there are writers who overcome being from one country. No one would think of Kafka as one more Czech writer, or Conrad as a Polish writer, or Nabokov as another American or Russian writer. All of them did a wonderful thing with exile, didn't they? They managed to master the art of exile. They became better writers in the new language. Conrad is one of the greatest writers in the English language.

Do you feel that people in this country look at you and say, "You've made it,' as opposed to the "You're there" that they would say to a white American writer? Is there a condescending attitude, somehow implying that you've made it despite many odds?

I don't care how people perceive me. What I'm sure about is that I don't see myself as a victim. People see that I've learned English in five years, they appreciate that. There's a story about Borges, probably apocryphal. In a room full of people, Borges walks in, naked and apparently quite comfortable, gets a sandwich or something, and goes back to his room. Afterward, someone asked him why he did that, didn't he know that nudity is a source of shame. Borges replied "nudity is an embarrassment for others." What I'm saying is that the way others perceive me is one thing, the way I perceive myself is different. If I'm a good writer, I'll stand on my own feet.

In the preface to Imagining Columbus, you say that your family had "previous incarnations in Eastern Europe, Palestine, and South America." V. S. Naipaul describes people of several origins, like himself, as people "of no tribe."

A "man of no tribe" is a man who has made exile his home: it can give you freedom; you don't have to be loyal to a set of symbols, to patriotic concepts. On the other hand, you will retain a sense of loss: everyone else belongs somewhere.

Talking recently about writers from the West Indies, Brodsky said that people like Walcott or Naipaul have two options, either choose the transparency of non- history, that of their islands, or adopt the language of their conquerors, the British.

I had a discussion with Brodsky about this, about joining forces with the conqueror. He has a poem about Mexico, where he went invited by Octavio Paz. It's called, "To Yevgueny." In it, he celebrates the Spaniards, which would seem a really politically incorrect thing to do. But what he said was that it was nonsense to attack Spaniards because Mexico is made of Spanish culture and of the native culture; you cannot eliminate one part. What good is it to think that writing in Spanish is writing in the language of the conquerors, or writing in English for me now is writing in the language of the oppressors of Latin America? Writers have to choose the language that makes it easier for them to communicate, the one that is more appropriate to where they live and what they have to say. Anyway, nowadays, what are the Caribbeans and Latin America but a pale copy of the United States? Choosing the language of the conqueror is not a bad move. We were raised with the popular images that come from the U.S., that come from that culture. Our pantheon of heroes were replaced with a pantheon of characters from that culture. Superman and Batman are part of my background.

Is that also communication?

I think it is. I have written an essay about communication called "Traduttore, traditore." The world is made of a thousand and one languages, and we have different ways of handling communication. One attitude is let's translate, another is let's not even try, a third is let's all learn a universal language, such as Esperanto. Utopian, I know, but there was Latin during the Renaissance, now there's English. A fourth option is, let's be polyglots, let's live in more than one language, more than one reality. Let's be multilinguists. I write in English for Americans about topics they know little about, and I write in Spanish for Mexicans about topics they are unacquainted with. I act as a bridge, I symbolize dialogue. Unless we say that there can be no translation, unless we paraphrase Ambrose Bierce by saying that an interpreter, a translator is someone who wants to convince somebody of a message that was never there in the first place. The Hispanic writers who live in the U.S., are they American or a continuation of Latin America? A difficult question. Being bicultural is being troubled. It's a source of constant conflicts, but only in paradise are there no conflicts. I am the owner of a divided self and am sure my circumstances come as a result of exile and, also, of a polyglot existence.

The older generations of exiles want their children to remain culturally intact.

A generation gap has taken place with the emergence of multiculturalism, which is a celebration of difference. Before, there was unity; nowadays, there's diversity. If you are black or Hispanic or belong to another ethnic minority, the racial, cultural, and religious components are emphasized: you are first black and then American; first Hispanic and then American, etc. Many of us, as I said, are a sum of parts. Two contradictory sayings appear in the Bible: one, that children are not responsible for their parents' sins, and two, that indeed they are. Should I blame my child for assimilation to a culture I choose to bring him up in? Just like Richard Rodriguez, children of immigrants are frontier dwellers. They remain very aware of the abyss, the cultural differences. Often, they end up betraying, not even recognizing the culture of their ancestors ... Exile and assimilation create confusion and anger. I recently talked to a student, a young girl whose father is Italian and whose mother is Ethiopian. She has suffered terribly because of the gap between the two. At present, she is writing a short story whose main character is a woman terrorist. Don't you find the choice of protagonist significant? Also, the story is in English but the writer keeps thinking in Italian.

Dreaming in Cuban* . . , Exactly. I talked about Kafka, Conrad, and Nabokov, three authors I thoroughly respect. They chose a language other than their native one as a vehicle of their artistic endeavors. And interestingly enough, with the exception of Nabokov, they hardly mixed their own "exotic" tongue in their own craft. Is there any sign of Polish in Nostromo or Heart of Darkness? A friend, a Puerto Rican poet, Martin Espada, integrates a lot of Spanish in his English-written verses. Writing in a language in- comprehensible to most readers in the U.S. is of course a political statement, it turns the book into an artifact.

Are you an exile? Yes, in several senses. First, my parents came from Central European Jewish families who emigrated to Mexico by pure chance. I was born there but truly, I could have been born and raised anywhere. I am not Mexican the way Octavio Paz, for instance, is Mexican. I don't feel Spanish or Mexican the way a Mexican whose family has been on this side of the Atlantic since the conquest of 1525 would. Perhaps I'm closer to Carlos Fuentes: The son of a diplomat, he was born in Panama and raised in Buenos Aires and Washington, D.C. Besides, Jews are professional exiles anyway. This sense of wandering around and about the globe goes back a long way. In fact, one can make a distinction between biblical and rabbinical Judaism. When the Jews lived in Palestine, the telluric idea of belonging to that land was very strong. But as exile started, some 2,000 years ago, doors were closed and there was no going back. To return from Babylon or Rome or Byzantium was not a possibility in the foreseeable future. Thus the rabbis invented something, the idea of "happiness in exile," promising that with the coming of the Messiah, return to the lost land would take place. The maxim "next year in Jerusalem" became a political stand. An incredibly intelligent thing to do, I should add. Modern Israel is an anachronism because the Jews are beyond territorial identity. Consequently Zionism as an ideology is very polemic: Rabbis in the linited Staies often boycott the Jewish State; it's too concrete, too political, too earthly for them. Indeed, Zionism has turned Jews into ordinary people. But don't get me wrong, I'm not altogether against Israel. I once tried to live there, thinking that I would find an answer to my identity dilemma, yet I was wrong. Living together with Jewish thieves and prostitutes was not what I wanted. I preferred exile-the closest thing to happiness ... I now live in the U.S., away from Mexico, and write in English. Who am I? Perhaps only a question mark, a doubt, an uncertainty. That's why I love New York: the city of exile.

Can one overcome the condition of exile, the way Richard Rodriguez, for instance, advocates? Rodriguez uses bom here and hardly knows Spanish and is totally assimilated, the way he wanted to be. Yet if he walks down the street with five hundred Americans, he will still stand out because of the way he looks: Mexican and even Indian Mexican.

We assume Americans are all white and look like Gene Kelly. But our times are revolutionary times. Things are changing. In fifty years, only one American out of five will be white. Ours is not a truly democratic epoch. Democracy and pluralism lead to the tyranny of many; they erase differences. What is actually happening today is that the dream of the melting pot is turning minorities into a majority. The autobiography of Richard Rodriguez isn't in any essential way different from that of Italians or Germans seeking assimilation. I, instead, am an advocate of difference, even at the risk of becoming a reactionary. Something else too must be considered. Rodriguez was born in this country. I was twenty-five when I came to New York, my identity was already shaped .... It's pitiful how the U.S. is obsessed with turning people into a universal Anybody. I'm in favor of polyglotism and polyculturalism. Of course, as I said, there's an injury in exile: you're torn, you're divided, you must choose between several doors. Richard Rodriguez is now an assimilated American, one with Hispanic roots. Jews, on the other hand, are eternal immigrants. Always in the process of assimilating, but hesitating. They are chameleons, salamanders--ever-changing creatures.

There is a lot of talk ?ight now about multicultural curricula, about Afro- centrism, etc.

Minorities will change the U.S. from within. Hispanics are entering the melting pot to become American but also to change forever how the U. S. perceives itself. More and more words, customs, folklore, are going to become accepted idiosyncrasies. And emotions are going to become a fundamental part of this culture. It happened before: Yiddish, Italian, Irish . . . they all renovated the American dream. But Hispanics have another, more aggressive agenda: they want to reconquer this land taken away from them through force and History. The concept of "Moctezuma's revenge" has two meanings, one in Spanish and the other in English: In the U.S., it refers to the diarrhea a tourist gets after drinking water in Mexico; south of the Rio Grande, it refers to the slow process of reconquering the U.S., a geography taken away from the native Indians and the Mexicans. Ultimately, both meanings of the expression comple- ment each other. Multiculturalism is important. It reinvents differences. Think how blacks are reappropriating the culture of Egypt and Ethiopia. If it weren't for these differences, our world would be like H. G. Wells's Time Machine: everybody uniform, everybody alike. There must be conflict, of course, and there must be the faculty to be surprised. From the point of view of those wanting to keep the U.S. intact, the way it has been for two hundred years, multiculturalism is a nightmare because the nation might become a sum of tribes. As I said, Hispanics are not likely to integrate the way Jews did; Spanish, I think, is going to become a second official language. Hispanics refuse to follow previous patterns of assimilation because of a number of factors. One is geography; never before did people come from so close: Cubans think they'll go back when Castro is no longer there; Mexico and Puerto Rico are next door. Home is not far, you don't have to turn it into a memory. You can keep bringing and sending people back. Remember, Hispanics were the very first to enter the melting pot. Latin America is becoming another state of this country. Especially now, with the Free Trade Agreements between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.
Stereotypes never disappear. We all need them. Arabs are perceived as barbarians, chaotic--Edward Said has written insightfully about the phenomenon. And this, of course, is crucial for the way Palestinians are seen in the Middle East. And what about the stereotypes of Jews and blacks? I confess to have learned more about this society by reading Baldwin or Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright and Toni Morrison than by reading John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Blacks have a major handicap in this country: slavery. White America has a terrible guilt complex about that. I often fear we're going to witness great racial turmoil, but maybe I'm too much of a pessimist.

The riots in L.A. or in Mount Pleasant, the recent Gomez trial, is all this a beginning?

A curious thing about the U.S. is its short memory. In the sixties, Chicanos and blacks were put on trial. Things might be more explosive today because we are sophisticated in terms of how a minority can agitate public opinion. Think about this: Hispanics have two television channels with such a large audience and such power, they influence presidential elections. Besides, the U.S. has never been a country at peace with itself. And in the near future, things are likely to be even more extreme. Can the American experience fail? It's a tower of Babel.

Tell me about your writing. When did you decide you wanted to write?

I was a rebellious child. When I was seventeen, I ran away to Spain with a camera and a typewriter. I wanted to be a film director. I wrote scripts for the movies I wanted to make. Then I sold the camera so I had to make do with the typewriter. And here I am ... I came to this country in 1985, at twenty-four. That's when I started writing. First in Spanish, as I was learning English. As I said, I wanted to be a director because the language of cinema is superior, but it lacks immediacy. I found by reading that only literature offers that. I pride myself on a very distinguished career as a reader.

How does one have a "distinguished career' as a reader? It means that I'm a much better reader than I will ever be a writer. Books were around when I grew up. I read a lot, and reread frequently. I was - am - a Darwinian reader, I operate by natural selection. To me, reading and writing are undistinguishable: reading allows one to be a character in War and Peace or Crime and Punishment; writing, on the other hand, offers the opportunity to rewrite a poor story or to reinterpret the past.

When do you write, and how?

Writing is like breathing. I write every day, generally at night because I'm not interrupted. Besides, at night I'm tired, which gives the mind a special sharpness. How do I write? I use a word processor. I'm very exigent with the way a text should look, so I revise a lot. But I never reread a printed text, because the mistakes jump at me. I'm also an obsessive stylist. And I have to finish whatever I'm working on, especially when I write fiction. Add to it the fact that fiction disturbs me, so I try to finish quickly. If I had to choose, I would prefer writing only non- fiction, but it's not a matter of selecting.

In your preface to Imagining Columbus you say that your interest in Christopher Columbus was awakened by your grandmother who constantly evoked him. Why was she so fascinated by him?

She thought Columbus discovered America in order to save the Jews from the Inquisition: another Messiah. But the admiral, I think, was the greatest fool and the greatest actor. He had many masks and used them, though perhaps not consciously. He pretended to be ignorant and yet was in the right place at the right time. Columbus expanded the world, but he also happened to be a disoriented mariner. Writing about him gave me the possibility to prove that the world is a huge book - a cabalist idea revamped many times by writers like Mallarme, Coleridge, Emerson, Borges, and others. That's what the cabalists said, that the world is a great book.

Will you yourself one day write The Labyrinth of History that you describe as a book in an imaginary library of the future?

Perhaps. The young writer spends ten, fifteen years preparing something but hardly knows what. His books will later be perceived as a preparation. Literature is the best way to overcome death. My father, as I said, is an actor. He's the happiest man on earth when he's performing, but when the show is over, he's sad and troubled. I wish he could live in the eternal present, because in the theater everything remains in memories and photographs. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to live in the present and to remain in the pantheon of the future. Literature is a way to say, I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived. This is my signature, this is my name.