Book Bag: ‘The Oven’ by Ilan Stavans; ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee

Published: 7/12/2018 1:57:31 PM

by Steve Pfarrer


By Ilan Stavans

Photographs by Bill Hughes

University of Massachusetts Press

Aside from being a prolific writer, Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, is a regular speaker and commentator on a number of subjects. But it may be news to some that he’s also an actor, soon to appear in a one-act, one-man play, “The Oven.” He worked with Matthew Glassman, a co-artistic director of Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre, to develop the piece.

“The Oven” recounts Stavans’ experience some years back of traveling to Colombia, where he meets an engaging, 40-something man, Benjamin (“He was relaxed in a Zen-like way … [and] he looked like a young, modern version of Don Quioxte”) who describes himself variously as an artist and a shaman. Benjamin tells Stavans he’s a member of an Indian tribe from a region of the Amazon rainforest and invites him to take part in a shamanic ceremony there.

Reluctantly, Stavans finds himself agreeing to the proposal. He senses taking part in the ritual will be about letting go of his self-control and his rational, cerebral approach to life; he fears that, yet he’s also strangely drawn to it because routine has become too much a part of his life. “At some point,” he says, “evidence of the disquiet came pounding down on me.”

The ceremony involves ingesting a hallucinogenic brew, ayahuasca, after which he begins experiencing all manner of bizarre visions (“I eat a deer. Leisurely.”) and imagines twin rabbis having a conversation — in the middle of an oven. He finds himself questioning many of his core beliefs.

The University of Massachusetts Press presents the full text of the “The Oven” in an edition that includes multiple photographs of Stavans during a performance. The photos mirror his journey from calm academic to disheveled, sweat-soaked raconteur, one who later finds himself rejuvenated and his life refreshed — because, as he says at the end of the performance, “It is true: An unexamined life is not worth living.”

Ilan Stavans presents his one-man play “The Oven” at the Ko Festival at Amherst College tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.


By Alexander Chee

Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Alexander Chee, a one-time writing teacher at Amherst College, took over a dozen years to finish his most recent novel, 2015’s “Queen of the Night,” but he did plenty of other writing during that period, including when he was at Amherst, from 2006 to 2010.

Some of that work is part of Chee’s newest book, “How to Write An Autobiographical Novel,” a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects — his upbringing as a half-Korean/half American, his father’s death, Donald Trump’s election as president, the AIDS crisis, his progress from student to writer — that collectively make for a loose memoir that offers an overall look at what it means to try and make a life as an artist.

The book, Chee’s first collection of nonfiction, has received good reviews so far; Publishers Weekly ranked it a “Top 10” collection of new essay writing. Chee, today a professor of English at Dartmouth College, is also the author of the 2001 novel “Edinburgh,” a coming-of-age tale that won a number of awards.

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” includes previously published work as well as new essays, such as “Inheritance,” in which Chee reflects on his father’s untimely death at age 43. He received an inheritance at age 18 from a trust formed from his father’s money, since his father had not made out a will before he died and the state of Maine, where the family lived, divided the money between Chee, his two siblings and their mother.

One of the first things he did, Chee writes, was to buy a fancy car, a black Alfa Romero, because “My father had loved fast cars and expensive ones, both, and so I bought what I thought he’d want for me.” Nine years later, the car died and Chee’s trust was exhausted, leaving him at first feeling like he was shedding a burden of sorts. “And yet spending the last of it was not just like failing my father,” he writes. “It was like losing him again.”

And in “On Becoming an American Writer,” he wrestles with a question many writers have struggled with at time: Does writing matter, given calamitous events like 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq, or the continued decline in the quality of life for many Americans?

“Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or do anything of significance,” he writes. “I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword … Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time.”

But ultimately, he concludes, writing is important: Writers cannot only transport readers to another time and place but speak truth to power. “I think it’s the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at





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