As a Jewish Mexican American, he has made himself a wrecking ball aimed at the walls -- literal and imagined -- that make virtual strangers of his varied ethnic roots.
"I'm very interested in borders or the absence thereof," said Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. "We live in a world where every country is perfectly delineated with lines, where we can have fences or where we can have helicopters and dogs and patrols. To what degree are those borders replicated in our minds? How do we cross a border that is fictional or imaginary, or do we carry them with us forever?"
Cultural identity and the roles people play for the sake of assimilation are themes Stavans probed in his 2005 short story, "The Disappearance," which follows a Jewish Belgian actor who seemingly fakes his own kidnapping by a neo-Nazi group. Stavans last year partnered with Massachusetts theater group, Double Edge Theatre, to adapt the story into a play, which will premiere at the Skirball Cultural Center Oct. 16-17.
The production marks the first time Stavans has helped adapt one of his works for performance -- an endeavor inspired, in part, by the performer he's known longest.
"It all comes from having seen my father at the theater. He was very influential for me," said Stavans, who, as a child, watched his father become a popular stage and soap opera star in Mexico City. "I don't feel that I have cut loose from my past -- I feel that my past is still with me. I have spent my entire life as a writer trying to return to it."
Stavans' grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Ukraine, escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism. They wanted to settle in the United States, but strict immigration quotas pushed them south. Stavans grew up in Copilco, a multiethnic, middle-class enclave in the southern part of Mexico City, and attended a Yiddish-language school.
Being one of a handful of Jewish people in his neighborhood was sometimes difficult.
"On the one hand, it made me feel special and unique, but it also made me feel vulnerable," Stavans said. "I grew up with a sense of being a minority -- that just by accident, I was Mexican. We were Jewish because our ancestors were Jewish, but we were Mexican because someone had put his or her finger on the map and said, 'We need to escape; let's go here.'"
Stavans dabbled in filmmaking and theater and began writing novels. He dropped out of college and traveled in Europe and Israel but never felt comfortable calling either place home. Back in Mexico, he got his bachelor's degree from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in 1984. At age 25, he moved to New York City to pursue the life of an intellectual. But the transition wasn't easy.
"When I came to this country, I became an altogether different person," Stavans said. "I was never a Mexican in Mexico; I was a Jew. Upon arriving to the U.S., and particularly to New York City, I somewhat magically ceased to be Jewish. All of a sudden, I became Mexican."
Amid shifting ethnic labels, Stavans also grappled with the newest piece of his cultural puzzle: being an American. He dove into academics, earning graduate degrees at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. An Amherst professor since 1993, he has, over the years, built a reputation as a prolific writer, lexicographer, translator and cultural analyst.
Throughout his career, Stavans said he has been criticized "a million times" by both Latinos and Jews, who claim he isn't an authentic enough face for either culture to act as its spokesperson.
"I'm an appetizing target because I'm not your standard Latino or your stereotypical Jew," he admitted. "But criticism is a source of energy. As long as you present work that is grounded, responsibly structured and aesthetically refined, criticism simply means that the work matters."
Stavans' numerous books include "The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People" (1995), the autobiography "On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language" (2001), "Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language" (2003) and the newly released "Resurrecting Hebrew" (2008), which chronicles the revival of the language in the late 1800s by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Stavans also edited "The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories" (1998), "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda" (2003) and the three-volume "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories" (2005), among others.
His short story, "Morirse Está en Hebreo," was recently adapted as the 2007 feature film, "My Mexican Shivah," in which his father, Abraham Stavans, had a role.
Not bad for an exile who didn't even pick up English until his mid-20s.
"I feel very close to the Jewish diasporic tradition that traverses borders, both with countries and languages," Stavans said. "There is something within Jews that defies established borders -- or maybe that is inspired by them -- to break them, to go beyond them. Diaspora is in our blood; it's the source of our intellectual and spiritual sustenance. We can carry in our books the DNA that will keep that Jewishness alive through the next diaspora."
The question for Stavans is how that Jewishness might be expressed.
Fictional actor Maarten Soëtendrop glides from stage to stage at the peak of his success in Stavans' "The Disappearance."
The Belgian population goes into an uproar when the Jewish actor is kidnapped by a band of neo-Nazis, reappearing 18 days later in an alley, bloody and beaten. But when Soëtendrop -- a Holocaust survivor -- confesses to plotting the whole scheme, suspicions swirl over his intentions, his past and whether, in a larger sense, Jews can ever find stable footing as perpetual outsiders in foreign cultures.
"I wanted to address the ghosts that Jews carry within themselves when living in a country where we are a minority," Stavans said. "I wanted to explore the changing nature of Jewish identity -- how do we react to the environment? Are we hypocrites because we keep one truth for ourselves and present another truth to society at large?"
The work is based on the true story of a prominent Belgian actor, Jules Croiset, whose self-staged kidnapping Stavans read about in The New York Times in 1988.
The story's themes of secrecy and betrayal appealed to Stacy Klein, founder and artistic director of Double Edge Theatre, who wanted to collaborate with Stavans after reading some of his material.
Klein invited Stavans to see the Ashfield, Mass., group's interpretation of "Don Quixote" in 2006. At the beginning of the piece, Stavans recalled, the performers staged a bonfire in which they were burning books.
"They knew I was going to come to that particular performance, and they put on top of that pile of books three or four of my own books," he said. "I was shocked to see that my books were being burnt right in front of my eyes. It was a very provocative statement. I thought what they were doing was quite interesting and a relationship started."
Stavans attended several Double Edge rehearsals, sometimes taking part in their improvisations.
"The shaping of the play was very untraditional," he said. "Rather than the writer sitting in his office and deciding where to start, I gathered everyone in the troupe, read my story and each of the actors began improvising different aspects of the story."
Not only is Double Edge's production of "The Disappearance" Stavans' first theatrical adaptation, but it will also serve as the author's acting debut -- Stavans said he plans to join the cast onstage during select dates in roles he won't reveal beforehand. "It's going to be a surprise for the audience," he said.
After an engagement at the Skirball Cultural Center the show will travel to Legnica, Poland, and New York City.
On Oct. 15, also at the Skirball, Stavans will give a lecture titled, "Who Stole the Statue of Liberty? Immigration in America Today," in which he will discuss the modern immigration experience.
For tickets or more information, call (877) 722-4849.