The Huffington Post has an interesting interview with Ilan Stavans about the publication of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, one of those massive door stops that only students in literature classes seem to read. While I find the Huffington Post trashy, this interview has merit. Ilan Stavans also makes it sound more interesting than Rolando Hinojosa when I saw him give a presentation on this at the University of Washington.
Don’t expect to pick it up with one hand. The anthology is over 2,600 pages long, a treasure trove of stories, poems, song lyrics and various detours along unexplored paths of American history. Stavans says he had no interest in producing a standard collection of tales from celebrated Latino writers. His anthology does contain pieces from a few modern masters — Isabel Allende, William Carlos Williams, Octavio Paz — but the scope of his vision is far greater than them. The collection begins in the year 1539, with a letter written by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, continuing on through César Chávez’s rousing political speeches, Junot Díaz’s biography of a sci-fi-obsessed dork, the cartoons of Gus Arriola, Broadway-style hip hop from Lin-Manuel Miranda, even club lyrics from Ricky Martin and the Spanglish rap of Cypress Hill.
That breathtaking span is one reason the Norton Anthology feels less like a book and more like a magic carpet ride through time and space, with Stavans’ hand on the rutter, introducing every author with a crisply written biography, explaining every political and cultural reference with an ongoing series of footnotes. Through it all, you can almost hear the happy bounce of Stavans’ fingers on the keyboard, a joy I first noticed 14 years ago as his student at Amherst College, where he is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture.
Stavans and I reconnected recently to discuss his new anthology, the clash of high and low culture in the collection, how his father shaped his literary outlook, and what exactly makes him qualified to decide who is in and who is out of the Latino literary canon.