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Recovering Cubanness


July 15, 2011

OscarHijuelos-300.jpgThe Pulitzer Prize-winning author on his new memoir, recovering his Latin roots in America, his relationship with Donald Barthelme, and how he found his voice.

Marcel Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker all suffered isolating illnesses as children. Unlike Oscar Hijuelos, however, none lost his native tongue. Born to Cuban immigrant parents in 1951, Hijuelos grew up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan. When he was four, Hijuelos’s mother took him and his older brother on a lengthy trip to her hometown of Holguín, along the northeastern coast of Cuba. Hijuelos contracted a life-threatening kidney disorder while there; upon return to the United States, he convalesced in a hospital in Connecticut for a year, estranged from his family and his native tongue.

Feeling bewildered and maligned for his ignorance of English, Hijuelos recalls that he began to associate Spanish, a language that before then had “wrapped around [his] soul like a blanket,” with disease and disapproval. Even though he never lost his comprehension of Spanish, he would soon become paralyzed when called upon to speak it. As he muses in his just-released memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, “What I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubanness’ into air.”

As a pale-skinned Cuban-American who struggled to speak Spanish, Hijuelos drifted through his childhood and adolescence with little sense of his own identity—an outsider both to his parents’s culture and to the multiple ethnic groups that populated his Manhattan neighborhood. He remained acutely aware that, in his own words, “something inside of me was missing, an element of personality in need of repair.” That Hijuelos, whose novels paint vivid portraits of Cuban-American life in the United States, grew up linguistically and psychologically disconnected from his Hispanic heritage, comes as a surprise. But it was primarily through writing, albeit in English, that he would find the means not only to explore his childhood alienation but also to reconnect with his Hispanic roots.

Hijuelos received his bachelor’s degree and MFA from City College, where he honed his craft under the guidance of Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag, among others. He published his debut novel, Our House in the Last World, while working full time at an advertising agency. Heavily autobiographical, the novel centers on a working class family very much like Hijuelos’s own, with a character whose near-fatal childhood illness severs him from his Cuban roots. Our House in the Last World was awarded the Rome Prize, which came with an eleven-month residency at the American Academy in Rome, Italy. Living overseas for the first time in his adult life, Hijuelos found that his unfamiliar environment stirred up dormant creative energies within him; as he put it, “Rome had become my Havana—and held out such strong resonances for me that I, sitting in my study, a cigarette burning in my tray… found the words gushing out from me, like so much water from the Acqua Paola down the hill.”

The novel that poured out of him was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a lush, exuberant, and glandular rumination on the dreams and disappointments of two Cuban brothers who find fleeting success in the New York City music scene of the fifties. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, the novel is “another kind of American story—an immigrant story of lost opportunities and squandered hopes… While it portrays the musical world of the ’50s in bright, primary colors, the novel is essentially elegiac in tone—a Chekhovian lament for a life of missed connections and misplaced dreams.” Nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love eventually won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As the first Latino writer to receive that honor, Hijuelos is widely credited for drawing greater attention to Hispanic narratives within the U.S.

Since then, Hijuelos has published six further novels, including The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1993), Empress of the Splendid Season (1999), and Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010), a book that imagines the plight of the ex-lover and muse of one of the Mambo Kings.

I spoke with Oscar Hijuelos by phone on a sunny afternoon in late May, hours before a pre-launch reading of Thoughts Without Cigarettes at The Americas Society in New York City.

—Luke Epplin for Guernica

Guernica: You’ve written eight novels thus far, and while there are parts of them that seem loosely based on your life—the character of Hector Santinio in your debut novel, Our House in the Last World, and Eugenio in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love come to mind—Thoughts Without Cigarettes is your first work of nonfiction. I’m curious about what compelled you to write a memoir now.

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, I’ve often asked myself that [laughs]. My original idea was for the memoir to be about the anxiety brought about by becoming suddenly well-known. I’ve always been an incredibly private person. I wanted to explore the period in my life right after I’d published Mambo Kings, and then discuss the vagaries of the literary world, the falsehoods and delusions involved with becoming well known.

Guernica: Could you give an example of the delusions you’re referring to?

I was so underdeveloped in Spanish that when I started writing in English it became a means of compensation. But it also came out of trying to find myself.

Oscar Hijuelos: Oh, I don’t know, like how everybody becomes your best pal in the whole world [laughs]. You’re the thing suddenly. I’m not saying that everyone you meet is insincere in their admiration or whatever. Let me put it this way: I once met someone at a party who was extremely rude to me. It was a person who kept looking around the room. As soon as she found out who I was, there was nothing she wouldn’t do to ingratiate herself to me. Do you understand what I mean by someone who looks around the room?

Guernica: I’m not sure. Could you explain?

Oscar Hijuelos: I’m talking about folks who work the system and take advantage of any opportunity they can find to advance themselves. I grew up with the idealistic notion that writing and literature were noble causes. I had no inkling, no sense of what I would eventually encounter in terms of people who weren’t being sincere. I’m not saying that it happens always or a lot, but it happens enough that sometimes it makes me feel a little queasy. So the original concept for the memoir had to do with that period of anxiety. However, my publisher was much more interested in how I became a writer, so I ended up going down that route.

Guernica: Was the process of writing the memoir different than the process of writing fiction?

Oscar Hijuelos: I would say so. As a fiction writer you train yourself to think about situations subjectively. I don’t really care for narratives that are just A, B, C, D, and then E. I like the aura that fiction has, how it can conjure up dream imagery. It’s a sort of emotional speculation that you can shape and work with. But writing a memoir is so much about getting things as right as you possibly can. Unfortunately, because a lot of years have passed since I was a kid, I found it difficult to recall what happened in many instances. It comes down to the interpretation of how you remember certain things, and you won’t always get them right, no matter what.

Guernica: So would you say that you felt confined by the linear structure of your memoir?

Oscar Hijuelos: I don’t think I’d say that. I’d say that the memoir I’ve written is simply the tip of a much bigger iceberg. There were so many outtakes and ideas that I wanted to pursue. You have to make dozens of choices from each period in your life, and you run with the ones that seem to work on the page. For example, I used to play with this band up in the South Bronx, and we had junky amplifiers and hardly knew how to play anything. So I wrote this scene about how my band mate’s uncle worked at a country club resort in New Jersey. Kids used to go out there and audition with their crummy amps, and they’d be up against these bands that had giant amps and modern sound systems. The point of the incident wasn’t about me having played in New Jersey with a bunch of kids from the Bronx; I was more interested in exploring how some kids have advantages right from the start. But that was the kind of scene that was cut in my memoir. I’m not complaining. The hardest thing is figuring out what choices to make.

Guernica: Let’s talk about some of those choices. You focus quite a bit on the story of your parents. Both your mother and father emigrated from Cuba to New York City in the early forties, shortly after they were married. How did the America that they encounter differ from the one that they’d hoped to find?

Oscar Hijuelos: My father actually came to New York as a young man of sixteen to visit some family friends, and he liked it enough that he thought of going back. I don’t believe my father ever realized what he was getting into in terms of the difficulty of the working life. He had it relatively easy in Cuba, but he also had some enterprising sisters—one worked for Pan Am and the other was married to a big-time Cuban musician. So there was this allure of America with its many immigrants coupled with the advantage of [having] relatives who’d pioneered to the States before him. I don’t know if disappointment is the right word to describe his experience, but I think he probably got in over his head in many ways.

Guernica: Was Spanish the primary language of the house when you were growing up?

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, until her later years my mother always spoke Spanish. My father spoke English out of necessity for his job [as a cook at the Biltmore Hotel]. I don’t recall anyone speaking anything but Spanish to me as a kid.

Guernica: When you were four, you took a trip with your family to Cuba, where you contracted nephritis. When you returned, you convalesced in a Connecticut hospital for a year and while there you lost your ability to speak Spanish. There’s a great line about it in Thoughts Without Cigarettes: “Something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubanness’ into air.” Is that what it felt like to you at the time, that your Cuban roots had dissipated? What did it mean to lose your so-called “Cubanness?”

Oscar Hijuelos: I was shell-shocked. When I came back home from the hospital after a year, my mother claimed that I didn’t want to speak Spanish, but in fact, I just couldn’t. It would be accurate to call it a psychological block. I felt bewildered. When I came back, I knew I was part of the family, but emotionally and linguistically I felt a little estranged. Unfortunately, my parents were of that generation where it was maybe a good thing [laughs].

Guernica: How so?

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, better to learn English in this country than not. That’s an attitude I’ve encountered with some Cubans whose children were born here. They say, “Well, the kids are more comfortable with English, and that’s okay with me.” It’s a loss and, looking back now, I wish someone had picked up on it for my own sake.

Guernica: I’m interested in this idea of a mental block, largely because in Our House in the Last World, Hector, a character seemingly modeled after you, suffers a similar affliction. At one point in the novel you write: “[Hector] began to make a conscious effort to be ‘Cuban,’ and yet the very idea of Cubanness inspired fear in him, as if he would grow ill from it, as if microbios would be transmitted by the very mention of the word, ‘Cuba.’” Did this line come from your own experience? I mean, did you feel that speaking Spanish would somehow bring back the illness that you’d suffered?

Oscar Hijuelos: Interesting. You know, I wrote that novel in my twenties, so I was much closer to the emotions that I’d experienced as a kid than I am now. The key word in there is “fear,” as in, a fear of being who you are and who you should be. When I was writing my debut novel, I was in touch with a lot of fears. I was seeing a shrink who was Cubano, and he was interested in getting to the heart of what was bloqueado. You know, I can dream in Spanish and [the language] comes back to me when I’m in a Spanish-speaking environment, but it doesn’t take much for me to lose it as well.

Guernica: It seems that losing your Spanish meant losing a crucial part of your identity, and I think it’s curious that it was through writing, albeit in a different language, that you managed to come to terms with this loss. Is that a fair statement to make? Did the linguistic shortcomings of your childhood spur you to explore yourself through writing?

Oscar Hijuelos: It had something to do with it, yeah. I was so underdeveloped in Spanish that when I started writing in English it became a means of compensation. But it also came out of trying to find myself. Losing my Spanish fed my fiction because it made me more nurturing.

I always liked being around Spanish-speaking folks who I already knew, but when I started to go out in the world, I saw that prejudice really is skin-deep.

Guernica: In what ways?

Oscar Hijuelos: I’m just thinking of the whole emotional world that Spanish represents for me. When I was coming up as a writer, there was this incredible boom in Latin American letters. Suddenly, there was outside verification that it’s a good thing to have these emotions that are slightly different. At the same time, I was in this situation where it was okay for my parents to speak to me in Spanish, and it was okay for me to respond in English. Although this was problematic for my mother because she simply wasn’t as fluent as my father was.

Guernica: Could you elaborate on how your lack of spoken Spanish affected your relationship with your parents?

Oscar Hijuelos: My father was a laconic guy. He would hang out with his friends and have all kinds of discussions about work and politics, but they never asked me, Y tu, Oscar, que te opines? I was pure ojos then, a fly on the wall, just taking in all that talk. In contrast, my mother was more loquacious.

Guernica: And poetic.

Oscar Hijuelos: Oh yes, she wrote poetry. You know, I grew up going to public clinics and low-end department stores, and on many occasions, she became anxious when she had to fill out forms. I always had to guide her through those things. The funny thing is, as an immigrant, my father felt fairly at ease, whereas my mother never really got used to having to adapt to a new system until she hit her seventies.

Guernica: Even through your adolescence, you felt like an outsider, both with your family and in your neighborhood. Could you talk more about these feelings and how they shaped you? Did they heighten your powers of observation? Or make it easier to drift like a spy through certain social and ethnic groups?

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, I had a kind of double whammy. I didn’t comport myself like a Latino, and I didn’t particularly look like one either.

Guernica: You mentioned that people continually commented on the lightness of your skin.

Oscar Hijuelos: Oh yes, I have very, very light skin. I didn’t fit into the general image of what a Latino was supposed to look like. I remember riding buses in the Bronx on my way back from high school, and the Irish kids on the bus would say “spic this” and “spic that.” But then when I was fourteen years old, I tried to get in touch with my Latin roots by joining an organization called ASPIRA, but I was given a frosty reception by these kids there who were pissed off at “whitey.” That’s the thing: it doesn’t take much to push you away if you’re already shell-shocked. I always liked being around Spanish-speaking folks who I already knew, but when I started to go out in the world, I saw that prejudice really is skin-deep. Of course, there are other layers, but much of it is just race and appearance.

Guernica: When you were an adolescent, you were an aficionado of comic books. What drew you to comics and have they influenced your work in any way?

Oscar Hijuelos: They were like my children’s books. We didn’t have the classics that kids normally read, like The Little Engine That Could. In my neighborhood, comics were our children’s literature. I don’t quite know how they tie in with my fiction. I like the bluntness of their pacing, but I never thought of them as literature. They were leisure reading. In fact, I learned how to read in English by reading comics alongside my mother. One of my most vivid memories is of her trying to fathom Felix the Cat.

Guernica: You attended City College in New York for both your undergraduate and MFA degrees. One of your mentors there was Donald Barthelme. It strikes me as a curious relationship, because Barthelme’s stories are known for their concision, cerebral nature, and postmodern bent. In contrast, I would classify your writing as exuberant, expansive, and interested in the characters’s emotional landscapes. What sort of relationship did you have with Barthelme? How did his guidance shape your early work?

Oscar Hijuelos: There are two things I can say about Donald. One, he was a word man; he loved language. Even though he wrote a certain way—minimalist, sort of collage-like—if he read something that he thought had heart and if he admired the language, he didn’t care what he was reading. Second, the guy had a heart of gold with his students. He was not a snob. He would judge the work on its own basis. Over time, I started to absorb his techniques. I mean, Mambo Kings is very much a collage novel. One of my big regrets is that Donald passed away before he could read that book. I thought about sending him an advance reader’s copy, but I waited too long. I wanted him to see the finished book because I’d made some corrections in the proofing stages. Unfortunately, in that time he fell ill and passed away. But I was very much under the sway of Donald’s techniques. A lot of people consider my books to be straightforward, but I think that I write from atmosphere to atmosphere rather than from event to event.

Guernica: Yeah, the structure of Mambo Kings is wonderfully disjointed. To me, it feels musical in tone, kind of jazzy and unpredictable. How did you conceive of Mambo Kings’ structure?

Oscar Hijuelos: Structurally, Mambo Kings was influenced by two books: Three Trapped Tigers by [Guillermo] Cabrera Infante and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. But Barthelme’s influence was also present, even though my style is wildly different than his. There was a point when I had all these sections of the manuscript laid out in my room, and I’d spend hours just putting them in different orders.

Guernica: So it truly was a collage.

Oscar Hijuelos: Oh, absolutely, it’s a collage novel. In fact, I’d written another seventy-five pages for the book that were linear. They so stuck out that I removed them.

Guernica: Let’s talk some more about your beginnings as a writer. There’s this discernible tension in your memoir. On the one hand, as a fledgling writer you come across to me as productive, passionate, and well supported by key figures at City College. In fact, at one point Barthelme recommended that you attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. On the other hand, you’re self-deprecating and discount the possibility that you could ever become a “writer.” How did you reconcile this tension?

Oscar Hijuelos: I think that part of the reason I wrote was for acceptance. But, parenthetically, there floated a cloud in my brain that was filled with every self-doubt I’d ever had about myself. I thought people were simply being nice to me when they said I was doing something well. Of course, I lived in the moment. If Barthelme told me, “This is a very interesting and well told story,” I floated around for an hour before my doubts resurfaced. Then I’d say, “Nah, the real geniuses are these other guys in the class.” I think I confused trying to articulate my feelings with courting disapproval.

If you’d told me that my second novel would be received the way it was, I doubt if I could’ve written it. I didn’t have that kind of ambition. I just believed in the nobility of the task.

Guernica: I can see that, but on a certain level you must have had a bit of confidence in your abilities. You continually rejected career-advancing promotions while you worked at an advertising firm so that you could dedicate more time to your craft. That indicates to me that perhaps subconsciously you thought you could make it as a writer.

Oscar Hijuelos: What? The fact that I didn’t move to Seattle to run my firm’s office there?

Guernica: Well, yeah. Your boss tried to move you up the company ladder and you kept rebuffing him.

Oscar Hijuelos: I thought I was fighting the good fight in my own way. But come on, if you’d told me that my second novel would be received the way it was, I doubt if I could’ve written it. I didn’t have that kind of ambition. I just believed in the nobility of the task. You know, life is short, art is long—all that sort of business. I saw writing as sort of peripheral to whatever else I was doing. I mean, I had confidence in my writing and I enjoyed it, but I never thought it would make much of an impact.

Guernica: Is it fair to say that much of your reluctance to classify yourself as a writer came from the fact that homegrown Latino writers were often overlooked by big publishing houses at that time?

Oscar Hijuelos: Overlooked is a kind way of putting it. I mean, there were just no Latino writers. I remember going to the Mid-Manhattan Library and coming across a book by a Latina writer. I think Knopf published it, and I was thrilled that they’d signed up someone with a Hispanic last name. There was really nothing at the time. The only other one I can think of was Family Installments by Ed Rivera. It was a novel about growing up Puerto Rican in New York, but the book was seen as such an anomaly that it was published as a memoir. Had I been aware of the obscure presses, I probably would’ve seen more books [by Latino authors]. But there was no conversation then, no New York Times roundup of Latino writers. There still isn’t [laughs].

Guernica: Do you think that publishing houses continue to undervalue Latino writing? Or do you think that the situation has improved over the last few decades, with the rise of Latino writers such as Daniel Alarcón and Junot Díaz, and Hispanic writers like Roberto Bolaño?

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, Latino writers were really hot in the nineties. I used to get a million galleys and I blurbed every one of them. I must’ve been known as a blurb slut, but I just figured those kids needed help. Now I see far fewer novels being published by Latinos. I love Junot’s work. He’s a really wonderful writer and I’m glad for him. Robert Bolaño? Eh, he’s overrated. There are a lot of writers of Mexican descent in the United States, like Rudy Anaya, Victor Villaseñor, and Sandra Cisneros, whom you never hear about anymore. It’s all about niche marketing, and I just don’t think that publishers have fully figured out how to market to Latino audiences. So I’m aware of Alarcón and others, and I’m glad they’re out there. But it’s not like there’s a boom going on.

Guernica: Do you feel pressure to have your novels revolve around Latino characters because of your background and last name?

Oscar Hijuelos: Yeah, I think there’s an expectation. Let me put it this way: I once worked on a manuscript, somewhat peripherally, that had nothing to do with Latino themes, and I was told that it didn’t sound like me. So, yeah, that’s a problem [laughs].

Guernica: A review published in the New York Times Book Review for your debut novel classified you as an immigrant writer, and it seems that most reviewers speak of you either as a Cuban-American writer, a Latino writer, a Hispanic writer. Do you find these ethnic designations unfair or, better, too narrow?

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, publishers need to have a market, and there’s undoubtedly quite a bit of categorization that goes on. I wrote a book called The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien. I wrote it mostly in what I considered female language; that is, my choice of verbs and nouns and adjectives were based on softer vowels and more feminine sounding words. I did that in response to the manliness of the Mambo Kings. I also had elaborate jokes running through the novel. I did an homage to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, for example. I describe one of my characters as looking exactly like the actor Joel McCrea. He even meets Joel McCrea in Hollywood and says something like, “You know, we could be related.” I can tell you definitively that not a single reviewer in the United States noticed that kind of artifice. I sometimes feel that the artfulness of some of my work has been overlooked in favor of this more general hook.

Guernica: You mentioned the emotional world that Spanish represents for you. Is your interest in exploring your characters’ emotional landscape connected to your acquaintance with the Spanish language?

Oscar Hijuelos: If I write a paragraph and I don’t get a certain lift from it, if I don’t feel connected to it emotionally, then it’s dead to me. When I’m reading other fiction writers, if I don’t get any emotional investment from the writer, if it’s just intellectual or clever—you know, most writing that passes as deep is just clever—I don’t feel any connection. So all I try to do is impart some emotion that people can relate to, and whether it comes from the Spanish language is beside the point. You know, someone once asked [Boris] Pasternak why he always had religious imagery in his novels and poetry, and he answered: “Because they warm a room like a candle.” That’s pretty much why I fill my scenes with emotion.

Photograph by Dario Acosta

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