Ilan Stavans recently edited a collection of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Read this series of questions from Esther Lombardi, with Stavans' answers.
EL: First of all, thank you for agreeing to answer my questions via e-mail.
IS: You're most welcome, Esther. Your questions are terrific!
EL: I read that you were born in Mexico in 1961. You have a B.A. from Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, an M.A. from the Jewish Theological Seminary and M.A., M. Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Can you give us a little bit about your background? What caused you to want to become a writer, editor and professor?
IS: I was born in a south-of-the-border Yiddish milieu. My ancestors came from Poland and the Ukraine. As a member of a small minority, I was always aware of the tension between the center and the periphery of Mexican culture? Were we, Mexican Jews, part of the texture the of nation's identity? Or were we but a sheer appendix? In time, I internalized this tension and dreamed to explore it through words. My choice of medium isn't altogether accidental: my father is a stage and TV actor, my uncle a painter, and my brother a musician. Each makes use of another conduit to exorcise his ghosts. In "On Borrowed Words" (Penguin), I reflect on the role language(s) played in my family, my adolescent dream of becoming a Jewish writer one day, and the intense metamorphosis I underwent after I immigrated to the United States, at the age of twenty-five.
EL: You're also Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College. Have you ever taught a course on Singer (and/or other Jewish writers)?
IS: I regularly teach courses on Jewish topics at Amherst College. My course on Jewish-Latino relations addresses the political, social, and cultural bridges between these two minorities from Spain in the 10th century to the present time. I also teach a course called "Rabbinical Lore," another one on world Jewish literature, and one on Yiddish writers. This fall I'm teaching a course fully devoted to Singer, which, as it happens, will coincide with a photographic exhibit on Singer by Bruce Davidson at the Mead Museum, Amherst College. And in the spring I'll teach "Sephardic Literature."
EL: In your memoir "On Borrowed Words," you discuss your Jewish heritage, and you're quoted in a press release as saying that you're "a sum of parts. Spanish is my right eye, English my left; Yiddish my background and Hebrew my conscience." How do those parts mesh together?
IS: Language for me is the defining factor of my hyphenated identity. What am I, a Mexican American Jew, a Jewish American Mexican, or a Jewish-Mexican American? Answer: all three at once. For these aspects of the self are not at war but, instead, compliment each other. As I tried to put in "On Borrowed Words," I live in translation. In fact, I often get the sense that that translation isn't based on any original.
EL: Speaking of the Holocaust, and your Latin-American and Jewish roots, you once said: "It is ironic that a past so grim, so dark at times, can be a foundation of nostalgia. But what is memory if not a game of mirrors?" How does memory impact Singer's works?
IS: Memory is the most fragile, evanescent of human endeavors. It is the engine that propels us to live in society. Everything we do is connected to it: eat breakfast, take a shower, answer an e-mail, read a book or watch a movie. Writers build up their private universe delving into the deepest, most secluded chambers of memory. I'm particularly interested in Jewish memory: so much death, so much displacement. But that memory is also the source of constant renewal. Singer's stories help us grasp the fleeting moments of 20th-century Jewish memory. But he reaches farther back. For instance, "Satan in Goray," his debut novel, is about the impact of the pseudo-messiah Sabbetai Zevi and it takes place in the 17th century. Singer wasn't only interested in the present tense. He felt the allure of history was a theater of possibilities.
EL: What is your favorite story from the Singer collection? What about the story do you enjoy? And, how does the story relate to the body of work?
IS: I don't have one favorite story but a bunch: "Gimpel the Fool," "The Cafeteria," "The Spinoza of Market Street," "A Friend of Kafka," and maybe "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy." "Gimpel the Fool" is a striking example of Singer's directness and concision. To me it's a retelling of "Don Quixote" from an utterly Jewish perspective.