ON BORROWED WORDS: A Memoir of Language

Ilan Stavans, Author . Viking $23.95 (263p) ISBN 978-0-670-87763-8

The prolific Stavans, author or editor of 18 books (including The Hispanic Condition and The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories) tries to elucidate his ethnically overdetermined condition as a Mexican Jew of Eastern European origins (his family's name originally was Stavchansky) who now lives in the U.S. This beautifully written memoir is the tale of a search—for a homeland, for a language and for a calling. The last was perhaps the easiest to find. Infatuated with drama as the son of a successful stage and TV actor, he long imagined his future in the theater or in film. But in his 20s, he discovered literature. In writing his first novel, for the first time he "felt truly human... yes, literature was the answer—my promised land." But if literature was a "portable" homeland, where was his concrete one? Stavans describes his efforts, after growing up in a fairly self-contained Jewish community in Mexico City, to be fully Mexican, involving himself in Marxist politics on his college campus. When that failed, he went to Israel and Spain, but neither place answered his need. And as for language, neither his native Spanish nor the Yiddish and Hebrew he learned as a schoolboy felt quite right. At last moving north, Stavans believes he may have found his place: "... to become an American writer of sorts. Could I ever?... I was a wandering soul, inhabiting other people's tongues." But he chose English as the language for his memoir—and a fluid, natural English it is. Refreshingly, the memoir is not totally self-focused—Stavans's search takes readers through the lives of others: his tough immigrant grandmother; his elusive, ever-changing actor of a father; his musically gifted but emotionally unstable brother. (on-sale: Aug. 27)

Forecast:This tale of learning to live in translation should resonate with Americans of many ethnic backgrounds, not only Jewish and Latino.

Reviewed on: 07/02/2001
Release date: 08/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-14-200094-6
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