From Morningside Heights to 'The Mambo Kings'
Oscar Hijuelos ends his appealing memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes in 1990, shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. That Hijuelos was the first Latino to win the fiction prize (and only one of two Latino writers to date who have won) made him “feel both proud and, at the same time, oddly singled out for the wrong reason.” And, in light of this memoir, the fact that he was the first is, in the same instant, more strange and more appropriate than he lets on.
In fact, Hijuelos spent much of his young life constructing an Americano identity. Born in upper Manhattan in 1951 to Cuban parents who had immigrated to New York years before the Castro revolution, Hijuelos was a sickly and overly protected child. Following a trip to Cuba when he was four years old, he developed kidney disease and spent a year away from his family in the hospital, losing forever his fluency in Spanish, the only language his mother spoke. Not only that, he and his brother were fair-haired and fair-skinned, leading the pensive child to wonder what about him was Cuban.
Yet after years of confusion and drift, Hijuelos—an accidental writer if ever there was one—found a world open to him with the discovery of Latin American writers. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel particularly ashamed of how and what I had come from and, thinking about my father and mother, began to conceive that perhaps, one day, I would be able to write something about them, and without the fear and shame that always entered me,” he writes.
The discovery of a possible identity as a writer who mines his experiences as a Cuban American is more spiritual and cultural than political. Although Hijuelos writes briefly and sharply here about how Latino writers are too often ignored, Thoughts Without Cigarettes is in the main a very personal, often moving, sometimes quite humorous account of his grappling with his divided self. Hijuelos shows flashes of anger at people—writers especially—who have humiliated him. But the spirit of the book is generous. He expresses deep gratitude to writers Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag and Frederic Tuten, who helped with his fledgling efforts at fiction. And the book brims with a complicated love for the Morningside Heights neighborhood where he grew up and for the difficult and flawed parents who raised him.