Monday, October 11, 2010

An interview with Ilan Stavans, editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature

Ilan Stavans, a native of Mexico City, is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. An award-winning writer and public television host, his books include Growing Up Latino, The Hispanic Condition, The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories, and Spanglish. He is the recipient of numerous honors-including an Emmy nomination, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Latino Literature Prize, the Antonia Pantoja Award, and Chile's Presidential Medal. For many years he was host of the PBS show La Plaza: Conversations with Ilan Stavans.

Stavans is also the general editor of the long-awaited The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (hardcover, $59.95). The team of editors includes some of our finest scholars of Latino literature: Edna Acosta-Belén (University at Albany, SUNY), Harold Augenbraum (National Book Foundation), María Herrera-Sobek (University of California, Santa Barbara), Rolando Hinojosa (University of Texas, Austin), and Gustavo Pérez-Firmat (Columbia University).

Stavans kindly agreed to take some time to chat with La Bloga about this new anthology.

DANIEL OLIVAS: The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature was thirteen years in the making and spans five centuries with the work of 201 writers. It seems that before you and your co-editors could even begin this tremendous endeavor, you had to define two terms: “Latino” and “literature.”

ILAN STAVANS: The terms are at the core of the endeavor which during the in-house production process came to be known as “NALL.” The preface to the anthology ponders the various appellations of the Latino minority over time, including Spanish-speaking people, Hispanics, and hispanos, and how each of these appellations fits into a particular historical context. Nowadays, newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times oscillate, within the same article, between Hispanics and Latinos. In NALL the editorial team endorsed the name preferred by the community itself, not the one coming from governmental sources. Personally, I’m less interested in why “Latino” is better than in the forces that keep “the name game” generating so much heat. It seems to me that the ambivalence we feel toward how we should be called is a testament to our never-ending search for a collective identity.

As for the term “literature,” NALL is open-minded. The anthology not only features short stories, poems, plays, essays, and fragments of longer fiction narratives. It also contains cartoons, blogs, letters, lyrics, dichos, folktales, chistes, children’s songs, and political treaties, among other items. In other words, the entries cross freely the artificial border between so-called high-brow and pop lit.

DO: How did you and the other editors divide up the work? Were there many controversies over who or what should be included?

IS: NALL has more than 2,600 pages. The total number of words is 1,403,804. It includes 3,271 footnotes. The content, organized chronologically, is divided into six major sections, the fifth of which is by far the longest: Colonization (1537-1810), Annexations (1811-1898), Acculturation (1899-1945), Upheaval (1946-1979), Into the Mainstream (1980-present), and Popular Dimensions. The last section features historical documents and essays by prominent Latin American writers on Latinos or life in the United States. NALL includes two alternate tables of content: the first reflects the sequence of the material from beginning to end; the second agglutinates entries by nation of origin: Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans in the mainland, Cuban-Americans, Central and South Americans, Spaniards, etc.

I was lucky to work with a first-rate editorial team of specialists in various fields: Edna Acosta-Belén (SUNY–Albany) was in charge of Puerto Rican literature in the island and the mainland; Harold Augenbraum (National Book Foundation), of nineteenth-century literature and Dominican American literature; María Herrera-Sobek (UC–Santa Barbara), of colonial literature; Rolando Hinojosa (UT–Austin), of Mexican American literature; and Gustavo Pérez Firmat (Columbia University), of Cuban American literature.

Controversies—there were plenty! They not only ranged from who should be included to how the material ought to be presented, but to what precise wording to use when describing historical figures like Emiliano Zapata, José Martí, and Lolita Lebrón.

I hope NALL generates debate. An endeavor of this scope seeks to engage readers in an ongoing national conversation. And all national conversations are about consent and dissent.

DO: Were there authors you wished could be included but weren’t?

IS: Sure. One particular author, who shall go unmentioned, should have been in—and vice versa. This is inevitable! The manuscript submitted to the publisher, containing almost two million words, needed to be cut. Permissions also marked our choices. Still, NALL is as close to my original vision, my utopian vision, as is possible in our imperfect universe. Working with the Norton editorial team was a dream: I run out of words when describing their superb work ethics.
DO: Were there any real surprises for you? Did working on the anthology change any of your beliefs about Latino literature?

IS: Surprises galore, Daniel. The project changed me more than I’m able to acknowledge. I hope one day to describe, in honest fashion, the labyrinth that I and the editorial team found ourselves in and our various encounters with the Minotaur.

DO: Do you intend to update the anthology on a set schedule or have you not thought about that yet?

IS: NALL seeks to represent—though never exhaust, of course—a tradition. Ours is an effort at defining the boundaries of the Latino literary canon. Canons, as you know, generate love and hate from people, and they should. Still, any tradition that prides of being alive needs to explain itself to others. The Hebrew Bible is a compendium of books that were incorporated to the canon throughout time. Some were left out: the Apocrypha, which include 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch. That is, every anthology creates its own double. Needless to say, NALL is but one canon-making tool in that search for parameters. As our tradition changes, so will NALL, by means of periodical updating in the form of revised editions.

DO: What do you hope readers get out of this anthology?

IS: The span of possibilities that is Latino literature in the United States: ambitious, restless, forward-looking yet rooted in the past, politically engaged, with ties to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Spain, and, needless to say, in constant dialogue with other literary traditions in the United States. There is no literature without readers and NALL wants to reach readers of all kinds. This is a book about Latinos but not only for Latinos.

DO: Mil gracias, Ilan, for spending time with La Bloga.

[NOTE: Don’t miss Ilan Stavans in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library, Thursday, October 21, 7:00 p.m., as he leads a panel discussion with three acclaimed authors who are included in the anthology: Susana Chávez-Silverman, Rubén Martínez, and Luis Rodriguez. For more information, visit The Library Foundation of Los Angeles.]


This weekend, I was one of the guest authors at the Latino Book & Family Festival, a two-day celebration held on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. What a wonderful event it was. I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of authors who are contributors to the Norton anthology, Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America (2010), edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas and Ray Gonzalez. The panel included Lisa Alvarez, Luna Calderón, Juan Martínez and Stephen D. Gutiérrez. We each had a chance to read our short stories from the anthology and then take questions from the audience. We had a great time and appreciate the response. I note that Ann Simmons of the Los Angeles Times did a nice article on the Latino Book & Family Festival in today's edition. Many thanks to all the planners of the festival, especially Reyna Grande and the wonderful faculty, staff and students at Cal State L.A.

1 comment:

Xochitl-Julisa said...

Great interview. I can't imagine what it would be like to edit a collection with such broad perimeters. I'm curious to crack this one open.