On Becoming a Book at 40

I’ve been asked time and again why I published “On Borrowed Words,” my memoir about language and identity in the Mexico of the ‘60s, at the age of 40. Isn’t that an unquestionably tender age? Is the author capable of mature reflection when so much of what is being narrated remains so close in time, when so many of the protagonists are still around, ready to scream and shout? The answer I have given to one interviewer after another and to inquisitive readers in public forums might not be altogether satisfying. I tell them in all honesty that ever since I was a child, I’ve been haunted— and hunted—by a feeling that death is just around the corner. Where does this feeling come from? Might I be able to pinpoint a specific traumatic event that catapulted the nightmares I’ve had over the years that the next airplane flight or automobile ride is likely to be the last? In “On Borrowed Words,” I make a haphazard list of the dreams and nightmares that populate my life. None of the ones I convey is directly connected to what I would describe as the “death-isn’t-too-far” feeling. Truth is, I can’t identify the single sequence that conveys in my mind the anxiety I’m inhabited by. The closest I come, in the memoir itself and also in conversations with friends, is a description of my father’s career as an actor as the antithesis of my choice to devote my life to literature. On stage, my father is the happiest person; otherwise, his existence is marked by a sense of general unhappiness. Those instants in front of the audience are thus precious; he lives and dies for them. The writer’s path hardly offers similar compensation. It is mostly a life in solitude, away from the vociferousness of human affairs. It is a life shaped by memory and the imagination, isolated, full of demons. If and when an essay reaches its reader, it does so in equal isolation, in a place and time unknown to the writer. The pleasure of literature is based precisely on serendipity: Encounters happen, and a dialogue is established. But when and where remains a question. Whereas my father’s fascination with the stage offers an instant reward, a reward that only happens in the present tense, writing is about postponement, about the procrastination of that reward. Therein, in a nutshell, is a clue to my having chosen literature and not theater: What I write is not for the present only but for the many presents contained in the future. I envy my father s reward, but I prefer to embrace an art whose effect, with any luck, will outlive me.

Or will it? The moment a book of mine is released, and the instant the first copy (the one “hot off the press,” as editors like to describe it) reaches my hand, my immediate reaction is ambivalence. I assume it is the same with most writers. I’ve been waiting impatiently for the moment to arrive, but now that it has, I have strange misgivings. Why did I decide to include a certain essay in this volume? It is the weakest link. Or else I browse through the pages and—oops—a syntactical uncertainty arises: Why did I write “Nothing works like excess” and not “Excess is the rule”? Somehow I get the sense of being half-naked. Is this the way readers will know me? English isn’t my first language—or even my second—but couldn’t I have done better anyhow? This is only part of what went through my mind when the early copy of “On Borrowed Words” arrived at the door. No other volume I’ve published has generated as much inner turmoil as that one. I suppose the reason has to do with its nature: To embark on an autobiographical quest, I know now, is one of the toughest challenges in a writer’s journey. Autobiography is, needless to say, an embattled genre. In recent years, more than one practitioner has claimed to have been “misquoted” in his own autobiography, and the “unauthorized autobiography” has also become a humorous modality. In my case, where the only ghostwriter is the writer himself, ethereal and not-quite-from-this-earth as he is, all misquotes are my own, obviously.

“On Borrowed Words” was scheduled for publication mid-August 2001. My personal copy arrived in the last days of July. My first reaction was to hide it. I’d never experienced anything similar; whenever a volume of mine arrived, I’d gone around happy as a toddler, showing it to my wife, children and friends. From whom was I hiding this time? A simple answer: myself. The cover was exquisite, the design superb. The prose was infused with the smooth, harmonious paste I sought while drafting one version after another. So it wasn’t the quality. What bothered me was, well, the sheer materiality of the item. It existed because I could touch it. And it was mine, no doubt, because on the inside back jacket, my black-and-white photograph was on display.

I stored my copy of the book behind a couple of hefty dictionaries in my library and didn’t say a word to anyone. Late that night when everyone was asleep, I went up and rescued it. I held the book in my hands. A set of questions invaded my consciousness: Is this it? How did you manage to shrink—to simplify, really—40 years of your life into 263 brief pages? And why did you write it in English? Have you betrayed yourself by publishing this narrative the way it is? Is this what you chose to leave behind for your children, your relatives and the readers of today and tomorrow? Haven’t you done a disservice to yourself? What about the scores of nightmares you don’t list? What about your mother and sister? There are lengthy chapters on your grandmother Bela Stavchansky, your father, Abraham, your brother, Darián, and on you, of course, but where are your mother, Ofelia, and your sister, Liora? And are you certain that using language as leitmotif—your travels from Yiddish to Spanish to Hebrew to English—isn’t another falsifying device?

La sensación eterna de inautenticidad is a feeling I’ve lived with since I was little. I was born and raised Jewish in Mexico, but am I truly a mexicano? I immigrated to the United States in the mid-’80s and automatically became a Latino, but will I ever be taken for one? And—a crucial query—do I really care? I don’t, actually. My inauthenticity is a source of strength, even uniqueness. Why be a nondescript insider when everything in you—your skin color, your name, your background—points in the opposite direction?

The origins of “On Borrowed Words” date to 1993, when, at the request of an important quarterly, I wrote an autobiographical essay titled “Lost in Translation.” The piece was published the following year, received favorable notices, and was reprinted in various anthologies. An editor at W.W. Norton read it and believed it was the seed for a sustained meditation on issues like polyglotism and translation, as well as religion in Latin America. The concrete and final title of the autobiography came to me at that stage, when only the essay was available. For decades I’ve admired authors whose standing in the world isn’t promoted by New York agents. Indeed, agents make me crawl. Somehow, though, I got involved with one, and the book was sold, not to W.W. Norton but to Viking. At the start, my relationship with the acquisitions editor was productive. We met several times for lunch, and he and his wife came for a visit to Amherst. He and I agreed on manuscript delivery in one year.

In my mind, I knew perfectly well what the memoir would contain, the way it would start and end, the fractured, narrative skeleton I wanted it to have. But every time I made an attempt to write, I simply couldn’t. I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. In fact, a reader not long ago sent an e-mail telling me it wouldn’t be an altogether harmful idea to endure one: Only then would he finally have enough time to keep up with my ever-growing oeuvre. Oeuvre, to me, sounded posthumous. I answered, “Who needs time to read posthumous books?” Anyway, in a day there are usually more words pouring out of me than even I can handle. But not when I wanted to produce a draft of “On Borrowed Words.”

Voice messages accumulated, Ilan, how is the memoir coming along? You promised to mail me a chapter several weeks ago. How come I haven’t received anything? Frankly I’m starting to worry. Should I not?

Naturally the answer was, Yes, you should be worried. I, too, am worried and cannot for the life of me explain what’s stopping me from downloading the narrative from my mind to the page. But the editor took another position. Instead of agonizing with the production staff over a delay, he announced that it was time for him to visit me again in my small, New England town. He and his wife wanted to enjoy the autumn foliage, so could I book him a room in a local hotel?

It is often said that the devoted editor is an endangered species. The publishing industry is under such pressure to generate income for the huge corporations that have bought one imprint after another that no one has time to spend with authors and books anymore. Indeed, it is emphasized that among those involved in the business of making, selling and enjoying books, the only ones who seldom read them are editors. The assessment is accurate, and yet I’ve been blessed with a number of dutiful, faithful apasionados, with whom I’ve developed solid relationships of which I’m extremely proud. During his weekend visit, the editor and I took long, meditative walks on a bicycle path not far from home. On one of those walks, I finally confessed to my writer’s block. Not surprisingly, the editor was unfazed. “I knew that much,” he said. In a semi-analytic mood, he prompted me to explain, both to him and myself, what was keeping me at bay.

After much soul-searching, I finally told him that the act—and art—of writing one’s life as if events had been closed and buried was making me uncomfortable. “For the first time in my life, I don’t seem to be able to write in the past tense.”

His reaction was nothing short of enlightening. “Why not write it in the present tense?”

In retrospect, it seems like a mundane, literary answer. Why didn’t I think of it first? I don’t know. What I do know is that, from that weekend on, I stopped fooling around at the desk, looking for subterfuges that would take me away from the computer. Yes, suddenly I began to write. As it happens, each of the six chapters of “On Borrowed Words” begins and ends in the present. The bulk of the narrative is told in the past tense but only after the proximity of events has been established.

But I wasn’t finished with the process, and the process wasn’t finished with me. Soon after, I received an invitation to deliver three formal lectures. If I accepted, this would force me to put aside other literary responsibilities, including the memoir. After my long struggle, should I agree to it? As is often the case, the invitation was all the more enticing because it came with a generous monetary offer attached. I was also notified around that time that I had been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. I thought the best way to concentrate on the lectures and to make use of the money was to relocate for a year to London, where I would be able to write more freely. I looked forward to the idea of removing myself from my environment, of having distance from my daily routine, an aspect, needless to say, invariably useful as one explores the inner self. And so, with neither agony nor delay, I rang the editor at Viking the next day and told him to postpone officially my delivery date.

My family moved to London in July. Of course, in so enchanting, so stimulating a place, who wants to write? I spent the first few months as far away from any desk as possible, traversing the country, wandering across Spain and Greece. I was visited regularly by feelings of remorse. I realized my rendezvous was up when suddenly I began to have nightmares. In one, a close friend from my adolescence, Marcos Reznik, who died tragically in his early 20s, showed up unannounced at a party. He looked concerned. In the dream, I spotted him from far away. I haven’t seen Marcos in years, I told myself. I began to walk toward him. He recognized me, too. When we were face to face, he handed me a locked treasure box made of dark wood. For you. I thanked him. I then asked him for the key. It’s been lost for ages, he answered. At that point, I woke up in despair.

In another nightmare, I was in my paternal grandmother’s house. When I was a kid, I stayed overnight with Bobe Bela several times. At one point, I asked my parents not to take me there anymore. The explanation I gave them was that, at her house, I had a recurrent dream in which my sister, Liora, was decapitated by a car with everyone inside it: my father and mother, my brother and me and Bobe Bela. In the nightmare I had in London, I returned to Bobe Bela’s house after her death, which had taken place several months before. It was my first visit to the place since I was a kid, and I was scared. Without warning, the floor began to tremble. An earthquake, I heard someone say. I sought a table under which I could cover myself, but there wasn’t enough time. Soon the walls began to crack and crumble; furniture and utensils fell all over. When I woke up, my heart was beating fast.

I often dream at night, but the content and persistence of the London nightmares scared me to the core. I realized that those dreams were directly connected with “On Borrowed Words.” Somewhere in my subconscious, there were messages ready to emerge, emotions and thoughts in need of articulation. I often found myself sitting in a coffee shop on Finchley Road, scribbling notes on sheets of paper. And as soon as I finished drafting the lectures, I literally forced myself to return to the memoir; that isn’t a figure of speech. My discomfort with the nightmares increased. No book I’ve ever written has generated in me such conflicted sentiments. I’m allergic to literature-cum-therapy, and in no way did I want my autobiography to become a substitute for couched therapy. On the other hand, turning my family into characters in a narrative was an obligation I needed to fulfill.

But again, why do so en el medio del camino and not toward the end? Until each of the chapters acquired its final shape, my answer was instinctual. My original intention was quixotic: I wanted to write a polyglotic memoir. The early portion of my life, lived in Yiddish (school, relationship with the immigrant generation in the Jewish community), would be drafted directly in Sholem Aleichem’s tongue. The portion lived in Spanish (street life, my discovery of Mexico) would be in Cervantes’ tongue. As in an engraving by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, the Hebrew characters of the Yiddish in the early part would subtly mutate into the Romanic alphabet without the reader’s ever noticing. Then Hebrew itself (the language of Zionism and Israel, where I spent formative years) would set in. The memoir would conclude with a portion written in English, the language I’ve embraced since I moved to the United States. In short, the book, an autobiographical reflection on language, would be drafted in four different tongues.

Obviously, neither my Viking editor nor any other in his right senses would have endorsed such an obtuse idea. A multilingual volume like the one I had in mind would require an equally multilingual reader versed in the same languages as the author. How many of those are out there? Not enough to make the project commercially feasible.

I needed to choose a language, sure. Or better, a language needed to choose me. There was never any doubt that English would be the one. It is the only one I’ve made mine by choice; my relationships to the other three were more accidental. But my connection to English was undergoing a radical transformation. I first arrived in New York with only rudimentary—primitive is a better adjective—speaking, reading and writing skills. Nevertheless, in the following 15 years, I became more and more Americanized. My accent, although still palpable (as I hope it will always be), was not an obstacle anymore. Instead it had become an asset in my communication with others. Yes, I was a foreigner, a non-native speaker, but I had done everything possible to master as indomitable an animal as the tongue of Dr. Johnson. I had studied its historical development and spent hours tracing syntactical roots. Everyone knows that a convert in religion is often better versed in the tradition than those born into the faith. In a way, I had become a convert to English. But this brought with it a few degrees of separation from my other tongues. Spanish remained present, but it was second to English, and Yiddish and Hebrew lagged behind. I never gave up any one of them, but my attention was diverted to improving my English-language skills.

I had an urge to write the memoir before most traces of my for-eignness disappeared altogether. I wanted “On Borrowed Words” to be a volume about becoming an American, not about having become one. My practical solution to the idea of a multilingual memoir was to make the book not about language per se—not even about one particular language—but about translation. That is, it would be written in English, but the reader would experience the prose as if through a veil. The closest image I’ve been able to come up with is that of a translated manuscript whose original has been lost, as in the case of “Don Quixote of La Mancha.” The authentic author—if “authenticity” is at all possible in literature—is Cide Hamete Benengeli. Miguel de Cervantes, or else his narrator, comes across the manuscript detailing the adventures of the Knight of the Sad Countenance and his squire in a market in Toledo, which was once Spain’s capital. Although “On Borrowed Words” doesn’t indulge in devices that suggest the mythical existence of a palimpsest, as I wrote it my mind, I felt the narrative was being translated from some über-language.

The nightmares I was having only increased as the first draft was about to be completed. In order to stop the flux, I decided to write at night, not during the day. The effect of this decision was important: Most of the book was composed in a state of fatigue. I discovered that to write while exhausted allowed my defenses to come down and the raw emotions to emerge in a more crystalline form. In retrospect, this method was a revelation. I still prefer to write at night. It makes me feel closer to the core of my material.

Soon I realized that the nightmares I was having were announcements. “On Borrowed Words” was prompting me to revisit my past in unforeseen ways, to see long-gone friends and relatives again, to enter places where I had spent my earliest years. This is typical of the genre. But I wanted more. How had the places and faces changed? Would it be an act of cowardliness to return physically to the classrooms of Der Yiddishe Shule and the yards of Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco? Impulsively I booked a flight to Mexico. I drove to the old, familiar places. I also wandered incognito through places where Mexican Jews gather, among them the Kehilá Nidje Israel and the Centro Deportivo Israelita. I was shocked. Antiquated buildings were not only falling apart but had been turned into government offices. Schoolmates were as consumed by the passing of time as I was.

On a future trip, after the memoir was released, I (along with my wife, Alison, and my mother) visited other sites in downtown Ciudad de México where the first Ashkenazic immigrants had originally settled: the community center at Calle Tacuba #15; the first Mikvah, where women went for their ritual bath; the apartment complex where my father, Abraham, went to first grade; the building where the Holy Office of the Inquisition tortured its victims; and the corner of the Alameda Central, where judaizantes, proselytizing Jews accused by the Inquisition, were burned at the stake in public autos-da-fe. These locations were only indirectly related to me; they were the stage on which Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe— my ancestors among them—permformed in the first third of the 20th century. Ten years earlier, a woman by the name of Mónica Unikel, a schoolmate of mine, had come up with the idea of organizing a tour of el México judío. This was in response to the increasing demand by Jewish tourists from America to trace the roots of the world’s various Jewish communities. My reaction to Unikels tour was one of delight and affirmation. I was part of that story, and that story was part of me.

That, unfortunately, wasn’t the case in my impromptu visit to Der Yiddishe Shule and other personal locations. Why on earth had I chosen to return? Not for the purposes of research, since most of the information I needed I had acquired through interviews. So then why? I don’t have a clear answer. I wish I hadn’t set foot there again. The past is suspended in our memories. The moment we return to familiar sites, those memories, as in a kaleidoscope, change their shape. The impact of what we see today revives ghosts long gone; it reinvigorates them by placing them in new settings. But they belong to their places in yesteryear, not in the present. In fact, we’re carrying out a transgression of sorts, anachronistically placing figures that belong to different frames into circumstances that don’t belong to them.

Upon my return to London, I submerged myself frantically in the memoir. By March it was finished and ready to go to the editor. Unexpectedly I was informed by my agent that the acquisitions editor had been fired not too long before. The news shook me. I realized my autobiography was an orphan. I couldn’t have known that this was only the beginning of the editorial odyssey. The editor’s supervisor, a respected British businesswoman, quickly took over. She began to read “On Borrowed Words” and was dissatisfied: Why a memoir in translation? You know perfectly well that English-language readers dislike translations, don’t you? Then her father suddenly became ill, and for almost six months, I had no communication with her. The crudest way to approach an artist is through silence. I agonized for those months. Why hadn’t she called me? Should the volume be taken to another editor? A day after a prominent profile of me was featured in the New York Times, a message from the Viking editor was on my voicemail. Han, apologies for my absence, but my father passed away not long ago. I finally had enough time to read “On Borrowed Words.” It’s simply terrific! You’ve written a marvelously honest, thought-provoking, powerful book. And blah-blah-blah. From that moment on, the process was smooth and unimpeded.

My initial nervousness hasn’t disappeared altogether. Every time I see a copy, every time I think of it, I’m thunderstruck by a feeling of betrayal. So this is me, eh? How did I manage to become a book? Is the reader able to recognize the masks I’ve built to hide behind? Is it clear I’m a liar, or is it not?

Of course it is: a liar not to others but to myself.

About the Author

Ilan Stavans

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books include The Hispanic Condition (1995), The Riddle of Cantinflas (1998), On Borrowed Words (2001), and Spanglish (2003).

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