An Interview with Ilan Stavans

January 10, 2017   •   By Marziyeh Kameli

THE TWO-DAY “Spaces of Dialogue: International Conference on Transatlantic Literature” at Harvard closed with an interview with Professor Ilan Stavans on the subject of “Hispanic Studies in the United States.” As I expected, all discussions related to culture, identity, literature, immigrants, and so on were connected with the underlying issue of “language,” and specifically with the English language as both a barrier and an opening. The story of Stavans’s own determination to learn English and to follow a career in the field of writing was so interesting that I decided to talk to him during the cocktail party, held by presenters and lecturers. Having missed his introduction, I Googled him before the cocktail party.

Ilan Stavans, a Jewish Mexican-American essayist, lexicographer, translator, and publisher, was a faculty member of Amherst College, Massachusetts. As I was going through his list of publications, I came across A Critic’s Journey, a collection of essays, and I remembered one of my professors in an English literature master’s program recommended reading two essays from this book — “Who Owns the English Language?” and “A Critic’s Journey” — for our nonfiction literary criticism class. As I was reading about Stavans, I became discouraged. He overcame his own obstacles, I thought, but he cannot perform any miracles to help me with my language struggles. It made more sense for me to speak with an ESL teacher than to “one of the most influential figures in Latino literature in the United States,” as The New York Times calls him. Stavans was the author of more than 25 books, which have been translated into a dozen languages, and numerous edited works; a man whose work has received multiple awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award, an Emmy nomination, the Latino Book Award, Chile’s Presidential Medal, the Rubén Darío Distinction, and the Cátedra Roberto Bolaño — we were hardly in the same universe.

However, when I saw him in the yard opening a bottle of wine and pouring it for himself and a group gathering around him, I approached them. He was surrounded by Spanish speakers that, through the course of the conference, I realized are influential figures in the Hispanic field. As soon as Stavans saw me, he shifted from Spanish to English to make a space for me and invited me to join their group. I introduced myself and said, “You mentioned in your interview that when you traveled to America you hardly were able to speak English, but you knew that you wanted to be a good writer. I identify with you.” He smiled and nodded, which gave me a sense of being understood.

He asked where I was from, and I told him that I am from Iran and speak Farsi and though I have been in the States for two years and before that in India for three years, I am still struggling with the nuances of the language.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said. Like a skillful psychologist and knows exactly what his patient needs, Stavans did not waste time recommending a list of books or suggesting how to improve my language skills. Instead, he shared a short story from his life. He told me that when he came to the United States he barely knew English, and he was the kind of person who was highly self-conscious about his language abilities. However, an incident changed his attitude. He had sent one of his works to a well-known editor, and it was rejected. The rejection letter that he received was not short — it was a long letter explaining the reasons for the rejection. Stavans noticed that the letter had many mistakes in it. That rejection letter was a relief for him: “I thought, why, when he who is a great editor and English is his first language has many mistakes in his writing, that I, who am not a native speaker, should be ashamed of making mistakes?” Becoming comfortable with mistakes was Stavans’s prescription for me, or at least what I took from his story.

“What are you studying?” he asked.

English literature, I told him, though I was doubtful that that was what I wanted to do as I furthered my education. Though literary scholarship interested me, I had never enjoyed writing purely analytical papers. I wanted something more than analytical writing, along with literary theories, social commentary, and literary texts.

His confidence and his comforting thoughts on language and on the process of learning language, as well as our similar backgrounds, made me interested in reading his works. Three years later, and after reading a few of his books, I realized that the kind of writing that I was interested in includes the personal essay, which Stavans continuously uses in his writings. I emailed him and interviewed him about his collection of critical essays, A Critic’s Journey. I started my questions with how his reflections, as a critic, affected his writing in On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, which covers his life from his birth until he receives his American passport.

There are two modes of comprehending — i.e., interpreting — the universe: a reflective one, which builds on ideas, and an imaginative one, which builds on stories. When turned into literature, the two build narrative but in essentially different ways. More often than not, the first mode is reserved to critics whereas the second is the domain of fiction. But no divide should separate them because they share one and the same language.

He said that he had set himself a goal: “To look at my life from a distance, as if it was someone else’s; I wanted to reflect, through the prism of ideas, on what I had done. I wanted to be a critic of my own life.”

Essentially, he blurs the line between these two modes of comprehending in his everyday life by practicing his imaginative mode of comprehension with reflecting on his own life occurrence. He calls this type of writing “personal essays,” which he understands as “the highly individualized meditation on a mundane topic that has the potential to become a kaleidoscope for life itself.”

In the title essay in A Critic’s Journey, he considers personal essays a specific genre with “the temptation to always become something else: a novel, a poem, a folklore, even a comic strip or a video.” I asked what he meant by that. He elaborated, saying:

Yes, narrative is narrative: it needs to entertain, to illustrate, to enlighten. We live by and through narratives because we have an insatiable desire to comprehend our circumstances, to share its basic tenets with others, and to appreciate how others tell their own tales. I don’t like the abyss our civilization has built between fiction and criticism. In my view, they are sides of the same phenomenon. I live, I let myself live, in the connection between these sides. All essays are personal — either we recognize it or not — just as all fiction is autobiographical (and all autobiography is fiction). I love the personal essay. It triggers something instinctual in me: to use the “I” as a Virgil, to elucidate what I see, what I think, what I conceive in ways that aren’t for me alone but for everyone.

However, throughout his writing there is a sense that he considers personal essays as a skill, useful for all other genres, rather than a self-standing genre. I asked him about this. “For a personal essay to succeed,” he said,

the “I” in it should be the anchor but it shouldn’t obfuscate. That’s why it is called the personal essay and not the narcissistic essay. We write through the self but the self needs to somehow get out of the way so that what we’re describing comes to full view. To achieve that balance — call it “selfless selfishness” — isn’t easy. It takes time; that is, it takes patience. I write my essays as if they were arguments I’m having with a nonexistent Ilan Stavans. Or else, as if they were reflective stories. Again, I don’t see a separation between criticism and the personal essay. For me these terms are synonymous. I don’t sit down to write one instead of the other; I write one and the other simultaneously.

I asked whether there are rules for criticism that do not apply to other types of literature. He believes that,

Unfortunately, criticism has been kidnapped by the academy, which has overwhelmed with rubbish. The academic essay — e.g., the tenure-track essay — is written for an audience of three or four lonely readers — for whom literature long ago ceased to be about pleasure — in order to become part of a profession. Yes, the worse that might happen to literature is institutionalization. For literature is free: free to make up things, free to associate, free to rebel.

His reply reminds me of his opinion on graduate studies in A Critic’s Journey. There he states, “My impression is that literary studies are intellectually bankrupt.” He believes that graduate schools fail students when they are trained to suppress their emotion and blindly conform to institutionalized systems of thought. Instead, he writes, students “should be provided with tools to engage in open-minded, independent reflections on literature, politics, and society.” Literary studies should give students the ability to “live up to the challenge of mapping the culture they participate in.”

He asserts that one learns to write a personal essay in three ways: “through practice, by thinking clearly, and by letting the self … get rid of unnecessary blinders.”

I tell my students that education isn’t about facts. It isn’t about theories, either. It is about tracking your thoughts, about witnessing how stories are formed in your mind. It is about allowing the mind not to be clogged, about letting it see not what it does but how it does it. The rules of criticism are the same as the rules of other types of literature. These rules boil down to one: finding the right words to tell the right narrative at the right time. Nothing else matters.

This echoes what he argues is the aim of thinking: “To let the mind free, to let it explore undisclosed areas, to allow for it to make untamed connections.” And criticism is the expression of such free thinking through language.

Since he mentioned that critics should use “accessible language,” I asked what he thinks makes language accessible. Does language determines the genres it creates — like criticism or the essay — or do the genres constrain language?

An accessible language is a language that is beautiful. It is a language of understanding, not of pretension. To be accessible is to write not from Mount Sinai but from below, where the people are. The critic has the exact same words (in English, there are close to a million, according to the editors of the OED) available to write poetry, fiction, theater, autobiography, et cetera.

Since literature and literary criticism are both expressions of individual passion, I suggest, perhaps criticism is a passionate expression in response to the passionate expression of literature. He agreed. “You’ve put it right. In the end, passion is what matters in life. Passion is traction. Passion is fury. Passion is persuasion. Passion is conviction. Passion is will. Passion is restlessness.”

He incorporates three different literary styles in his essays: memoir, social commentary, and textual criticism. Knowing that there is not an established program that provides the skills to write in these separate modalities, I asked what fields of study or program he recommends for students who are interested in a creative multi-genre approach. He answered,

I never went through a Creative Writing program. I have lectured in dozens of them, though. To be frank, these programs are only conducive to good writing where the “I” isn’t about conformity: the imperative to conform to what the instructor wants, to what the students perceive to be appropriate, to what the rules of the market (editors, marketers, publicists, reviewers) dictate. The best conditions for fine criticism to emerge are rather simple: an atmosphere where ideas and stories aren’t in opposition but in partnership, where the act and art of thinking becomes a compelling narrative not about a particular point but about life itself.

As the party at Harvard was winding down, I went to say goodbye to him. He had wise parting advice for me that always remained with me and helped me to go through the process of learning language with an appreciation: “Remain friends with Persian and learn English because this language will open many windows in front of your eyes.” Thus, at the end of the interview, I asked for his last advice.

My advice to young writers of personal essays is made of three steps: read, read, and read. Read what the classics have left for us: Montaigne, Sor Juana, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, Borges. Don’t only read them but read against them. Disagree and debate them. It is untrue that we write along with our contemporaries. Truth is, there is no present tense in literature: in the library, all books are together. I don’t write only for today’s readers. I write for the writers and readers of the past and of the future.


Marziyeh Kameli is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at University of California, Riverside focusing on auto-ethnography.