The ProsenPeople

Turning the Terrorist Attack in Buenos Aires into Popular Art

Thursday, November 03, 2016 | Permalink

Author Ilan Stavans has three new books out this year, and will be introducing each one to Jewish Book Council readers as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I want to describe how my fotonovela Once @ 9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires came along. A version of these thoughts appear in the volume’s afterward, but I also want to respond to the controversy the experiment has generated.

I have always felt that the terrorist attack against the AMIA, the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, on July 18, 1994, begged to be turned into a graphic novel. The effects of the tragic event in the ethnically mix neighborhood of Once in Buenos Aires, Argentina, are still felt today, especially among Latin American Jews.

Yet the idea didn’t materialize until I met Argentine activist and photographer Marcelo Brodsky and I met, around 2008, through a mutual friend. An admirer of his photographic work, particularly of his artistic strategies to “intervene” historical images in order to make their message more emblematic, I was eager to talk to Brodsky about my interest on the fotonovela as a popular genre in Latin America that needed to be appropriated in order to explore today’s politically-charged themes defining the region.

During lunch we discussed an assortment of topics, after which I asked him if he had read fotonovelas in his adolescence. I preceded my question by describing my own fascinating with the form, describing my assiduous readings of it almost every weekend, when new fotonovelas arrived to the corner newsstand in my neighborhood. I even told him that my father, a prominent actor of Mexican soap-operas, to make ends meet, had sometimes done some roles in fotonovelas.

As it happened, Brodsky was an enthusiast. A few days later, he even sent me a number of extra copies of Argentine fotonovelas in his personal collection by FedEx. That conversation—and a number of others we entertained in the next few weeks—showed not only how much we had in common but, also, that a collaboration between us was a possibility.

I remember mentioning to him my distress at the quagmire the AMIA investigation had become over the last fifteen years or so, and the extent to which I had become a buff of the whole terrorist incident, collecting a plethora of items in my library: photos, reportage, interviews, novels, books, documentaries, interviews, etc. I then suggested that through the format of the fotonovela, should we turn the 1994 incident into our central theme, we could achieve a multiple feat: explore through fiction—a type of fiction soundly based on facts—what journalism and police investigations had failed to uncover; renew the fotonovela as a legitimate genre of aesthetic exploration; and, equally important, collaborate in ways that would allow literature and photography to become partners, exploring ways in which words and images might work together.

I had another objective in mind: I wanted to use the fotonovela as a platform for innovative scholarship. This needs an explanation. Over my career, I have tried to approach research in non-traditional ways. I don’t like the term “creative” because traditional scholarship is creative too, yet I’m conscious that, in the Manichean paradigm used in academic circles, knowledge is often perceived along those extremes: conventional and unconventional. After the AMIA tragedy, and more so as the unfinished business of finding the culprits dragged on for a long time, I remember thinking to myself that the episode merited from me a more thorough exploration, although I didn’t know what format it should take.

My chance encounter with Brodsky made that possibility a reality. After all, he was an insider: an Argentine with some personal knowledge of the situation, since he had found large pieces of granite from the frontispiece of the AMIA building, lying beside the River Plate, in Memory Park, a memorial to the victims of State Terror he had helped build. These pieces later became part of Brodsky’s artwork. He got in touch with survivors in order to identify the stones and get their testimonies. It is while doing this kind of research that he became friends with people that were at the AMIA that fateful day. I instead was an outsider, albeit one with a long devotion to the incident.

The collaboration was pleasurable from beginning to end. During the next few months, I wrote a first draft. Actually, at that point the narrative I envisioned was more ambitious. It was divided into three symmetrical chapters, only the first of which deal directly with the AMIA bombing. The other two looked at different characters and plots in various parts of Buenos Aires as people struggled to make sense of the incident. We then secured funding from various foundations.

We set a date for me to travel for the shooting and began to make arrangements with actor’s unions, dressing companies, car and prop rentals, as well as with the AMIA administration. Our production headquarters were in the building of Hebráica, a Jewish club in the Once neighborhood. We also needed to secure permission from the Buenos Aires municipality to be on location. As we set the production in motion, it became obvious to us that the storyline as it currently stood was unwieldy. It would take years to shoot it and about five times the budget we had secured to finance it.

Reality always wins in these kinds of battles. The decision, at that point, was for me to trim it, focusing exclusively on the first chapter. My intention now was to make it cohesive, to allow it to grow organically. I subsequently made a revised draft that is quite close to the final version of the fotonovela. From that draft Brodsky commissioned a storyboard. During the production, that storyboard was simultaneously a map and a compass. It grounded us and gave us confidence.

The principal roles were played by professional Argentine and Brazilian Jewish actors. We persuaded family and friends to take some of the other roles. For instance, the girl carrying the balloons is Brodsky’s daughter; and one of the terrorists was a member of our crew. I personally wanted some prominent figures in the Jewish community to participate. This desire came from the movie My Mexican Shiva (2007), which was based on a short story of mine, in which the director cast my father and other prominent Mexican Jewish actors. He even invited me to the shooting and asked me to have a small nonspeaking part( due to union requirements), but it was ultimately cut. With that in mind, while in Buenos Aires I called my friend Marcelo Birmajer, author of the parody Three Musketeers, who is among the most celebrated Jewish writers from Latin America today. He has a cameo in the scene where the protagonist is beaten down. Brodsky is seen having coffee with the protagonist. I myself play the Orthodox rabbi that shows up inconspicuously with several colleagues in the early part of the fotonovela and at the end announces, apocalyptically, that the end of time has come.

I mapped out each page meticulously: the number of frames it needed, the location of text, and use of color. Brodsky used these instructions as inspiration, adapting them according to his aesthetic needs. Like in comics and graphic novels, the success of the fotonovela as a genre depends on the degree in which illustrations drive the plot forward while text goes deeper into character formation. Take pages 24 and 25, where a group of rabbis on the street in the Once neighborhood discuss an assortment of topics: the frame consistently look at them at once from afar and in close-up, allowing for gestural nuance, locating them in context, while their consuetudinary dialogue allows the reader to understand their mood, their demeanor, and what they are feeling in these crucial minutes before the terrorist attack. Or else, look at the chase sequence on pages 47 and 48, as the complicit girl runs toward the white Renault Traffic: the suspense strives from her matching with the other culprits while passersby become suspicious of their activities.

Since the post-1994 investigations have done nothing but hide them behind innuendoes, my explicit objective was to give the terrorist a face. I used the format of the fotonovela to give them a physicality they otherwise lacked.

Brodsky and I were always sure we wanted to conclude the story with the photograph of the tragedy used on the front page of major newspapers worldwide. Almost from the outset he worked on getting permission. I remember the moment he told me he had secured it. I felt as if the whole endeavor was now kosher. The aim was to delve into the way stereotypes are approached in the Argentine milieu, from the photographer’s gaze at femininity (as a freelancer he works for Playboy) to the representation of Jewish and Arab characters objectivized on the streets. This is the original context in which the action took place. Needless to say, each culture is comfortable in its own excesses.

Shooting took a total of three days. Brodsky took close to ten thousand pictures. In the months that followed he organized the material and began collaboration with a designer who developed the narrative while also inserting dialogic balloons and other comic-strip devices. Brodsky sent me periodically batches of about 5 or 6 pages, to which I made all sorts of changes, fine-tuning the dialogue, exploring alternative subplots, and so on. The need emerged of inserting maps of the city. For purposes of managing the suspense, we used digital clock-numbers on strategic pages.

The overall production took about eight months. The fotonovela was published in Spanish, in Buenos Aires, by the publishing house Asunto Impreso, whose editor Guido Indij made valuable editorial suggestions. On July, 18, 2011, in time to commemorate the anniversary of the incident, a photographic exhibit, with the storyboard, a handful of pages in various stages of development, and a video walk through the neighborhood, including interviews with the AMIA witnesses and survivors, was scheduled to accompany the release.

Ultimately, my dream was to use the very tools of popular culture in order to produce rigorous knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge in an alternative scholarly format. I wanted it to look like a comic yet deliver a serious message about the intersection of politics and religious freedom in Latin America. I wanted to amuse and stimulate, to provoke thought and generate discussion. Mostly, I wanted to reach a diverse audience beyond the Ivory Tower.

I was thrilled when Brodsky told me, by phone, that Once @ 9:53am: Terror in Buenos Aires was being read in Argentina by people of all backgrounds, some of whom had little previous information of either antisemitism and the terrorist attack. He also mentioned the heated reaction it generated in intellectual circles, including Jewish-Latin American ones, for turning tragedy into an illustrated narrative, as if embracing the topic through popular culture was a form of desecration.

My response: it is precisely in the realm of popular culture where this fight needs to be fought, subverting predictable tropes, turning stereotypes upside down, and showing that art isn’t the exclusive domain of elites. After all, neither terror nor antisemitism are the prevue of only a few.

Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.

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Borges's Philo-Semitism

Tuesday, November 01, 2016 | Permalink

Author Ilan Stavans has three new books out this year, and will be introducing each one to Jewish Book Council readers as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Arguably the most accomplished of all Jewish Latin American writers—of all Latin American writers, period!—wasn’t Jewish: it was Jorge Luis Borges.

Reading Borges, teaching him, exploring the roots of his worldview, is one of my life’s joys. I have memorized entire passages. Introducing it to new readers brings me enormous joy. In essays, stories, and poems, he dissected the conundrum of Jewishness throughout the twentieth century. A handful of those pieces—“Emma Zunz,” “The Secret Miracle,” “Baruch Spinoza,” “The Golem,” “Death and the Compass,” and “Deutches Requiem,” among them—are superb. True, his view tends toward the allegorical. Jews, for Borges, are vessels of memory. They are at once insiders and outsiders in culture, at once witnesses and participants. Their devotion to languages and the intellectual is the result of a transient journey through a labyrinthine diaspora.

He spoke against Nazism during the Second World War, when few in Argentina dared to; he visited Israel and eulogized the small dessert nation; he was a friend of Alberto Gerchunoff and other figures in his country’s Jewish community; he was among the first in the Spanish-speaking world to promote Franz Kafka; he pursued the study of Kabbalah and was fascinated with Hassidic stories; he befriended Gershom Scholem and wrote about S. Y. Agnon; and he stood up to antisemitism.

In 1933, Borges was accused of loving Jewishness too much, and of being Jewish himself. He responded swiftly: “Borges Acevedo is my name. Ramos Mejía, in a note to the fifth chapter of Rosas and His time, lists the family names in Buenos Aires at that time in order to demonstrate that all, or almost all, ‘come from Judeo-Portuguese stock.’ ‘Acevedo’ is included in the list.” He added: “Scythians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyians, Cyclopes, or Lapiths. The nights of Alexandria, of Babylon, of Carthage, of Memphis, never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather; it was only to the tribes of the bituminous Dead Sea that this gift was granted.”

The Talmud (Tractate Sotah, 44a) states that a man should built a house, plant a vineyard, and marry a wife. The order seems skewed. At any rate, at fifty-five I have done two of the three, and am happy. Planting a vineyard isn’t in my prevue. For years I dreamed of another option, or else two: write a book about Don Quixote and another on Borges.

My book Quixote: The Novel and the Worldappeared last year. Borges, the Jew (SUNY) is just out. I’m at peace. Well, with one exception: I would love to edit a volume of all, or almost all, his Philo-Semitic writing. That’s a bonus, though.

At the end of Borges, the Jew, I include a section called “Borges y yo,” in which I compare various translations of his mini-essay “Borges and I,” including one of my own. Then I quote a passage of my autobiography, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language:

When I began to write, Borges had a decisive influence. His pure, precise, almost mathematical style; his intelligent plots; his abhorrence of verborrea—the overflow of words without end or reason, still a common malady in Spanish literature today. He, more than anyone before (including the modernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a lesson: literature ought to be a conduit for ideas. But his lesson was hard to absorb, if only because Hispanic civilization is so unconcerned with ideas, so irritable about debate, so disinterested in systematic inquiry. Life is too rough, too unfinished to be wasted on philosophical disquisition. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argentine. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for Argentina perceives itself—or rather, it used to perceive itself—as a European enclave in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, its citizens would tell you in the 1940s, is the capital of the world, with Paris as a provincial second best.

As soon as I discovered Borges, I realized, much as others have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edition I could put my hands on, not only in Spanish but in their French, English, Italian, German, and Hebrew translations, as well as copies of the Argentine monthly Sur, were his best work was originally featured, and interviews in journals. My collection began to grow as I embarked on my own first experiences in literature: tight descriptions, brief stories, passionless literary essays. Rather quickly the influence he exerted on me became obvious. In consolation, I would paraphrase for myself the famous line from “Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller”—in Spanish its title is infinitely better: “Decálogo del perfecto cuentista”—by Horacio Quiroga, a celebrated if tragic turn-of-the-century Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imitate his beloved masters as much as possible. The maxim, I realize today, is not without dangerous implications; it has encouraged derivativeness and perhaps even plagiarism in Latin American letters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a litteratuer was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now!

Influence turned into anxiety, and anxiety into discomfort. Would I ever have my own voice? One desperate afternoon, incapable of drafting a single line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacramental act of desperation: the struggle to be born, to own a place of one’s own, to be like no one else—or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and eventually, slowly, died down. I saw the volumes, between fifty and seventy in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, thinking, in embarrassment, of Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, and Mao’s China. I thought of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I thought of scores of prayer books, Talmuds, and other rabbinical works burnt by the Holy Inquisition in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges’ own essay, “The Wall and the Books,” about Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, a contemporary of Hannibal, whose reign was marked by the construction of the Wall of China, and also by the campaign to urn all history books. Shih Huang Ti saw himself as a new beginning. History needed to start over.

In Borges, the Jew, I conclude by saying that it might be ironic that a non-Jew would teach a Jew to recognize his own heritage. But isn’t that what we Jews have always done, shaping our sense of self according to the needs of the environment? (Jean-Paul Sartre’s slim book Anti-Semite and Jew comes to mind, in which the French philosopher argues, polemically, that Jews need antisemites to be themselves and vice versa.)

Borges was my rabbinical master in a yeshiva the size of the globe, and I his tentative pupil.

Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.

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What Is Jewish in Modern Latin American Literature?

Monday, October 31, 2016 | Permalink

Author Ilan Stavans has three new books out this year, and will be introducing each one to Jewish Book Council readers as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am not being facetious: perhaps the first piece ever written from a Jewish perspective in what we call today Latin America are Columbus’s diaries. I don’t want to jump into the debate on his Jewish ancestry; still, his approach at describing the landscape, his utopian vision of the inhabitants of the newly discovered lands as he looked for a new route to the Indies, distill a Jewish sensibility. At any rate, less debatable are the scores of crypto-Jewish poems, essays, memoirs, and inquisitorial testimonies written in Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, and other places during the colonial period.

This has been an area of passionate research for me. I am in the midst of completing a travel book through the region, due out from Norton next year. In it there is a distinct way of looking at things, what the Germans call a weltanschauung. I know about it because I was born in Mexico. But I didn’t become a Latin American until I left home, to live first in the Middle East, then in Europe, and eventually in the United States. Becoming part of the whole redefined me.

The Jewish component of Latin America, both visible and invisible, is enormous. Of an overall population of 450 million, less than half a million identifies itself as Jewish, a minuscule number. Still, the impact on thought, commerce, politics, culture, and religion is significant. In the United States there are another 60 million people whose roots are traced back to the Hispanic world. Last year I saw a statistic, unreliable in my eyes, arguing that 200,000 of them are Jewish. The cipher must be considerably smaller. Still, the suggestion is tangible proof that Jewish-Latin American influence north of the Rio Grande is growing substantially.

At any rate, I hope a place to appreciate such influence is Oy, Caramba! An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America. The focus is literature, specifically the modern period, from the early twentieth century to the present. Yet literature is life. In other words, no aspect of Jewish life in Latin America is alien to these tales. Just as in its English-, Portuguese-, Yiddish-, and Hebrew-language counterparts, there are tangible genealogical lines in Jewish-Latin American letters: a grandparent figure, a parent, and so on. The founder is Alberto Gerhunoff from Argentina, author of The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas. His work, in part, is about immigrant, just like that of Abraham Cahan. Moacyr Scliar from Brazil, author of The Centaur in the Garden, is a delicious humorist, a kind of Sholem Aleichem. Isaac Goldemberg from Peru, published The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner, about ethnic and theological mixing, what is known as mestizaje. Clarise Lispector, also from Brazil, is an astonishing stylist better than Virginia Woolf. Other authors are equally memorable: Marcos Aguinis, Angelina Muniz-Huberman, Eduardo Halfon, Marcelo Birmajer, Rosa Nissán, and Ariel Dorfman, among them. And I am only talking of those largely devoted to fiction.

There are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi authors, as well as descendants of crypto-Jews. Plus, there are myriad non-Jewish writers in Latin America with a lasting interest in Jewish themes. Carlos Fuentes, for example, wrote novels about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, José Emilio Pacheco about the Nazis in Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa about Jewish-indigenous relations, and Leonardo Padura about the Holy Office. A puzzling chapter in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectivestakes place in Tel-Aviv. Nazism is a ubiquitous topic. There is Jorge Volpi’s In Search of Klingson and also Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, an encyclopedia of nonexistent books on the topics.

Editing Oy, Caramba! was a joy. It includes stories originally written in Yiddish, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. (The volume is an expansion of Tropical Synagogues [Holmes and Meier], which appeared in 1994. This was the first anthology I ever published in English.) When I look at its contents, I wished it could have been at least twice the size. This is unavoidable. Anthologies, as everyone knows, are made of hors d'oeuvre: one of their objectives is to whet one’s appetite. But when they do their job well, they accomplish much more: they offer context, allowing readers to see beyond the surface; and they build bridges across authors, countries, and periods. Think of all the anthologies whose influence is decisive, from the Bible to The Arabian Nights. Mine is comparatively modest: to show that Columbus’s sensibility, complex as it is, lives on.

Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.

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  • Your Graphic Novel and Mine

    Friday, December 28, 2012 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans wrote about the problem with academic writing and asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    I’m a passionate lover of the graphic novel.

    I grew up in Mexico City. As an adolescent, my weekly literary diet included comics of all types. There were the usual suspects from the United States: superheroes of various calibers, such as Superman and Batman, as well as funny characters like Archie and Sabrina. But the comics I cherished the most were locally made or imported from other parts of Latin America: Kalimán, La familia Burrón, Condorito, Mafalda… Like other readers, I saw my own social, political, and historical dilemmas reflected in them.

    Recently I traveled from one book fair to another promoting El Iluminado, a graphic novel I wrote (with Steve Sheinkin), set among the crypto-Jews of the Southwest. Scores of writer friends I met were surprised I had accepted to experiment in this field. “Isn't it for younger people?” one of them asked. “Theirs is the generation of the moving pictures…” I laughed, telling him about my uncured devotion to comic strips as well as mammoth narratives. “The readers of Don Quixote are always young, aren't they? And Cervantes’s imagination was quite cinematic. Were he alive, I’m sure he would be a fan of graphic novels.”

    “Did you like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?” another inquired. Not really, I said, it is both long and longwinded. The message was clear to me, though: Why hadn’t I written a straight book about my comic-book education?

    The answer is straightforward: I’m interested in the graphic novel for its fresh yet ancient combination of image and word. They are at their best when addressing a historical issue head on, like the ones created by Will Eisner, Art Spigelman, and Joe Secco. The genre is still in its infancy. In the last few years it has thrived precisely because of the experimental drive of its practitioners.

    Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

    Academic Freedom Is Wasted on Academics

    Wednesday, December 26, 2012 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    Sometimes when I’m congratulated for writing well, the praise comes with a sense of theft, as if someone like me who has spent decades in academia—I started teaching when I was just out of college—should be expected to say things in muddy, incomprehensible ways.

    I understand the qualm. Academics are known for their pedantic style. This is particularly the case in the humanities, where, given the universal topics, one would expect the opposite. Scholars for the most part write obscurely for a small audience—minuscule, really: less than half a dozen peers. To show off, they become convinced that arguments need to be labyrinthine and the language unintelligible.

    This awful mode is learned in graduate school. Unfortunately, judging by the sample of the latest crop of scholars, there doesn't appear to be an end to this education to obfuscate.

    Truth is, it isn’t a matter of style. The problem, in my opinion, is the fear to be honest, to say what one thinks elegantly and persuasively when the occasion prompts. In other words, this handicap is related to the fear of speaking one’s mind. Graduate school, again in the humanities, is a hindrance: it teaches future teachers to hide behind cumbersome theoretical frameworks. The pleasure to read, to write, to think is sabotaged by the obligation to align oneself behind a doctrine.

    Yes, I’m convinced academics are timorous people, I’m not sure if more or less than everyone else, but in our case it shows because of the privileged position in which we find ourselves. Given the extraordinary opportunity to speak out, they burry their head underground. Academic freedom is wasted on academics.

    Feeling suffocated, I have sought role models outside academia as well as in the liminal zone where the classroom and the outside world meet: Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Henry Luis Gates, Jr., Morris Dickstein… That is, I have tried to follow figures capable of simultaneously speaking to two audiences, the one within and the one outside campus.

    Each of them has responded to the needs of his time. What they’ve shown—to me, at least—is that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is nothing if not artificial. The two audiences exist only in our mind. When we exile them from there, these become one.

    To write well is to express oneself with clarity, precision, and conviction. And to be humble: one must irrevocably assume the reader—all readers—to be our equals. To think otherwise is an exercise in solipsism.

    Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

    Is There a Jewish Literary Renaissance?

    Monday, December 24, 2012 | Permalink

    Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    I hear repeatedly that Jewish literature is undergoing a renaissance. The statement puzzles me.

    I can’t think of a period over our last 3,000 years of history—yes, since the Bible began to take shape as a compendium of folktales—when Jews haven’t been part of a literary renaissance. We’re always dying…and leave a record of our near extinction. Indeed, Jewish literature thrives because it is constantly said to be on its last stand.

    We write the apocalypse: no sooner does someone announce our demise, we do everything possible to prove it wrong.

    Ours, no doubt, are apocalyptic times. Not since 1945 has anti-Semitism been more noxious than it is now. All of us Jews are seen as parasites in countless places. The hatred against us wasn’t cured after the Holocaust; it simply went commando.

    We’ll unquestionably survive the current climate of animosity, although not without casualties: we’ll be again be physically decimated, not to say psychologically bruised. It has taken us a long time to think ourselves out of the Holocaust. Our next survival will also require enormous stamina.

    That’s the eternal cycle in which we’re actors. The theme of Jewish history—and its literature—is the dialectic between creation and destruction.

    We’re textual creatures: our primary relationship with the world isn't material but textual. We’re simultaneously authors and characters in a larger-than-life narrative. And texts connote languages. Every chapter in our history is delivered in another language. I don't see a literary renaissance today in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Russian… Our current mode, our lengua franca, is English. In fact, English is
    what Yiddish was a century ago: our portable homeland.

    That habitat isn’t eternal; it will perish, just as others did before.

    What puzzles me about the present-day literary renaissance is its hubris: American Jews believe they their sheer drive can overcome anything. Yet no diaspora in Jewish history has been more insular, and more monolingual too. Our literature is a testament to our arrogance.

    A measured life is defined by the awareness of its own shortcomings.

    Check back on Wednesday for Ilan Stavan's next post for the Visiting Scribe.

    Fate Knocking at the Door: An Interview with Ilan Stavans

    Wednesday, December 19, 2012 | Permalink

    by Philip K. Jason

    Philip K. Jason: What binds your interest in comic strips and graphic novels on the one hand and more traditional critical explorations on the other?
    Ilan Stavans: Storytelling is a form of midrash. I love telling stories, analyzing them, seeing them in context. I grew up in a culture that juxtaposed the word and the image. As a writer, I don’t see one as superior to the other. I also don't see the distinction between highbrow and popular readerships. The capacity to enthrall knows no boundary.

    PKJ: Prof. Stavans, as a character in your graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, 2012), is directly involved in a real world adventure. What do you say to those who feel that people in academic life somehow have removed themselves from real world experiences?
    IS: For me the noun academic is derogatory: it denotes affectation, posturing, pretense. Academic life is shamefully aloof, removed from the nuts-and-bolts affairs of daily Americans. I feel uncomfortable with such elitism: I prefer to get my hands dirty, to delve into the frying pan.

    PJK: Tell me something about the background of the family name.
    IS: In vain I’ve sought my roots in nineteenth-century Europe. My consolation is the knowledge that my ancestors have roots in the Pale of Settlements, although I don't know how deep those roots are. My full name (oy gevalt!) is Ilan Kalmen Stavchansky Slomianski Altchuler Eisenberg. Stavchansky probably refers to Stavchany, in the Ukraine. My father, Abraham Stavans, a stage and soap-opera actor in Mexico, shortened the name for artistic reasons, although he never made the move to change it officially. I chose Ilan Stavans to emphasize my debt to him. I discuss this debt in my memoir On Borrowed Words (Penguin, 2002).

    Continue Reading

    JBC Bookshelf: Fall Reads - Nonfiction

    Thursday, September 20, 2012 | Permalink

    Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

    I think this might be a record: two JBC Bookshelf posts within two weeks. Not all of these books will be published in the fall (it's ok August, we're letting you slip in), but they're all worth checking out over the next several months. The titles below reflect on various topics across Jewish life, culture, and history and celebrate Judaism in America, past, present, and what's to come...

    Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, Stefanie Pervos Bergman, ed. (August 2012, Academic Studies Press)
    This anthology, published in partnership with Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, features a few past Visiting Scribes: Matthue Roth, Abby Sher, Stacey Ballis. These writers, plus many more thoughtful voices, engage in such questions as: "Are we moving beyond denominational borders?", "Does being a Jewish young professional today mean never measuring up?", "Live, love, learn...but in what order?"

    In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy, Michael Kimmage (August 2012, Stanford University Press)
    In History's Grip concentrates on the literature of Philip Roth, and in particular on American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Read JBC reviews of Roth titles here.

    Jews in America, Stephen D. Corrsin, Amanda Siegel, and Kenneth Benson (November 2012, D Giles Limited in associated with the New York Public Library)
    This gorgeous new book is based on the extensive collection of the NYPL and features an introduction from Jonathan D. Sarna, as well as 110 color and 10 b&w images of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, and more. 

    Singer's Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture, Ilan Stavans (November 2012, University of Nebraska Press)
    What's not to love about this one? Stavans interweaves his own experience with other Jewish writers and thinkers, with specific essays focusing on: Isaac Bashevis Singer, translation and God's language, storytelling as midrash, Yiddish and Sepharidc literatures, the connection between humor and terror, the creators of the King James Bible, plus more.