Within this always engaging, often illuminating memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, the novelist best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love comes to terms with his identity in a different way than he has in his fiction. As a light-skinned, American-born son of Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos long felt that “whatever being Cuban was about, I just didn’t have it.”
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Here, Hijuelos shows how he came to terms with his ethnic legacy and how he developed his voice as a writer, with the help of mentors such as Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag. “Back then, I didn’t have the faintest clue as to what ‘I’—Oscar Hijuelos, the New Yorkized son of Cubans and former self-doubting acolyte of writers like Barthelme and Sontag—really sounded like.” In his memoir, the “I” reveals itself.
You describe the writing of this memoir as the "baring of my soul" and "draining (myself) emotionally." Why did you decide to do it and what did you get out of it?
I find so many memoirs are written strictly from the head that I wanted to do something that was perhaps a bit more straightforward and heartfelt. But just getting the spine of one’s life, of choosing from a myriad of events and details to make for a unified story is really difficult.
As written, I believe that Thoughts Without Cigarettes is just the tip of an iceberg—outtakes from this book are enough to fill another. Though I could have gone any number of ways, the tone I chose was one of a hopefully intimate let-the-reader inside my heart approach. The reward comes down to the feeling of, hopefully, having conveyed something of my personality on paper, as if I were sitting with my reader.
Do you think your readers will discover a different writer—or person—than the one they think they know from your fiction?
Well, my upbringing and education were not that of the typical Latino, nor for that matter, the typical Ivy League trained writer, which I was not. If my book is sometimes a little raw it was because I wanted to capture something of the roughness—and chaos—of the way I came up. At the same time, I hope I conveyed an image of the young and sensitive dope that I happened to be as I tried to get through that mess of a world—streetwise in some ways, but overly pensive in others. The yin and yang of a personality that found expression in my characters like Cesar and Nestor Castillo.
Are you surprised that more Latino American writers have not achieved critical and popular breakthroughs since the watershed triumph of Mambo Kings? Why do you think this is?
Oh, a sore subject with me, or at least while writing the memoir. I just believe that after all the progress we’ve made, and despite the success of writers like Carlos Eire, Junot Dìaz, Sandra Cisneros and Francisco Goldman, Latino authors are still lumped into a separate category from “mainstream” literature. I have yet to read a major discussion of American literature that while continually praising writers like Franzen, Foer, Foster Wallace and Chabon, among others, includes the rich and vital contributions of Latino writers from across the country. Nothing against the above mentioned mainstream authors, but it does miff me that when it comes to discussions of American literature, Latinos are still treated as minorities and therefore excluded.
This book ends with Mambo Kings. Do you anticipate another memoir to deal with your life since?
The irony is that I originally intended to begin with my success after The Mambo Kings, and to occasionally look back at my past, but I ended up telling the story of my upbringing, which, in fact, had not at all prepared me for the both the joys and miseries of a worldwide success. Perhaps, I may go into that in another memoir—maybe I’ll call it, Authors on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown!