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Author Oscar Hijuelos Tackles His Toughest Subject: Himself

June 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In "Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir," author Oscar Hijuelos paints a self-portrait of an artist as a "very uptight young man." Ray Suarez talks to the Pulitzer Prize winner about how early success changed his life.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, An acclaimed author takes on his toughest subject: himself.

Ray Suarez talks with writer Oscar Hijuelos.

RAY SUAREZ: Oscar Hijuelos is the author of such acclaimed novels as “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and “Our House in the Last World.”

This time, his subject is himself. He just released a memoir called “Thoughts Without Cigarettes.”

Oscar Hijuelos, welcome back to the NewsHour.

OSCAR HIJUELOS, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir”: Thank you, Ray. It’s a joy to be here.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the subtitle might have been, portrait of the artist as a very uptight young man.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: Why did you write a memoir?

OSCAR HIJUELOS: My God, in my first novel, “Our House in the Last World,” I sort of told the story of my upbringing fictionally.

The spine of that story was that, when I was a little kid, I went to Cuba. I got very sick, I spent a year away from my family and the culture, and sort of came back. Spending so much time in a hospital, I ended up losing easy facility with the language. And…

RAY SUAREZ: The Spanish language?

OSCAR HIJUELOS: The Spanish language, yes. My mother said I went in speaking Spanish and came out speaking English. And I picked up a lot of it since, but it never was easy psychologically for me. So, that was an element in my first novel.

But I became mostly known for “The Mambo Kings.” And I have spent the rest of my career explaining the first story to people over and over again. So, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” in part became a way of discussing those issues that had been — played a big part in forming me as a writer in so many ways.

RAY SUAREZ: Does a memoir have to be thought out and plotted the way a novel does? Do you have to think hard about how you treat living people, and worry about it?

OSCAR HIJUELOS: I — it’s a funny thing, Ray. When you’re writing a novel — at least the way I write is I work from what I would call emotional atmosphere, ambiance to ambiance.

So, I work towards leaving the reader with a sense of certain emotions. With a memoir, you want to do both. You want to leave the reader with a strong sense of an emotional world, but you also have to be more fact-reliant, and also you have to prioritize about those events in your life, and you have to pass judgment.

You have to just say, how important this was to that time? And, hopefully, you can take an incident and attach all kinds of emotions and insights about the period, your family, and so forth to an event.

RAY SUAREZ: If anything, you’re affectionate to others and very tough on yourself.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: I was hoping it would be self-effacing, but yes.

Yes, I sort of — I never thought I would be a writer growing up. I certainly never thought that as a kid. And even when a lot of people around me expressed strong confidence in what they saw as my gifts or emerging gifts, I always doubted them.

And I think part of it — I mean, to this day, I’m not sure if that came about because of the insecurities I had felt, psychologically speaking, as a kid being separated from his family, or if it had to do with looking at the way my — our parents’ generation experienced American life in general, with some trepidation, anxiety.

I have talked to my older brother Jose about this. And, essentially, we both agreed that we grew up having to overcome a feeling of — I say the term second-class-ness. And, I mean, a lot of people take reading and writing and being good at something for granted. But if you come up in a certain way, without a lot of positive reinforcement, it takes a lot, like Pulitzer Prizes and being published all over the world, to make you feel pretty good about yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

OSCAR HIJUELOS: But, even when that happens, I have always had my doubts.

RAY SUAREZ: You write at one — about one episode looking down on your street from the apartment building.

“I, out of sorts, craving a cigarette of my own, went home to yet another one of those evenings in our Cuban household that tended to leave me feeling restless and confused” — again and again, coming back to that slightly out-of-synch guy living in this Spanish-speaking milieu on the Upper West Side.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Well, I mean, my father, Ray, he came up from Cuba with my mother in the 1940s. And I think the life he expected, having grown up on farms in eastern Cuba, was rather — turned out to be quite different from what he encountered. And, as such, he had these great jobs. We were talking about hotel life in the Biltmore downtown in Manhattan, different time, different world, a union man.

But he worked very hard just to get by. And I think that that created certain tensions within the family. And, as well, he had to contend with, you know, associated expenses and anxieties connected to what happened to me as a child.

I mean, I went to Cuba loving Cuba and loving Cubans, loving the Cuban culture and the language, an, what do you know, I got sick down there and separated from all that. So, my out-of-sorts-ness, I guess, if you want to call it that, was more — it was just as much of a response to what my family was going through as sort of a perennial, you know, feeling that I didn’t quite fit in, even with my own home culture and family.

RAY SUAREZ: The story of your life that you include in “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” takes us right to the doorstep of your success.

You’re published. You’re able to make a living as a writer. You win a prize that allows you to study abroad. And then you stop.

When you make it, does your life get less interesting?

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Does your life get more — suddenly, it has more — it has — it becomes more populated, as it were.

I have never — I have never let go of my childhood contacts. My best friends from childhood are still my best friends. But, on the other hand, your world expands in a way. But it’s sort of — it’s sort of, you go from being a private individual to sort of almost, in some lights, becoming a carnival act, you know?

I sometimes felt like a freak, simply because the level of my success and traveling around the world as — quote — “a Latino writer” as much as anything, was sort of wonderful and also very strange for me at the same time, because, indeed, I’m — I came up as but one version of many potential versions of Latinos that there could be.

And I have never — as I say in the memoir, I have never intended to represent myself as a spokesman for anybody but myself. And yet I would be in a roundtable in Sweden, in Stockholm, Sweden, at a live television show, and the host would come on and look around trying to figure out who the Latino guy was in the group. That kind of thing was both interesting and alarming at the same time.

RAY SUAREZ: The memoir is called “Thoughts Without Cigarettes.”

Oscar Hijuelos, good to see you.

OSCAR HIJUELOS: Well, thank you, Ray. I love being on your show.