On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language

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9780142000946: On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language

Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, and English-at various points in Ilan Stavans's life, each of these has been his primary language. In this rich memoir, the linguistic chameleon outlines his remarkable cultural heritage from his birth in politically fragile Mexico, through his years as a student activist and young Zionist in Israel, to his present career as a noted and controversial academic and writer.

Along the way, Stavans introduces readers to some of the remarkable members of his family-his brother, a musical wunderkind; his father, a Mexican soap opera star; his grandmother, who arrived in Mexico from Eastern Europe in 1929 and wrote her own autobiography. Masterfully weaving personal reminiscences with a provocative investigation into language acquisition and cultural code switching, On Borrowed Words is a compelling exploration of Stavans's search for his place in the world.

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Review:

English is Ilan Stavans's fourth language, but you'd never know it from the elegance of his prose. Indeed, he claims in this fascinating intellectual memoir, he now thinks of himself "as having been born into Yiddish and Spanish and then having been lured away by English... [I] found my true self the moment I spoke Shakespeare's tongue." The grandson of Jewish immigrants, he never felt truly at home in Mexico, though he adored Spanish: "It is far easier for me to think of my birth as having occurred in the tongue of Quevedo, Cervantes, Borges, and Octavio Paz than to perceive myself as un mexicano hecho y derecho." He was thrilled to experience Hebrew (his third tongue) as a living language, but Israel proved only a way station for the writer, who eventually discovered that "the only place I feel I truly belong is New York." Certainly the inhabitants of America's polyglot, multicultural cities will feel the strongest affinity for Stavans's memories of his grandmother, who never again spoke a word of Russian or Polish after she emigrated to Mexico, and of a sense of self that shifted depending on the language he spoke. More personal in tone, though still firmly linked to his themes, are portraits of his father, an actor whose fluency with words of emotion and affection slightly overwhelmed Ilan, and of brother Darian, who compensated for a severe stutter by communicating through music but never quite outran his personal demons. The luminous closing section, "The Lettered Man," sums up the book's primary preoccupation: identity formation through language and literature. "Sometimes I have the feeling I'm not one but two, three, four people. Is there an original person? An essence? I'm not altogether sure, for without language I am nobody." --Wendy Smith

About the Author:

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author or editor of numerous books.

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