Everything Is Iluminado: An Interview with Ilan Stavans
Ilan Stavans loves to keep things interesting, which is definitely easy to see in his fun, quirky, and wildy entertaining graphic novel El Iluminado. We talked to him about how he mixed the real and the imaginative in this story of secret religion, murderous intrigue, and hidden realities.
You’ve been a leading figure in cultural studies of Latin American and Jewish identity and published multiple books. What made you want to do a graphic novel after all this time?
Nothing annoys me more than complacency. Well, maybe one thing: realizing I’m repeating myself. I love to experiment, to venture in new directions; and I love the genre of graphic novels. It is a stepchild of the comic strips (Kalimán, La Familia Burrón, Condorito) I grew up reading in the 1970s in Mexico City. El Iluminado is a tribute to those comic strips as well as to the endearing episodes of Tin Tin and the lessons in history and politics (Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Joe Secco’s Palestine) I read upon arriving as an immigrant to the United States.
Mind you, this isn't my first incursion into the graphic novel (although everything in it felt new). In 2000, I published Latino USA: A Cartoon History (Basic), with syndicated lampoonist Lalo Alcaraz, an irreverent look at what makes Latinos so hot; and in 2008, with Venezuelan artist Roberto Weil, I published Mr. Spic Goes to Washington (Soft Skull), a parody of the Jimmy Stewart movie, which in my retelling is about a Chicano gang member from L.A. who idolizes Che Guevara and César Chavez and who accidentally becomes a U.S. Senator. The inspiration for the latter was a passing question from a young reader at a middle school: Is there something that could end, once and for all, the gridlock in D.C.? Mmmm… Yes, La Mara Salvatrucha.
In El Iluminado, I wanted to tell the story of the Crypto-Jews in the Southwest, whose ordeal few people know. The story of how they steadfastly remained attached to their tradition offers a lesson to all of us. My objective was to delve into issues of identity in a way that could attract a wider, more diverse public. I had as my ideal readers my own students, for whom I play the role of teacher, certainly, but also of agent provocateur, maybe devil’s advocate, and even entertainer.
How was the graphic novel format conducive to the story you wanted to tell in El Iluminado? Or was it? Was it more difficult to portray this story graphically?
For a long time I thought of the plot in visual (e.g., cinematic) terms. You see, I’m an avid reader of mysteries and well as history books. The graphic novel is an ideal genre to mix the two, to write detective fiction with a historical bend. Not only does one follow the clues, one can also see them. Plus, the graphic novel is the place where my students and I can meet most comfortably. Teaching has taught me to constantly look for new tools to explore ways to make ideas tangible. The young generation grew up thinking in images. Why not then thinking serious thoughts through images?
How did you and artist Steve Sheinkin work together on this story? How did you two collaborate throughout the entire project?
At one point a couple of years ago, Sheinkin and I shared the same stage. I had read his young-adult graphic novels on Rabbi Harvey, so I quickly conveyed my aspiration. Sometime later, he created an episode in which Rabbi Harvey travels to Mexico to meet Ilan Stavans. I was enthralled! One thing led to another and kaboom, El Iluminando materialized. We worked together on every aspect of it: the plotline, the script, the development of characters, the storyboard, up to the finished pages. As I say in the acknowledgments of the book, throughout my life I’ve been blessed with wonderful collaborators: musicians, stage directors, translators, philosophers, journalists, filmmakers… This one is a blessing among the blessed!
The book balances the real and the fictional deftly. Obviously, the protagonist shares his name and appearance with you, as well as his academic credentials. And Santa Fe is the setting… How much of real-life Santa Fe made it into the book? What elements of the mystery are factual?
Calling El Iluminado a novel is sheer protocol: I’ve changed the names of three or four, maybe collapsed into one a couple visits to Santa Fe. Otherwise, my role was that of a scribe: I simply transcribed what reality had dictated to me. The buildings, the statues, the aesthetic of the place are all true. Even Professor Contreras is a tribute to one of my long-lasting nemeses, for, as I’m sure you know, a successful career in academia is measured by the quality of one’s enemies.
Since the book’s release, have you found that it has introduced your work, specifically in regards to Spanglish and Crypto-Jews, to a whole new audience? Has that been beneficial?
The novel has reached a broad audience to whom these topics were alien, or perhaps just cute. The response has been extraordinary: emails, phone calls, TV and radio appearances, newspaper interviews, passionate intellectual exchanges, invitations to address new crowds, even whole communities now in conversation on what used to be seen as arcane topics. People constantly ask me if it feels good to have become a cartoon character. My answer: I’ve always been one; it’s just that now I no longer have to pretend I’m real.
Since this book combines so many elements of your work and life, and so many areas that you are passionate about, was it as much fun to write and create as it was to read?
Oh, yeah! Believe me, the fun is in the act—and art—of crafting. I pride myself on being a better reader than writer. I avoid looking at what I’ve published for fear of feeling disheartened. The joy is in the magic of creation.
Any plans to do more graphic novels?
Readers have been insistent they want another episode, which is humbling. Sheinkin and I are in the process of creating another historical thriller, this one about a lost Shakespeare play. Let me say that as I grow older, I devote more time to reading the books (novels, plays, stories, poems) that gave me pleasure in the first place. And few things match the rereading of a Shakespeare plays—with one exception: the rereading of Don Quixote, a novel that is also essential in this episode. Cervantes and the Bard died the same year; in fact, for a long time it was believed they had died on the exact same day. Did they know each other? Did they read each other’s work? It seems unlikely; that is, until you realize Shakespeare might have actually plagiarized from Don Quixote.