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Remembering Oscar Hijuelos, 62, Cuban-American ‘king’ of fiction

October 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Novelist Oscar Hijuelos, who has died at the age of 62, was the first Latino American author to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” We remember Hijuelos with an excerpt of a 2011 interview with Ray Suarez about his memoir, "Thoughts Without Cigarettes."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering writer Oscar Hijuelos, who died yesterday of an apparent heart attack.

A Cuban-American, he was the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1989 novel “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love.”

Ray Suarez talked with him in 2011 after his memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” was published.

Here is an excerpt.  

OSCAR HIJUELOS, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir”: 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.

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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: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oscar Hijuelos was 62 years old. You can watch his complete interview with Ray on our website.