The novels of Oscar Hijuelos have enchanted readers worldwide, transporting us to vibrant worlds and inspiring great conversations about the power of love and memory. In Thoughts Without Cigarettes, his first nonfiction book, Hijuelos takes us home to the locales—in New York and beyond—that have stoked his creativity throughout his life.
In evocative scenes, Hijuelos describes a childhood marked by near-fatal illness (which deprived him of feasting on Cuban delicacies); raucous arguments between his aristocratic, high-strung mother and his hardworking, hard-drinking father, who died much too young; colorful Puerto Rican, Cuban, Irish, German, and Italian neighbors; and a turbulent but marvelous road to adulthood as New York became a nexus for liberation in the 1960s and ’70s. Caught between his working-class roots and the Columbia University intellectuals who gradually took over his section of west Harlem, he was an outsider on all fronts—a situation compounded by the fact that he was the only member of his family who could not master the Spanish language. As he scraped together a living while taking writing classes at City College, he found himself struggling to fit in with highbrow literary circles, convinced that they would never value a novel about the Cuban-American experience. Illuminating the indelible origins of Hijuelos’s best-loved characters, Thoughts Without Cigarettes captures the remarkable journey of this storytelling genius.
Raising provocative questions about identity, survival, and the sometimes conflicted feelings we have about our families, Thoughts Without Cigarettes captures a life
ABOUT OSCAR HIJUELOS
Oscar Hijuelos is the internationally bestselling author of eight novels, including The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, for which he became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He has also received the Rome Prize and prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Born in Manhattan in 1951, he divides his time between New York and North Carolina, where he teaches at Duke University.A CONVERSATION WITH OSCAR HIJUELOS
Q. In your previous books, you had the freedom of fiction for reinventing episodes from your life. What was it like to write nonfiction, in which you were the protagonist?
Well, first thing, given that memory is so capricious, you can’t help wondering if you are getting things right: And while one comes to feel that the “I” being written about is really about yourself, the irony is that time—over the distance of the years—produces a version of events and of yourself so different than who you actually are now, that it seems you are writing about someone else.
Q. You observe that America’s Latino/a writers are almost invisible in today’s literary scene. Why do you suppose this is so?
Invisible is not the right word—and not my choice. Under-represented, under-appreciated, and under-celebrated in the hallowed halls of high lit would be more appropriate phrases in describing our circumstances. Though Latino writing has experienced peaks, notably in the 1990s, it seems that the predominantly non-Hispanic hierarchy presiding over literary reviewing and prize-giving has been almost ignoring Latino writing in recent years. (For example, just look at the roster of inductees into the American Institute of Arts and Letters: I think the last Latino literature inductee into its ranks was Nicholas Mohr—back in the 1970s!) As for the reasons why, I can only speculate.
Q. Why did the Harlem Renaissance only encompass African American writers, while your memoir illustrates how diverse those blocks north of Columbia (and in east Harlem) truly were?
I think the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was the product of a wonderfully artistic but insular cultural circumstance. I doubt that this had much to do with the ethnic groups populating different sectors of Harlem in those years—notably the Irish and Italians. Mix in the ethnic frictions that lasted until the late 1960s and you see why that insularity on the part of black folks existed. Of course, black writing and music surely had its influences, and has obviously contributed to the American scene big time, but I doubt it was anything that registered with your average working-class guy living in the area.
Q. What do you think of twenty-first-century New York City, with the Biltmore essentially vanished and cheap rents nonexistent? Did the New York of your youth do a better job of fostering creativity?
I think the New York that exists now has very little to do with the New York I grew up in. Today’s New York is mainly about money, or to put it differently, Manhattan, for the most part, has been overtaken by folks whose main interest in life is to acquire money and flaunt it. And while the city still remains ethnically integrated, in certain neighborhoods, when you see Latinos chances are they are a part of the transient work force, which is to say the city will always have its immigrants, though where they live will be driven by economics as opposed to choice. As for the Biltmore, I think it was just a victim of changing times; it was probably too huge and sprawling a hotel to support itself in a unionized fair-wage economy.
And no, I don’t think the New York of my youth did a “better job” of fostering creativity, which comes from within and not from without, but it did offer the average kid a much broader range of choices in terms of affordable and inspiring activities; just about everything was much cheaper. And there were a greater range of interesting mom-and-pop shops to enjoy: For example, I miss the old second-hand bookstores that one could find on Fourth Avenue and getting lost in that world. Surely you can find the same stuff these days on the Internet, but it’s just not as much fun. I can remember how one could walk into the Pierpont Morgan Library for free—now it’s about twenty dollars—and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a buck or two, or see a Broadway show for ten bucks.
Q. Your recent novel Dark Dude was written for a young-adult audience. What would you like for young adults, particularly aspiring writers, to learn from your memoir?
To respect your parents, pay attention at school, and read as much as you can, especially when you are writing. Also that one should not get discouraged by all the mean-spirited knuckleheads in the world. And to keep your focus, no matter how things may seem sometimes.
Q. Music permeates your work (an LP even gave The Mambo Kings its title and jacket art), though Thoughts Without Cigarettes features your immersion in rock. If your memoir had a soundtrack, which songs would have to be included?
“Groovin’” and “Good Lovin’” by The Young Rascals
“Time Is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones
“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” by the Righteous Brothers
“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed
“Watermelon Man” by Mongo Santamaría
“Take Five” by Dave Brubeck
“Soul Burst (Wachi Wawa )” by Cal Tjader, among many possible others
Q. Was it difficult to find a good stopping point for your memoir? Do you have plans to write a second one that brings us up to speed on the latter half of your life, after the success of The Mambo Kings?
Not really. Deciding on the focal points was far more difficult: For every scene or mention of a person or event in it, I could have written ten times more. It was more a challenge in terms of what I should talk about.
As for a follow-up, we will see how folks respond to this. If they are interested in more, perhaps I will.
- In his memoir, Oscar Hijuelos brings to life the locales that shaped his sense of self, from Morningside Heights to his mother’s hometown in Cuba and his glorious sojourn in Spain and Italy. Which neighborhoods, towns, or countries capture who you are? Where were your most important memories formed?
- Thoughts Without Cigarettes describes a life that defies stereotypes. How did Hijuelos’s youth compare to your assumptions about him?
- Hijuelos describes his father’s world of work, in an era when salaries were distributed in envelopes of cash and time off was a rare luxury. Later, his father seemed quietly surprised by his daughter-in-law’s good salary in a white-collar job. How was Hijuelos’s relationship to money different from his father’s? How did they define rich and poor?
- What did Pascual and Magdalena teach their sons about love and romance? How did Hijuelos’s relationships, including his first marriage, reflect his evolving idea of who he was and his place in the world?
- What sets this memoir apart from others you have read? How do Hijuelos’s storytelling gifts, combining nostalgia with raw candor, make Thoughts Without Cigarettes read like a novel?
- Hijuelos’s novels are steeped in memory with characters who (like his parents) look back on their lives wistfully, sometimes haunted by a pivotal decision. What aspects of Hijuelos’s best-known characters, the Castillo brothers from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, recur in the real-life figures of this memoir? How do the flashy César and the poet Nestor capture two sides of Hijuelos himself?
- Discuss the role of food in the formation of memories. What are your most powerful childhood memories of food? How did it affect Hijuelos to be deprived of his mother’s cooking? What other types of hunger did Hijuelos experience as a child?
- Hijuelos vividly captures the cultural transformation of New York in the 1960s and 1970s as drugs and crime (and Columbia University construction projects) spread throughout his neighborhood. How did this cultural revolution make Hijuelos a better writer? How did this time and place compare to the village atmosphere where his parents had spent their youth?
- How did Catholicism influence Magdalena’s view of the world? What rituals, religious or otherwise, gave comfort to the other immigrants living in Morningside Heights?
- Even after he was released from the Connecticut convalescent hospital, Hijuelos continued to feel isolated in school, among neighborhood boys, in his family, and eventually in college. How was he able to create such pitch-perfect renderings of the communities he did not feel welcomed by?
- In many ways, Hijuelos’s success beat the odds. What does his journey—enduring a literary community rife with snobs and harsh critics—say about the way creative talent is developed in America?
- On the surface, Pascual and Magdalena seem to have a household that would never foster creative sons. Yet both Oscar and José follow unconventional career paths in the humanities after leaving behind stable careers in advertising and the military. How did their upbringing enable them to make these leaps of faith?
- Which members of Hijuelos’s extended family made a lasting impression on you? How was Oscar affected by being the namesake of a beloved uncle who had died tragically? What led Aunt Maya to finally let Pascual manage his own life? Would you have felt more at home with Magdalena’s relatives or Pascual’s?
- Discuss the themes in Thoughts Without Cigarettes that echo throughout the author’s fiction. Out of the Hijuelos novels you have read, which ones had the greatest effect on you?