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Amati Mehler, J. (2003). On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Languages. By Ilan Stavans. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001, 262 pp., $25.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 51(3):1075-1082.

(2003). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 51(3):1075-1082

On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Languages. By Ilan Stavans. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001, 262 pp., $25.95.

Review by:
Jacqueline Amati Mehler

Belonging as I do to the community of “exiled polylinguals,” I was fascinated by the title of this book by Ilan Stavans and looked forward to sharing the story of his attempt to communicate the fate of words and their meaning as they accompany experiences of migration through different lands, languages, affects, and object relations.

The author left Mexico—“my illiterate Mexico, where the written word has always felt like an imposition, a foreign import” (p. 18)—at the age of twenty-four and came to New York barely knowing English. In the first chapter of the book, “Mexico Lindo,” Stavans tells us that while packing his library to leave New York for Massachusetts, he thinks that when he unpacks the books from the numbered boxes he will certainly arrange them in a different order. He wonders how much he and his library “have changed together this past decade” and what the books say about him (p. 3). And this, indeed, seems to be one of the crucial issues of On Borrowed Words. I wondered on first seeing the volume whether Stavans's narrative was mainly about his encounter with books and their authors. Or perhaps it was the story of the different languages and objects that inhabit his internal world, confronted with the perception of changing contexts as he wanders through countries and cultures, partly in the real world and partly via identification with the characters of the many books he has read. Or was it more simply the autobiography of an author in search of his own identity, permanently exiled?

The search for an identity and a place of his own is deeply interwoven with words and books. Stavans says that no matter where he travels, the only place he truly belongs is New York. Why? “The answer,” he says, is “its literature” (p. 21). For Stavans, every place in Manhattan is connected with a book and its content.

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