Editor and author Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico City, Mexico on April 7, 1961, moved to the United States in 1985, and earned both his Master’s and Doctorate degrees from Columbia University by 1990. He is the author of numerous works of nonfiction (including Spanglish and The Hispanic Condition) and fiction (The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories), and most recently co-authored, with Steve Sheinkin, the graphic novel El Iluminado. Stavans has both read Cervantes’ Don Quixote and viewed the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup multiple times. He is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.
I have always thought about death, but I think about death in different ways. The older I get, the less scared I am of dying young, or dying not having been able to achieve certain things. But the relationship that I have with death is now connected with the hope that I am able to overcome it to be next to my children when they get married, when they have moments of happiness, graduations, childbirth and so on. But it is because of the constant presence of death that I am motivated, day in and day out, to get out of bed, to use my time in a particular way, and to think that the day has 24 hours, the month 30 or 31 days, and the year, you know, 365. In other words, for the next birthday that comes—and I have a few moments during the year, Yom Kippur is one of them, a day of reflection—I think of all the things that I have done from the previous Yom Kippur to the present. And the end of the year, December 31st, and my birthday. So it is a connection that I have with with this sense of not being here.
On the other hand, I have not been emptied of a certain individualistic or egotistical sense. I have a certain number of projects that I would like to be able to accomplish by the time I reach the next birthday or the next benchmark. And those go side by side with my kids’ development. Of course, as I see it now, it is my kids’ happiness, the one that comes first, since I have already been able, luckily and happily, to accomplish a bunch that I had set for myself to do.
I remember frighteningly well the moment it occurred. I was just recently out of high school, and my closest friend was coming back from leaving his girlfriend in the airport in Mexico City. I was then still living in Mexico City. And just as he arrived home and was having breakfast, he had an aortic mishap and died instantaneously. And that moment will never leave me. The news of his death. The fact that he was so young. He had a twin, and the way I saw the twin kind of get thinner and sadder as years went by. I realized at that point that it can happen at any moment, no matter how young you are. And that it might be an illness, it might be an accident or you might never be fully aware, and that I had to live my life to the fullest. And that meant that I needed to use my time in the most efficient and productive way. And I have been. Let’s go back to that particular moment. It was about him not having more time and about my having more time, and I needed to know how to use it properly. And so I organize my days and I think of how I relate to my teaching or to my writing in a way that always is mindful of how time will be orchestrated.
It was the first moment in which I saw death in the eyes, not my own death but death as a unifier. And since then, of course, I have been close to death in many different ways. Again, fortunately not my own, but relatives and other friends and acquaintances. And the older you are the more connected you feel to those disappearances, the fact that people get sick, that people suddenly are not there anymore. And you keep on learning from all that and you keep on thinking that you are like a prisoner with a sentence in your forehead, and that you have to make the best out of that sentence that you have. It seems to me that we are all born with the date of our death engraved in our forehead. We don’t know it. We’ll never see it. It will be ultimately written on our tombstone, but that date is already written. And sometimes I go through September 25th, which is just like any other day, and I wonder, Is my day September 25th or is it July 10th? Who knows? I’ve gone through those days like anybody else, but one of them, one of those 365 will be the day of my death and it will be written on my tombstone. But I have to go through those days the way all of us do, with ignorance. And that is good. Otherwise we would be paralyzed by the fact that we know exactly how much time we have left and we would be fearful, also, of the particular day of the calendar that we would know is the moment of reckoning and of departure.
I don’t have a disposition that looks at it as an infuriating or frustrating aspect. In fact, I would say just the opposite. I think that I’ve learned that randomness is the key factor in who we are and how we end up becoming who we’ve become, and in the way the world is organized. Even though we live in a very well-measured, scientifically scheduled world in this part of the world, I think accidents, randomness play a crucial role. I would say that the order that I give to my days, the order that I give to emotions, the order that I give to my thoughts is a way to battle that randomness. But even those thoughts, even those emotions, even the way those days are shaped is a result of randomness.
I never thought, when I was young, of being a writer, never thought of being a teacher, never thought of writing books, of translating, of doing films and working for theater. In many ways I have become the person that I am as a result of a series of accidents. I look back at crucial moments in my life, when I think, Where would I be today had I made just the other decision? It wasn’t a better decision or a worse decision, simply that I, you know, flipped the coin and said, Shall I go to the United States or shall I stay in Mexico? Shall I opt to accept this invitation to go to this particular place, or shall I not? And, you know, you investigate, you research, you say, Ok, I think the invitation is attractive, or I will go to the United States and leave everything that I have behind and become an immigrant and see what happens. But, you know, I have dreams in which I go back and face the Ilan that never left Mexico.
There is one moment in my life, really, that transformed me forever, and that is the moment when I said I am giving everything up, everything that I have at the age of 25, no tender age really, and I will go on my own as an immigrant to the United States without anything. I don’t have anyone there to protect me, to offer me a job. I will just take the risk because if I don’t take the risk right now I will never take it. And I decided to do it, and then came a period of preparation, then I left to the United States. There were years of fright and disorientation. But here I am and I look back and here I am on the faculty in English, a language that I wasn’t born into, in a context in which I have thrived, but it wasn’t a place into which I was thrown originally. I have made the best, I think, of all the circumstances, but what is the other Ilan, the one that didn’t leave Mexico, the one that still lives there thinking about everything? And how would he have thrived, how would he have developed, and in what sense would he and I be able or not to communicate this issue were we to meet? And that’s what some of my dreams are about, meeting that other self.
I think that there are a series of crucial moments in one’s life, moments in which you, knowingly or otherwise, are shaping the future person that you will become, and those never fully disappear. You move along and there is the shadow of the other path that you opted not to go to, or the other self that you didn’t develop. And we have a bunch of shadowy selves that exist with us, but those are the paths that were not open. You know, our 50 years within a certain route and pattern, if you look back as biographers do, you see sequences and consistencies, but as we live life there’s no sequence or consistency. You do it in an improvisational form and you go as you think is best. And only later on in retrospect you see there was a reason for that. But we don’t know the reason in the present and we don’t know the reasons as we look into the future. I think that all of that has made me think that we are more than one. We are many selves that end up being led by the self that can be the most commanding one in making choices that you make. Why didn’t I marry this other person and I married this one? Why did I end up in this particular city and not in another one? A series of accidents, and I have those accidents, happily or unhappily, so those 50 years are a record of those really random moments, some of them more significant than others.
I think that every life is made of one or two significant moments. Really, only one or two. Our lives are full of moments, but only one, maybe two, are the decisive ones. Many of us pass by those moments without realizing that they were decisive ones. And it’s more inertia that leads us to turning left or turning right as I go out of this room. In other occasions you think of a moment as more significant than it really is, or could have been. And in other cases you have the opportunity of seeing a moment that doesn’t at first look significant or ultimately life changing, but that is. And maybe at first you will doubt that the decision that you’re going to make is important, but I think that that moment is a moment in which we all know who we are. Honestly, reaching 50, I know this question is going to come: Do you know who you are? I don’t. I don’t know who I am and I don’t know if I ever will, but I do know that there was one moment back in the past where I thought I knew who I was, and that moment led me to become the person that I am. It’s that randomness and also that determinism that shaped my life.
These two other concepts that play a major role: one is the question of how free have I been to determine the acts that shape my life. And to what extent are all those acts already shaped, and I am but a puppet or a follower of a certain pattern that was preestablished for me? And I could not really tell you one or the other. I think that on a certain day I wake up and say, I’m the freest man in the world, and another one I’ll tell you, Everything that I do makes me think I’m the freest man in the world but it’s because there is this ingredient in the life that I have that is determined. My freedom is always constrained by the environment in which we live. I am not fully free, but I am free only within a certain parameters or certain limits. You know, when I did make a step, is that one that I want to make or is it one that’s already written or established that I needed to make? And those questions come back to me now more playfully than they used to when I was a younger man, because I’ve done many of those things before. I’ve made some of those decisions. But they are a theme, so to speak, in the narrative that I’ve become.
I see the stupidity, the nearsightedness, courage, a sense of mission, and the dissatisfaction with the person that I was at that point, although I was a fairly satisfied person. But a dissatisfaction that was intrinsic to my DNA. And I would say that that dissatisfaction is dissatisfaction that I have had as a motif in my life. No sooner do I finish a project, a book, a movie, a play, do I feel that, in doing that project, I’ve invested the best of me, so that it will hopefully shine or become a statement of who I am. No sooner do I finish than I feel though, it should be left behind. I can do better. I can do the next one. And I move on into the next project or into the next idea that I have. I was a young man who could have had a life in Mexico, but he would’ve had a life that he, at that point, could already foresee. And that frightened me at that point. You are getting the almost 50-year-old Ilan talking about the 25-year-old. I think the 50-year-old knows more than the 25, but it’s not true. It’s just that they are different entities, two different people, and you happen to have the chance to talk to the 50-year-old and not to the 25. But it would be lovely if the 25 could come here and talk for himself and not through me. And probably he would say that he was not as satisfied as I am saying, and that his options there were not as as promising as the lack of promise that was there on the other side of the border. I think that I look at the friends of mine that stayed behind, siblings, and others who built a life in Mexico in spite of the turbulence that comes with a country that sometimes feels on the edge, and it would not have been a bad life. The life here has had its obstacles, has had its challenges, a sense of foreignness in my new nation that I constantly have. I am an outsider. I am an impersonator. I am an impostor that has to prove to others that I am authentic, that this is my place, that as an immigrant I have a share of all this as much as a native person does. You know, changing places is fairly dramatic. But for a writer, changing languages, it couldn’t be more deep. It couldn’t be more essential. The words are everything that the writer has, and at 25 I already knew I wanted to be a writer. And I decided that I was not going to do it solely, primarily, with the language, with the tools that I had already been provided, Spanish at that point, and that I was going to adopt a new phase, a new language, a new place and kind of reinvent myself. And I look back at that courageous 25-year-old and think he was stupid, or at that stupid 25-year-old and think he was courageous, depending on how you put it. I think he would think of me as more complacent. I wouldn’t do that at this point, and he did it.
I think that he would be happy. I also think that there would be some tyrannical relationship between the two. I see myself as a liberal person, but people become more conservative, more traditional, as we get older, less given to taking risks. And on the one hand he would be pleased that some of the decisions that he made ended up being, he would think of them positively. On the other hand, probably he would think that it’s too bad that those decisions didn’t bring other decisions of perhaps moving again, or taking certain risks, and instead they had more to do with settling. He was about unsettling, and I am about having settled. Having sought to find roots in the English language, making that language my home, proving to others that you can be an outsider and still have an ownership in that language. That has been a quest for me. There was a time when having an accent, I felt, was a detriment. Not having gone to college in this country would be an obstacle. I could see little kids speaking flawless English and I at 27 or 28 would stumble every other sentence. Now I’m talking to you in a fairly easy way. I hope not to lose what remains of my accent. I don’t want to be fully integrated and become nondescript. You know, I moved to this country and not the other way around, and I think that’s another politic element that needs to be stressed here. It would’ve been much harder had I been born in the United States and had opted to move to Mexico. Mexico is less receptive. It’s a very generous society but it’s culturally less receptive to outsiders. There’s less mobility there. The United States, a country defined by immigration, is ready to celebrate talent, to allow you to test yourself if you’re ready to test yourself, and accommodating of people that have ideas, that have energy and are ready to be part of everybody’s group and movement. And that is something that I will be eternally grateful for.
Often in my life I have thought, Well I might lose this, or I might lose that, but one thing I will never lose is the possibility of using words and turning them into a story or an essay. And this is something that will be with me and that I am connected to forever. I see a deep connection between teaching and writing. Whatever starts on the page moves to the classroom, and what starts in the classroom moves to the page. The interaction with youth is enormously invigorating. Constantly the fact that I can introduce the books that I love, the books that defined me, for the first time to a new generation that has not opened them yet, is an honor. And at the same time it is an opportunity to learn from that book again, because that generation will look at that book in ways that I didn’t, or other generations did not. Every generation opens a book anew and discovers in it something different. And so the act of teaching is the act of discovering how the young read something that you thought you knew well and you don’t. And in my writing, the sense that the story that I finish today, or the essay is good enough for today but there needs to be another one tomorrow, keeps me on my toes constantly. And I think the life of the mind after all, what I’m talking about, a life that, as I see my body age, my hands, the skin on my face, an ache here, an ache there, I see the possibilities of clarity of thought in a way that I couldn’t up until now, and hopefully for a couple decades more, is rewarding. The fact that you have accumulated knowledge, but that that knowledge only brings you to the possibility of thinking clear thoughts, and saying things clearly, realizing that whatever you can say, whatever you can write, you can write it in a direct, pure, in a clear fashion. And clarity is maturity. That is something that nobody will take me away from until my mind will stop working. And that for me will be the true death: when the mind is not sharp enough and when the the mind doesn’t remember the traces that it has left.