September 9, 2010

At least thirteen years in the making, and covering more than 400 years of writings by 201 writers, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, set for release on Sept. 13, is being hailed as a powerful contribution to American literary culture by authorities such as Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and author Barbara Kingsolver.

For Ilan Stavans, the Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, noted essayist, translator and columnist who served as the anthology’s general editor, the book also represents what he considers to be his most significant scholarly achievement.

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At a time when the Latino population represents the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and debates about immigration grow ever more shrill, Stavans said he hopes the anthology will help ensure that Latino voices and ideas across generations become an integral component of America’s collective culture.

Before embarking upon a busy semester that will combine teaching with travel to promote the book and some of the authors represented in its pages, Stavans discussed the book with Peter Rooney, Amherst College’s Director of Public Affairs. An edited transcript follows below. You can also listen to an excerpt from the interview at right.

How did you first get involved in this project?

The project goes back at least 13 years if not more. Somewhere in the middle of the ’90s I was sent a copy of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, which Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. edited. I thought that was a reason for celebration, the fact that a compendium for the plethora of literary manifestations of black culture in America had come together, and that we readers had it in front of us to peruse was extraordinary.

I immediately thought it would be just as important do something similar for the Latino community. I thought that embarking on a very ambitious project that would bring together different national and class and geographic and ethnic lines would be a very important undertaking. Little did I know that it would take me such a long time!

How is the book organized? It strikes me that there are elements of thematic and temporal organization, as well as certain types of literature that are included, but it must go much deeper than that.

That was an issue we tackled at the very beginning and it remained with us throughout the development of the project. One hopes that an anthology of this type will be used in the classroom, but there are many classrooms -- there are people who teach Latino literature and there are people who teach Latino history through literature, or Latino politics or Latino sociology. There are others who focus on the Cuban experience, the Ecuadorean experience or the Mexican experience. We decided to have two tables of contents. One is chronological, and that goes literally from the Colonial Period—the very first Spanish explorers, missionaries, educators and soldiers who wandered around Florida, Texas, California and the whole Pacific Northwest—on to the present by the date of birth of the author. The other table of contents is one that is organized by national background.

How culturally significant is the publication of this book?

I’m hoping that the book will be in some ways a referendum on where we are as a nation in regards to the Latino population. Latinos today constitute the largest minority group in the nation—close to 50 million of a population that is approximately 310 million—and also the fastest growing and the youngest population. My hope is that we will be able to go beyond the stereotypes—the easy and lazy caricatures we see in the news about Latinos having arrived here just yesterday with no language skills, no interest in assimilating in this society, while stealing our classroom seats,  hospital beds and jobs. In fact, the Latino population has been here for over 450 years, and one could argue it has been here for far longer than the British English or European population.

I think as well that this is a very important statement of how this community has produced a written culture, has a memory and that memory is an essential part of our national memory as well. It can’t be segregated or ghettoized, because if we do that we end up dividing the country rather than making it a pluribus as the moda that we have as a nation.

It’s probably unfair to ask you to suggest particular readings. But do any readings come to mind that are relevant to this debate over immigration, which seems to be becoming increasingly heated and toxic?

There all sorts of entries in the anthology that deal in one way or another with immigration, and not always from the point of view that is in favor of it. For instance, César Chávez, the leader of the farm workers, was a very important organizer during the ’60s and ’70s as part of the civil rights era, while wanting to bring a better life to many of those in this country picking cotton, lettuce or strawberries in mainly Texas, California and Oregon. He saw illegal immigration as a threat to bringing better social and living conditions for those who were already here.

On the other political side there is Richard Rodriguez, a terrific essayist and author who is very poignant in his argument that those who have come today as immigrants are as important as those who came at any previous time in American history, and we should not distinguish between contemporary newcomers and 19th century newcomers from Italy, Poland or Ireland for example.

Ilan Stavans

You’re listed as the general editor of this book. What exactly did this task entail?

I guess it was kind of an orchestra conductor’s job. An orchestra can sound beautiful when the conductor has some sort of harmonious relationship, and hopefully knows what the tunes and melodies are about, or he can have a very troublesome relationship and the product can be difficult to listen to when the knowledge is partial, when he or she oversteps his role and wants to control. I learned to be flexible very much to respect other people’s views. Very many different perspectives and individuals were involved in this endeavor. I want to thank them and will do so at every opportunity I find.

The anthology contains works by 201 writers. Were there writers who should have made it, or do you feel everybody who should be in there is in there?

I guess I will spend the next six months trying to answer that question in public forums! I’m sure I will get some criticism for not having included this or that writer or for having included this or that writer instead. I like to say every anthology creates its own double. The anthology the reader has in hand, with everything that went in it; and then the double—the anthology that doesn’t exist, the invisible anthology that includes everything that was left out. Hopefully the anthology that is visible is a powerful one and will not remind people often of the other invisible anthology.

In any effort of this sort, in any compendium, an editorial choice has to be made. I think this is the most representative statement of what the Latino tradition is about. I don’t purport to suggest these are all the writers who have ever written about the Latino experience, nor is this book an anthology of writers I’m trying to promote. These, in my judgment, are the writers who have the finest tradition. The tradition owes them something and they owe something to the tradition.

How many of these works were written in English originally and how many were translated?

I would suggest a rephrasing of the question. If one goes from the very first page to the very last, there are about 2,400 pages of the core anthology and the rest is the different appendices we have included, which add up to another 250 pages. Throughout, one could get a sense of how the language of Latinos has evolved over almost five centuries. There’s a very Iberian type of Spanish at the very beginning. Most of the early pieces were written by Spanish conquerors, soldiers, missionaries and explorers, and we translated those into English, and tried to make the text as approachable and accurate as possible in the language of today.

But then, as we move onwards chronologically, we get the beginnings of English among Latino writers. At the end of the 19th century we have the whole-hearted embrace of the English language and then the fracture—the idea that English cannot be pure among us, that we are a hybrid minority group speaking Spanish and English and that hybrid identity should express itself in our language. So, if we reach as readers the very end of the anthology we’ll find very many texts that are neither in Spanish nor in English but in Spanglish, meaning they go back and forth between two languages.

A translation is never easy but translating the first entries in the book was rather easy in comparison with pondering what we were going to do with the Spanglish texts. Do we translate the Spanish into English? That would be a betrayal of what the author intended. Do we try to homogenize and try to bring the English into the Spanish version? Again, that would be a form of treason; so what we decided to do was nothing. Those texts are as the author intended and there’s no translation, though there are   footnotes that try to contextualize certain terms or modes of communication.

You’ve mentioned that you consider this to be by far the most important project you’ve done. Why  is the project so important?

I think it’s the most important thing because it sums up everything else I’ve done in terms of scholarship, cultural promotion and translation. Hopefully it’s not only about me and the group of people who produced it, but where we are as a country. Norton anthologies generally have a long shelf life. There are 2nd and 3rd and 4th editions where you are able to add new people and modify certain things. Even though the book is here, it doesn’t mean it’s finished; it feels as though it will be a living, open book.

I can only imagine how daunting this project must have seemed at times. What was its most challenging aspect?

There were challenging aspects of the project I would rather not talk about. They were grueling. Oftentimes they made me feel that I shouldn’t pursue the job and someone else should pick it up. They involved egos, they involved arm-twisting and backstabbing.

 I’d like to think, though, that the best elements are in front of everybody and that the back-story of ‘how the play came to be onstage’ is secondary, and the less I talk about it the better.

To what extent did your work on this project influence your teaching here at Amherst?

Many of the ideas that emerged in a classroom discussion became something I mentioned in the preface or in a footnote. I hope that former students of mine who end up opening the book will see their voices resonate in these pages. I have thanked them in these pages as well. I would not be the person I am today if it had not been for the encounters I’ve had with my students.

Who do you envision when you picture someone reading from this book?

The Talmud, one of the most important books in the Jewish tradition, states that if you change one mind your work will have been accomplished. Reading today is in decline. The book itself as an object is under siege. Maybe we’re at a moment where the tradition of the book is giving way to the electronic delivery of information. Maybe we’re also at a time when we have started thinking differently, processing information differently. This book is a type of encyclopedia and encyclopedias are important for people who want to understand context. This book is also an anthology of diverse texts and people who are attracted to literature, to politics, to culture in general hopefully will come to it.

 In the end, if there is one person out there who finds just one word that moves her to do an act of justice or an act that will change her world and also ours then I think the book will have had an impact.