Smash Pages Q&A: Ilan Stavans

The essayist, translator, editor and scholar discusses his latest work, an autobiographical graphic novel with artist Santiago Cohen.

Ilan Stavans does so many things that most of his readers likely struggle to keep track of them. Stavans is a renowned essayist, translator, editor and scholar. The publisher of Restless Books, he was the General Editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. He’s written or co-written dozens of books including Quixote: The Novel and the World, Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture, Octavio Paz: A Meditation and Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years, the first of a two-volume biography. He’s the producer and host of the podcast In Contrast, a fiction writer and playwright, and his debut volume of his own poetry, The Wall, comes out this year as part of the Pitt Poetry series.

Stavans is also a lover and writer of comics. He’s collaborated with Lalo Alacaraz on two books (Latino USA: A Cartoon History and A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States) in addition to writing graphic novels like Mr. Spic Goes to Washington and El Iluminado. His new book, a collaboration with artist Santiago Cohen, is Angelitos.

Where did the idea for Angelitos come from?

The plotline is autobiographical. When I was in college in Mexico City, in the early 1980s, I shadowed Alejandro García Durán de Lara (1935-1999), also known as Padre Chinchachoma, a priest whose quest was utterly Quixotic. Years earlier, he had made a cathartic decision: he would devote his entire life to los niños callejeros, the city’s homeless children, which were in the thousands. He lived with them in hogares residencia, homeless shelters. He believed he could restore them to “normality” by providing them with the love they had been deprived since an early age. With that in mind, he wandered the streets at their side, fed them, and defended them against all sorts of abuse. Our friendship changed me radically.

How did you first meet Padre Chinchacoma?

When I was in my early twenties, I came across a book he had written, La porción olvidada de la ninez mexicana [The Forgotten Portion of Mexico’s Childhood]. If memory serves me well, my mother, a psychologist by trade, gave it to me as a present. I might have also heard Padre Chinchachoma on the radio. Humble, amenable, he was a burly man, obese, bold and with a rowdy beard. He didn’t mind his appearance. His clothes were always dirty.

Was your friendship with him similar to the one depicted in the book?

A few elements are. The early part of the narrative is close to reality. I remember that through phone calls and personal messages, I tried to finding Padre Chinchachoma. It was difficult because he was always on the move.

I finally made my way to an abandoned building in Colonia Roma where he was said to spend the night along with a dozen homeless children. On my way there, I was mugged. At of nowhere, a band of adolescents descended on me. My wallet was stolen. Maybe my backpack too, where I kept notebooks, a novel I was reading, and so on. I was a college student at the time, penniless, interested in volunteering in programs committed to social justice.

Eventually I found Padre Chinchachoma. I asked him if I could become his assistant. He said he didn’t need one but that I was welcome to help homeless children in ways all sorts of ways. I recall him saying, “There is no end to what they need!” But Angelitos isn’t sheer autobiography. I have taken lots to liberties with the plot. For one thing, it is set against the backdrop of the earthquake of 1985 in Mexico City. I don’t to give away anything. However, by 1985 I was no longer there. The earthquake caught me in New York City. I had decided to become an immigrant. I enrolled in graduate school. I also wanted to try my talents as a writer. I’m telling you this because I wrote the story in English, not in Spanish. For me languages are filters through which we comprehend the world. By delivering it in English, the audience I have targeted isn’t exclusively local.

Along the way, I wanted to pay tribute to a work of art I admire, one that has influenced me deeply: Luis Buñuel’s film Los olvidados (1950). I have watched this extraordinary movie dozens of times. For some reason, in English it was called The Young and the Damned, which sounds like a Norman Mailer reportage. It deals too with Mexico’s homeless children. Buñuel was a Spanish surrealist, although in his Mexican period he is more realistic.

In the history of Latin American film, Los olvidados is my favorite, along with Y tu mama también (2001) by Alfonso Cuarón, Amores perros (2001) by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) by Guillermo del Toro. When I was in high-school, my school bus would pass by a block away from where Buñuel lived. I sometimes would see him come out the door and walk slowly toward the corner. He was already in his late seventies.

What was it that made you want to tell the story as a comic?

It tried in other ways: a novel, a film script. But the comic strip won. The reason is simple. I belong to a post-1968 generation in Latin America that grew up on a healthy diet of historietas, comic strips that were indigenously produced (Kalimán, for instance, as well as the political work of Rius) and showcased the endless possibilities of the form. For us, pop culture and classics works like Hopscotch (1963), One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) were undistinguishable.

You’ve been writing graphic novels for a few years now. What interests you about the form?

Its immense plasticity. It combines theater, literature, and telenovelas

Is there a way you typically write a comic or does it depend on each project and each artist?

I like collaborating with artists in all levels, from the conception of the plotline to the definition of the characters to the execution of each of the pages. Traditionally, I come up with the text. I partner with an artist whose work I admire, for instance Roberto Weil in Mister Spic Goes to Washington (2008). I proceed to map out every single aspect of the book: the front and back matters, how each panel will look, the dialogues, etc.

How did you work with Santiago Cohen on Angelitos?

A long-time collaborator of mine, Neal Sokol, send me a children’s book Cohen had done, to which I related strongly. I immediately thought of him for Angelitos. He too came of age in Mexico City after the student massacre of Tlatelolco, reading crónicas by Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Monsiváis, whose style was the Latin American equivalent to the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. Unlike other graphic novels of mine, Angelitos took a long time to gestate. Altogether it might have been five years.

Why did it take long? Was it just that you were both working on other projects at the same or was there something about this book that took a while to work out?

It’s a painful story. It took me a while to find the right tone to deliver it. I was also busy in other endeavors: theater, a travel book, and so on.

How did the book end up a part of the Latinographix line?

Frederick Aldama has been an extraordinary friend and supporter. About to launch a series dedicated to Latino graphic novels, he asked if I was working on anything in particular. I mentioned my collaboration with Santiago Cohen. The book was under contract within a couple of weeks.

I also want to ask about poetry because I like poetry. You’ve translated and edited a lot of poetry by Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Raúl Zurita, and others. You seem to like poetry as well.

As I young man, I thoroughly disliked poetry. I didn’t see a reason for it. This proves Mark Twain’s believe: youth is wasted on the young. For it is in youth where poetry is to be found: in its rashness, in its complications. It took me a long time to realized I was living in a single-sided universe with little attention to the music of words. Once I came to value that quality, poetry was a shoe-in. Today I can do without the color yellow but not without poetry.

Your book The Wall is about to be published by Pitts Book Series. Is it the first time you written poetry?

It is, indeed. I owe it to Donald Trump. His repeated diatribes about the U.S.-Mexican border persuaded me to respond, not in his language, which is barbaric, but through poetry, which is unquestionably beyond him.

The book-long poem is a journey across the U.S.-Mexico border. What inspired you?

Physically, figuratively, and metaphorically. One of my favorite books is Sor Juana’s First Dream, an epistemological exploration written at the end of the seventeenth century. The Wall is also epistemological but it is far less baroque. Its approach is associative. Through the poem itself, I simultaneously circumnavigate the division between north and south that shapes North America and recreate it page after page. Mine is a poetry of accumulation: sounds, visions, sensations. The U.S.-Mexican border is a veritable dump. It is, in my mind, as close as we get to the end of the world.

What do you think the relationship between poetry and comics?

They are friends in despair: the two make you slow down, enjoying the value of single sentence; they two play around with images; and the two are underappreciated.

Does your other work—translating, the columns you write for the New York Times—help the conceptualization of your poetry?

Not until a few years ago did I look at myself as a poet. Remember that for decades I was an outsider in regards to English. Not because you know how to put together words are you in tune with the undercurrent of the language. I now feel closer to it than I feel to Spanish. But Spanish is in my substratum. It has my DNA. Playing with the two tongues allows me to come alive.

What does it mean to you to have a voice?

It means to matter.

You take such care in how the poetry in The Wall looks, how it is displayed on the page. I kept thinking of the Southwest and the light there, how it plays with the landscape, all these different voices, and this idea of a barrier.

I wanted to make the smells of the U.S.-Mexico border come alive as well as the sights, the tastes, and the texture. I have spent a good amount of time in various sections of The Wall. It is a sight to reckon with. If nothing else, it humbles you.

Bizarrely, I also feel as if a wall has been built inside me: in my heart, in my mind. In that sense, it is quite physical. It shows up in my dreams, in the ways I express thought, in how I conceive my own emotions.

When you say that the border is “in my mind, as close as we get to the end of the world.” what do you mean by that?

The future will come to see it as a monument to human folly. I can’t think of a more disruptive sight on this side of the Atlantic.

You’re a professor at Amherst. You’re writing about Don Quixote and Neruda and language and politics. And you’re also writing plays and poems and comics. A lot of us wonder: first, how do you find the time for all of this, and second, that’s not what we really expect from academics.

In terms of time, I live with the eternal fear that today is my last day and, thus, I better get my act together. As for your second comment, for me the word academic is derogatory. It entails complacency and even a certain disdain for the world.

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