PW: As your memoir On Borrowed Words makes clear, you are Mexican and Jewish, living in America. How do you reconcile your various identities, and how do they affect your writing?
IS: I grew up as a Mexican Jew, or as a Jew in Mexico. I was in a small minority there, in some way ghettoized, living not quite in the present tense. For a variety of reasons, mainly the fact that I wanted to become a writer and I didn't feel that being a Jew and a writer could come together for me in Mexico, I tried to make aliya [move to Israel], lived in Spain and eventually returned to Mexico. Then I came to the U.S. and there was a reversal of identity. All of a sudden, I was a Mexican, and no one could care less that I was a Jew. (Had I arrived in the Midwest, I think that reality would have been different.)
I read widely in my adolescence and I really grew up with the sense of cosmopolitanism, reading world literature. I don't feel you have to limit yourself to one particular environment, Mexican or American. On the contrary, literature was a liberating tool in which you were able to jump from your little corner of the world to the entire world.
That has been my quest as a Latino in the United States. I feel we Latinos are perceived as an ethnic group, and as an ethnic group you always have to be writing about the ghetto, about being marginalized. I think the Jewish component has forced me to see things differently. I have been attacked by other Latinos for this.
PW: You chose to write your memoir not in Spanish, but in English. Why?
IS: I wanted to write a book that in some way was in translation but without an original. I wanted to go to the language where today I feel most comfortable, and the one I am in love with as a matter of choice. I feel I was born accidentally into Spanish, and while I love the Spanish language, my connection with it was the result of a series of historical accidents that occurred to the Jews.
What I wanted to do in the book was explore the issue of language in all ways—not just Spanish, Hebrew or Yiddish—but also the language of my father, who was an actor, the language of the body. The language of my brother [a pianist and composer], who uses music—music is the only thing that saves him.
PW: You have written or edited 17 previous books, including anthologies of Latino writing and your own short stories. Why, after all that, have you written a memoir, and why now?
IS: I live with an eternal fear of death that has to do with an envy I feel for my father. When he acts, he is the happiest man alive. But off the stage, he's just a neurotic. Theater is about the present, about connecting with people right there in front of you. Writing is more about connecting with the past and the future. Life is so filled with accidents, I just wanted to write about the period in which I am alive and to defy death by doing so.
PW: You said once in an interview that if you were not in a minority, you would cease to write. What did you mean by that?
IS: I think the Jews in the United States have become too comfortable in this environment. And as I see it, that's very dangerous. Jews need to be at once insiders and outsiders, need to be witnesses and participants. This sense of not fully belonging is essential to me.