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El Iluminado - A Conversation with Ilan Stavans and Jeffrey Lawrence '07
Jeffrey Lawrence (JL): My name is Jeff Lawrence and I’m a graduate of Amherst College class of 2007. I’m with Ilan Stavans, Professor of Spanish at Amherst, and the co-author with the artist and writer Steve Sheinkin of the graphic novel El Iluminado, which was published in 2012 by Basic Books. Ilan as written scholarly and popular press books on Latin American and Latino culture and literature, Jewish histories, dictionaries, Spanglish, and many other things. From 2001 to 2006 Ilan hosted the PBS show “Conversations with Ilan Stavans”, where he interviewed Latin American and Hispanic personalities, from Richard Rodriguez and Elena Poniatowska, to the actor John Leguizamo. For a long time, I had also told people he had interviewed Shakira, but after doing a bit of research on the internet, I just realized that I might have made that up. Along with my advisor at Amherst, he was the first person ever to speak to me in Spanglish, which now 6 or 7 years later has become my second tongue.
Let’s get started. El Iluminado is a murder mystery and a small town political thriller about crypto Jews living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The descendants, or the possible descendants, of Iberian Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism, but secretly practiced their faith at great risk in Spain and Americas. You’ve written many scholarly and non-fiction books about the intersection of Latino and Jewish history in the United States, so what attracted you to this story in particular? And why did you decide to write a graphic novel instead of an academic book?
Ilan Stavans (IL): First, let me say I am delighted to be in conversation with you. I had admired you as a student and a scholar for years. To join forces in this dialogue is very exciting to me.
I have been interested in the topic of the Jewish experience in the Americas in a variety of ways for a number of years. In particular the chapters of crypto Jews has sparkled my imagination a number of times. In several scholarly books I have mentioned the topic in passing or I have entered it in detail. In one particular story within that large topic has remained with me as a friend, as a companion throughout the years. It is a story that provokes me, makes me think of the actual plight, the dilemma, the quest that those secret or hidden or crypto Jews went through in the 16th century. That is the story of Luis de Carvajal the Younger. He was originally from Spain and was transported to the Americas, thanks to his uncle, who was a prominent governor in the northern state of the New Kingdom of Leon in Mexico. Because the inquisition wasn’t as mighty, as forceful, as fearful in the Americas as it was in Spain, Luis de Carvajal the Younger thought, in his adolescence, that he would be able to come to terms with his ancestral faith, Judaism, which the family had publicly renounced in order to fit, to align itself with the social norm in Spain. But only publically. Privately, domestically, different members of the family had remained loyal to it, and would practice, engage in the different types of rituals on the Sabbath, or during the High Holidays, away or as far as they could from the large catholic population. The plight of Luis de Carvajal the Younger is extraordinary because he not only decided that he was going to come out of the closet so to speak and declare that he was a Jew, but he also thought of himself as a prophetic figure, a biblical leader that would help other crypto Jews come out of their hidden self and reveal the Judaism that they had carried in their blood for generations. And in doing so, he obviously came against the inquisitors who saw him as a heretic, as a dangerous political figure and ultimately brought him to justice, or at least the type of justice, the oppressive alignment that they though he was due. Luis de Carvajal the Younger is probably the most important victim of auto-da-fé ever to take place in Mexico of the very end of the 16th century in a very public performance that took place right at the heart of Ciudad the Mexico, of the capital. There are paintings and all sorts of literary description about that particular event. And I have thought about that event, for many years I have watched and studied the photographs, the paintings, the movies, that had been made. There is a movie called “El santo oficio,” “The Holy Office,” that deals with the plight of Luis de Carvajal the Younger. I thought that it would make for a wonderful narrative story. Now I come to the second question. It was only when meeting a wonderful artist and novelist himself, he writes novels for younger adults, Steve Sheinkin, and during a conversation, I thought maybe this is something I should try my hand in a different type of manner. That is the graphic novel, a form that I adore and I hesitantly engaged in, and probably this should be an effort that I do jointly with Steve. And indeed after a series of back and forth and all sorts of imaginary strategies that we would take to figure out how to bring the story of Luis de Carvajal the Younger to the present, how to do it both with images and text and how to present it to an audience that was as large as possible given that this was a historical topic about which very few people know about. We decided it should be a very vivid murder mystery presented through cartoons, that it should be a graphic novel in the tradition of Will Eisner and Art Speigelman, tackling a big topic but also presenting it in a way that they can become accessible to different type of readers. I can say that having done many collaborations in different forms with philosophers, journalists, translators, theatre directors and movie makers, this has been one of the happiest collaborations, the product of which is this graphic novel, El Iluminado.
JL: This is actually the first time I’ve seen the book as a finished product because I’ve read some earlier versions of it. The illustrations are really incredible. And I would say specifically what you said about the historical aspects, one of the most incredible things about the graphic novel is how it weaves together this historical event through pictures and also through the telling of the story of Luis de Carvajal the Younger with this very gripping, modern day murder mystery and political thriller. I’m wondering in that sense, what was it that led you to the story of Rolando, who is a Latino man who is living in Santa Fe, Mexico. The novel begins with his mysterious death. He was trying to uncover his family secret –the Jewish past- when he died. How do these two, the historical narrative about Luis de Carvajal the Younger and the story of Rolando trying to recuperate his own Jewish past, was that something that came to you or that you decided upon as a narrative technique. At one point, the character in the novel named Stavans, your alter ego, says “what interest me in this is the way people create stories to survive, to affirm who they are, to make a stand.” Is that something you believe in terms of the power of the narrative, or is it more your character speaking in a voice of an alter ego.
IS: It’s certainly something that I believe. The character, Professor Stavans that shows up in the book, the leading figure that tries to solve this big mystery surrounding the death of Rolando, the crypto Jew that dies really early in the story, is an expression of many of the quests that I have had and many of the inner thoughts that I nurture when dealing with a topic that connects with identity. Identity not only in the present but also in the past, as it does in the book. The story itself actually happened to me. Not in full, but at least in it’s very basic elements. A few years ago, maybe 3 or 4, I was invited to give a keynote address at the museum of New Mexico. There was a series of events connected with some sort of festival of Sephardic, Mexican, Jewish culture in the South West. This was going to be one of the important scholarly events that related to that festivity. I found myself both intrigued by the topic that I was invited to talk about, and that is the Jews of New Mexico and in particular the crypto Jews. Intrigued I say but also somewhat frightened. Because here I was, an Ashkenazi Jew, Ashkenazi Jews as you know are those who trace their roots to Eastern Europe, who was going to be talking to a what ended up being a large constituency of Jews that might have been, some of them at least, connected with the Ashkenaz, with Eastern Europe. But many were really from Spain or descendants of Spain and had moved to the Balkans, Italy, Netherlands or northern Africa, which are the parts of the Jewish diaspora that emerged immediately after the explosion from Spain in 1492, and had kept their religion, their faith, going if not intact for many generations. So here I was going to go and talk about secrecy and deceit and strategies to remain loyal to one’s own faith, to people who knew that very story in their own flesh and blood and who probably could tell me directly many anecdotes that would freshen up the topic that I had. I chose to begin the conversation with a series of reflections, on Luis de Carvajal the Younger in particular. He is also nicknamed in El Iluminado thus the title of the book. I showed a number of images on the screen, I talked about the path of the Jewish immigration or the Jewish exile of Spain to different parts of Europe and Africa. The questions at the end of the talk were fascinating. They were questions that connected very deeply, in a very autobiographical way, with the topics I had raised. That was exactly what I was hoping for, that my audience wouldn’t feel that this was an outsider, a scholar who looks at things objectively, who is distant, who is scientific prone to understand this phenomenon, thus cold, cold in the sense of reluctant to make it come alive. They were telling me the story from their own view, making it hot, making it attractive. We were able to create a dialogue to find some sort of bridge in between. What’s simply fascinating, there was an audience of 3-400 people, after the event a number of members in the audience came to me and started telling me more about what they had said in the q&a session. There was one woman in particular, who stayed behind, waited for the rest of the people to tell me what they were going to tell me. When she had more space and time, she began to describe the story of a relative of hers, who had recently been ostracized by the family because he had discovered there had been crypto Jewish elements in the family. She’d stressed, in very vivid detail, the recognition that this member had come across was something that was very important for his own self-definition, but also pushed his family to create turfs, to fight, to disengage with one another, that siblings wouldn’t talk because one of them was thinking they were crypto Jews and the other one was thinking that the brother was imagining all of this, all of these elements were not really accurate. The way she was describing the story really made me feel that she had a truth that was invaluable. She invited me to go to have dinner after the event. There was a reception and I was full, but I said “sure, let’s go. We’ll have a tackle.” We went to a Mexican restaurant. The conversation continued and she gave more and more details about this relative of hers who had at that point recently died. The story stayed with me: that’s the very beginning of El Iluminado. The character of Professor Stavans is giving a lecture in the museums of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He is describing the story of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, then there are members of the audience who attack him for presenting it in a scientific way, of not being a Sephardic Jew, that is a Jew from Spain himself. Then there’s one member of the audience, Irina, who lingers, and then invites him, and thus the story begins. What happens from there on, Jeff, really is a mix of truth and imagination as all novels are. I believe all fiction is autobiographical and all autobiographies are fictional as well. I allowed myself the freedom to massage some of the stories that I had heard that day, some of the information that the character who’s really not named Irina but I ended up describing her as that name, told me and then connecting the past with the present, which for me was the essential task that I had before I started. How to bring history to the present and how to bring the present to the past. How to make the two run parallel but not feel as if they are divorced from one another. That is what happens in the novel through that device of the manuscript or the written document that exist, that serves as a bridge between those two temporal spheres, the past and the present.
JL: That’s wonderful, an incredible story that I wouldn’t have imagined because I was assuming that there was some elements of truth to the beginning of this, but also that even from the beginning a lot of this was fiction and embellishments. One of the things that is said to the character Professor Stavans in the novel is that he has a pension for confusing life and literature. I wanted to get your opinion on what you think of the mix of fact and fiction. One things I noticed was that there were a lot of references to Amherst people in the novel. As you mentioned, one of the reasons you go to Santa Fe is to give a talk on crypto Jews, but in the novel, you also go to New Mexico to see a performance of an adaptation of Calderon de la Barca’s “Life is a Dream” at the Santa Fe opera house, which as I know from talking to you and from general Amherst news, was a an adaptation who’s libretto was written by Amherst professor Jim Maraniss. So all of that actually happened. On the other hand we find out early in the novel the Santa Fe chief of police is Cesar Alegre, another professor at Amherst. I assume that part is not true.
IS: Right he has never been a detective.
JL: So I was wondering with it, the blending of real and fictional characters, did you have a specific Amherst audience in mind, or was this something that was just one other way of bringing autobiography in. And more specifically, do you see yourself as the hero or the anti-hero of the novel, or something in between? How did you write yourself as a protagonist of the novel?
IS: Very surd questions and very provocative as expected from you Jeff. I can tell you first that there was something in your previous question, the one that I answered just a little while ago, that is still pending and I would like to use it as a springboard to connect with this topic. That is, what is the role of storytelling in our lives and to what extent is storytelling a part of our identity? I think the answer, Jeff, is the novel itself. I believe we tell each other, we tell ourselves, all the time, in order to be alive. Without those stories we would not exist, we would vanish, we would lose our memory, we would lose our sense of who we are and who others are. A driver’s license is a story, a story of a name, a story of the age of the individual, of the gender, of the image, a passport, a book, simply the image we see in the mirror. But waking up in the morning and telling one’s son “I had a dream and in this dream you showed up in the middle of the river, and there was a canoe and we had breakfast together.” That dream doesn’t change my relationship with my son but it is precisely that dream that makes my relationship with my son what it is. The dream is insufficient if I don’t tell it to somebody that I love. I don’t want or the dream to be interpreted. I simply want it to be shared and I would like to hear other dreams from people that I love. That sharing, that insistent way of narrating our lives to others, to letting others narrate who they are to us, is a thing what makes us humans. That is what religion is all about. That is what politics is all about. That is what culture in general is, the act and art of telling stories. Of course there are stories that are true and stories that are untrue. The stories that are true are the stories in which we deliver factually the things that happened to us. But to what extent is everything that happens to us factual? Going back to that particular dream, when I tell a dream to my son, the dream come alive. The dream really never existed or if it existed there’s no proof of it. I can’t show him anything of the dream to prove that there was a canoe, that there was some food that we were going to eat together. But it is in the story that the dream becomes a reality. Anything that we tell ourselves in many ways is an invention. The dreams are inventions and our identities are inventions. We want to become engineers, or we want to become psychologists or we want to become professors. And in wanting we dream, and we dream narratives in which hopefully one day we will fit in and turn them into reality. I would like to add one more point to this. I am an immigrant as you know, I was born and raised in Mexico and came to the United States. This is another element that shows up in the book, but I think that immigrants are really connected with origin stories about themselves, in a way that he’s forced upon by his own existential plight. I was one Ilan in Mexico and became another Ilan in the United States; speaking a different language, dressing in a different way, eating different food, doing things, moving my hands in a different way that is not necessarily the one that I use when speaking in Spanish. One leaves as an immigrant with a sense that there are two or more “selves,” trapped inside us. Those “selves” push for space, push to manifest themselves. The question that always comes is which of all those selves is the accurate one or the authentic one, or the factual one. I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I think there are parts of me when I speak English that I think falsify my the essence of who I am and there are parts of me in Spanish that do exactly the same. In the end that falsification is what drives me forward as a writer, both as a scholar and a fiction writer. I think all writers end up having the material that they are going to be writing about just in front of their noses. That is, in their childhood or in their adolescence, it has been said that most of what a writer is going to end up writing in his or her life happened in the first 10 years and the rest are consequences of that, that the raw flesh was already set in those periods. I’m not so sure, I think there’s a lot that I write about that connects to my childhood or to my adolescence. But there’s a lot more that connects to my daily circumstances. I spend a lot of my teaching and wandering around Amherst, talking to people, loving people, engaging with them, telling them my stories and hearing their stories. I wanted to make this book a campus book as well, without or beyond the campus walls. As you might remember from the book, there’s an ongoing critique made by various characters of professor Stavans that he’s a scholar, that scholars tend to be absent minded and distant from society, and he tries to bridge this gap but this generates envies and rivalries and to what extent are academics always creating those rivalries. I wanted to laugh at myself and with myself about what it means to be an academic and what a little world that is.
JL: All of what you said about the role of the writer in society, the role of the academic in society, also the real anxieties you had about giving a talk on crypto Judaism to people who were part of a community to a certain degree suffered or lived the experience of being crypto Jews for generations, brings me to one of what I consider to be the hard question that I was going to ask you today. That was about Professor Contreras. In the novel, the character Stavan’s arch nemesis is an academic, Professor Contreras, who also has traveled to Santa Fe to research crypto Jews. But he has a very different relationship to these communities in New Mexico than Stavans does, so while Stavans accuses Contreras of being an elitist who just comes to study them scientifically, Contreras accuses Stavans of basically not doing serious scholarship. You say this was a critique of academics; does this mean you’re being an academic that is against academics, or would it be more fair to say that the character Stavans and maybe you yourself have a problem with the typical or the type of academic that Contreras represents. How do you see the role of the academic?
IS: I believe what we do Jeff, and you are about to complete your Ph.D. at Princeton, you’re writing an extraordinary thesis and have a very promising career in front of you, you already know what this all means, and you will get to taste it in ways that will emphasize what you already think and at the same time to provoke you to think other types of thoughts. There’s something extraordinary about the role of being given the opportunity, being invited by society to become a scholar. That is, to spend your entire life around books, connected with knowledge, thinking and using that thought to engage young people and prepare them for life. I never really set out to be a teacher. I had other dreams as a young man. I wanted to be a film maker, I wanted to be involved with journalism. It was for a variety of practical reasons, mainly that at one point, having been a correspondent for a Mexican newspaper in New York City, I wanted to stay in this country and I needed a visa, and that visa was connected with doing a Ph. D. Then I became a teacher and here I am, thinking of myself in those terms, and I will not change it for a second. It gives me enormous pleasure, every day of my life, to know that I have the opportunity that day or the next day to enter the classroom yet again, and talk about the books that I adore and have changed my life and shared that passion with a young generation who is about to discover them and hopefully those books will change their lives in the same way that they did mine. But at the same time, there is a pitiful mediocrity in old professions and certainly in professions of being academics, we can hide behind institutions, we are protected tenure and other structural benefits that enable us to speak freely about topics. Some of us take those opportunities and engage in free talk and other of us hide behind those platforms and really don’t enter topics or at least not all the time in the way we should. I also think that that mediocrity generates all sorts of rivalries that are sad and troublesome. I would drown this thought by telling you that in the end the way I see myself is that I am as proud of the great friends that I have made in life, and friendship is the first and most important quality that the world offers you; retaining friends, nurturing them, being with them for all sorts of opportunities, is the most privileged aspect of an individual’s life. At the same time one should be as proud of one’s enemies as one is of our friends. We nurture enemies with the same type of passion and endurance because we define our ideas vis a vis or against the ideas of others. The character of Contreras, I think you know it because you read an earlier version of this book, in which actually the name of one of those figures out there, an opponent, was still used, and very cautiously you and other said that it might be better that if you change it to another name. I chose Contreras, because Contreras means opponent or contrary in Spanish. But it is based on someone who has been an interlocutor with me throughout my career, pushing me to be sharper to define my arguments better, because arguments are always on the other side. I’ve never spoken to him about this, but I assume I play a similar role with him. I think in the end, there are people out there, and there are books out there, that we read against or that we engage against. We are better people because we see that other side of ourselves projected, and know that we have to be cautious, concise, factual and scientific. So I wanted to pay tribute to that figure here too. Contreras is a real person. I thank him the way I thank writers that I don’t like for showing me the type of writers that I like.
JL: I really like that. It’s almost like a much more generous form of Niche’s idea of enemies which is essentially that the enemies are ones that are more beneficial to you than friends. Also of course that friends can become enemies if one doesn’t in a sense be honest with them. I did find that character very illuminating from me, particularly since I am entering into the academic profession.
IS: There is a website connected with El Iluminado in which Contreras has written a letter, arguing that the portrait that emerges of him in this book is demeaning, that the book defames him and that people shouldn’t read it.
JL: I’ll make sure to check it out. A lot of what you are saying right now also resonates with me because as you know you were the first person to recommend to me the works of Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean writer who died in 2003, and about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis. You’ve helped me, I did my thesis with you, and now we’ve continued to talk about the figure of Bolaño and his works for a long time. I know you taught a course on Bolaño’s works a couple of years ago. I’m wondering particularly about what you say in terms of academics hiding behind institutions. Whether or not Bolaño’s work influenced this novel, there’s one particular way I read it as being in dialogue with Bolaño, and that is that in 2066, his final novel, the whole first part of the novel, the part of the critics, is essentially about a group of academics and sometimes very endearing, European academics who are torn from their institutional landscape in Europe. To come to Mexico, who come to ciudad Juarez, in order to search for a writer, and end up being faced by the femicides, these very brutal crimes against women in Juarez, it seems that there’s something that changes in them. It’s a beginning of a novel that may have seemed like a literary game among academics, but then became about something that was more concerned with real life. I imagine to a certain extent you identify with that academic who is in a way forced to become a public intellectual, or wants to become a public intellectual, or wants to get out of the ivory tower. First of all were you thinking at all of Bolaño when you were writing this, or do you think this is something more like a kind of literary sight guide amongst certain contemporary writers that may have to do with the increasing insularity of academic work or what do you think that is?
IS: I am excited, thrilled to be talking about Bolaño with you, the conversation continues, it started when you were an undergraduate, and it will take us many many years together to figure out how Bolaño has changed us. And it has. You thank me for introducing you to Bolaño and I thank you for being a student who was eager and ready to read Bolaño seriously as an undergraduate and delve into his work with commanding vision. In so doing, you were as important to me as perhaps I was to you, allowing me to see Bolaño through your eyes and understand his dilemma goes beyond a single reader, in a single generation of readers, in a single nationality of readers but is broad and open. Bolaño is a writer I admire profusely. I see so many things of his work in so many aspects of life that it is not unfair to say that after reading him 5,6 years ago, I was one Ilan and today I’m a very different one. That different I couldn’t fully account for. It is the type of reaction one has to a work of art that changes us forever in ways that go beyond words, even though this work of art is made of words. The way Bolaño builds a sentence, the way Bolaño presents a character, the fluid way of letting a story wander and wander as he is trying to build a plot and in the end is quite loose and gives you the impression that it is going nowhere, is in me all the time, even when I’m not consciously thinking of Bolaño. I would emphasize that my own few of who I am as an academic has also changed as a result of Bolaño’s exploration. He was never an academic, but he was very interested in what we in academia do with literature. That first part of 2066 is a critique of the literature in the hands of people that supposedly “know” and handle it and control it. I think that El Iluminado is a Bolañesque novel, it sounds like an Italian dish. It’s really more an indirect tribute to him. The self-criticism that I engage in, the fact that academia is anxious and unstable and always fighting and creates all these enemies within ourselves and the outside world is there. Also his magical quality to summarize an entire issue that defines us as individuals in one sentence or one particular paragraph, a paragraph about what poetry might be or a paragraph about why we kill each other in a way that in ciudad Juarez women are being killed all the time. In a single paragraph, he can do much more than another writer can do in an entire book. I think he has something of Cervantes in him. I’ve always thought that there’s a Don Quixote quality in Bolaño as a writer. And of course in many of his characters, the savage detectives, there are two characters that are leading the story and although they are not really quiet like the knight and his squire, Alonso Quijano and Sancho Panza, this quest, the dialogue that the two men take and the way they try to solve a mystery that entails the functioning of the entire world that surrounds them, is very Cervantes I would say, in response to your question, there is no doubt in me that I’m in dialogue with Bolaño. Also that in my being in dialogue with, we are in dialogue with Cervantes, which is always the fountain, the primary source, the very alif of what the Hispanic world is.
JL: That’s wonderful. We wouldn’t want to forget Borges too because you have just mentioned the alif and I was thinking that a lot of these plays between Cervantes and Bolaño particularly in terms of representing one’s alter ego we would have to include Borges. My last question, I want to go back to the scene of the crypto Jew in the novel, and to ask you a question that opens out from the novel onto contemporary politics and society. There are many points in the novel where it suggested there’s an implicit parallel between the expulsion and persecution of Jews under the Spanish crown and the story of Luis de Carvajal, and the plight of these crypto Jews living in the South West today. And yet at the very beginning of the novel, in the talk that he is giving, the character Stavans remarks “after centuries of shame, being Jewish is now fashionable in western civilization.” That was a very interesting comment to me because to a certain extent I was raised Jewish as a half Jew in Salt Lake City, which is a very strange environment because its Mormons think that they’re descendants from the tribes of Israel, I actually didn’t have an understanding of what it meant to be a Jew when I was growing up. But when I came to Amherst it was the first time that I had ever felt really Jewish, and I understood exactly what the character Stavans says in this novel that by acknowledging or identifying myself as a Jew, there was a certain advantage or cache. Through all of the novel, one of the threads of the novel is about persecution. I’m wondering whether that is a topic that we still see for Jews to day in the United States, or if it’s something that we would have to go elsewhere other than mainstream society in order to see. I know that for me, it’s a very situation and a very different world know from what my Grandmother, Roselie Roth Rosenbloom, lived in the 1930s and 40s. I’m wondering how you can see that as a question opening out from the book.
IS: The addition of the NY Times today has an article about a statement that Egypt’s President Morsi made some years ago, about the Jews. He describes the Jews as being vicious, and says that they descend from pigs and apes. This statement is now coming back to haunt him. He pronounced it when he was the leader of the Muslim brotherhood. Today he is the president of Egypt and his role as he has acknowledged is currently to serve as a mediator, as a pacifier to use a term that he has employed, of the various forces and entities that constitute the Middle East which is always on the verge of explosion and collapse. It would be ironic to suggest on the very day that I read that, that the Jews are now about to assimilate, that they are no longer persecuted, that they are no longer the target of stereotypes, of ridicule, of accusation, of laughter, and so on. But one would need to make a distinction between what goes on outside the United States, outside certain countries in Europe, and the rest of the world. When I grew up in Mexico, this type of rhetoric, I descended from a family that probably had a pig’s tail that we prayed to. Pork, in a synagogue, that we were Christ killers, that we had horns that were surgically eliminated by plastic surgeons, many of whom are Jews themselves, that the Jews controlled the media, that the Jews controlled the world, so on and so forth. It was something that I would listen on an ongoing basis in the period of growing up. I never experienced a physical act of violence, but now that I think of all this, these statements were verbal attacks, which never really came as verbal attacks. They were innuendos, they were suggestions by neighbors and friends, who were curious, whose parents had told them that maybe it’s true but they shouldn’t ask, and kids who had become indiscreet and would ask those questions. I think that what is happening in the United States with the Jewish community is an anomaly. Not only in the rest of the world, but in the Jewish history. Jews have really never ever been as comfortable, as happy as they adapted to mainstream society as they are in the Unites States today. Maybe that is a triumph, maybe we have reached within in this country, the apex of stability. Maybe on the other hand, this is also rash. Maybe this is a passing moment in history, in where we will return, inevitably, to the same type of dilemma of being seeing as the aggressor, the Judas figure, the one that is undermining continuity and stability. This sense of tranquility will disappear soon. I have to tell you, I envy my own kids for the freedom, the openness of which they have been raised in the United States, as Jews and Latinos. And sometimes, secretly, to myself, and also now that they are a little older I expressed it to them, have wished in a macabra kind of way, that they had a little taste of discomfort that I had growing up, of that antiemetic rhetoric. It would give them a sense of difference, of confidence, of continuity of the past. I don’t believe that the history of crypto Jews in the south west would be what it is had Jews not entered mainstream American society as they have been since WWII. The crypto Jews in the south west today feel that they can align themselves with the Jewish history, with Jewish affairs because it is not a subject of ridicule in this country to be a Jew. It might be outside of the United States but not inside. Insofar as this is hip, it is attractive; it is cool then why not do it? It could have happened 50 years ago, it wouldn’t have happened 100 years ago. It happens now because now it is allowed to be Jewish in the United States. And Latinos who have been Jews in different ways for a long period of time, are now coming to terms with that part of our own religious and social and spiritual history.
JL: That’s wonderful. I just wanted to say that what struck me so much about this novel was that on the one hand how through the character Stavans you voiced the idea of this being an anomaly for certain people in certain places, but on the other hand a lot of that has to do with one’s perspective, where one lives in the United States but also within the world. One of the most fascinating things about the book to a certain extent is that we tend, and this is obviously a generalization, we tend in the United States to think about fiction in identitarian terms. We have the Jewish American novelist that we look at, we have the Latino novelist we look at. One of the interesting things to me in this novel is the way that it weaves those two histories through a lot of the use of Spanglish, which we haven’t talked about as much, but is one of our favorite topics when we’re discussing. It really gives you a sense of one might say a Jewish experience that is very infrequently talked about and that I think the novel explores in a really incredible way.
IS: Thank you. I’m delighted. That was one of the things I was trying to accomplish. I’m thrilled that at the end of this conversation we’ve gone back to Spanglish, which is absolutely true, it is the language that nos comunicamos you and I constatemente in these days. I appreciate enormously the commitment you’ve made to the book and this conversation and I look forward to many more to come, to following your success, to becoming a reader of your work, and functioning as a conversant in the future of your work.
JL: Thank you so much for this and for the book, which was incredible and which I will continue to read. It’s a beautiful book as well with the illustrations of Steve. Thanks again.
IS: Un forte abrazo. Mucho gracias a ti.