Mambo in Double Time: The Beat Goes On

The Pulitzer Prize winning author talks about his new book, <i>Beautiful Maria of My Soul</i>, gives advice to his younger self and tells us what's next.

En español | Cuban American writer Oscar Hijuelos, 58, underestimated his mileage as a writer when, 20 years ago, he claimed to have only seven novels in him. "I made that comment when I was younger and never thought about the future and getting older, which sneaks up on you like a thief," he said in an exclusive interview with AARP VIVA. Not counting the three unpublished novels he's hurled into fireplaces, his latest, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, is his eighth, and returns to the story played out in his second novel, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This time, though, he tells the tale from heroine María's point of view.

While Hijuelos's writing has been met with critical success, he's grounded by the difficulty of his writing process and by his self-deprecating humor. "You have to have cucarachas in your head to keep doing this," he says with a laugh. Hijuelos divides his time among New York, Connecticut, North Carolina, and the occasional trip to Italy, but there's always one constant in his life: writing every day from morning to late afternoon in the company of an eclectic range of CDs set to play at random. Currently on rotation: Church Bells of England, Bach, Francisco Tárrega (whose Spanish guitar compositions Hijuelos is always trying to learn), some choral music, some Bola de Nieve (his favorite raspy-voiced Cuban crooner), Erroll Garner, and Bill Evans.
"Music infuses your spirit with a certain energy that I try to convey in my work," says Hijuelos, whose readers have come to expect musically inspired tales.

The author spoke with AARP VIVA from a studio on the Duke University campus. He'd just finished teaching a literature class, exposing students to diverse writers, especially Latinos.  

Q. 

A 20th-anniversary edition of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love will be published shortly before Beautiful Maria of My Soul. You've written five novels in between these two. Now that you're 58, what advice would you give to that 39-year-old writer who won the Pulitzer Prize?

A.

My advice to me back then is: Beware of people bearing gifts. When you have la fama [fame], people come out of the woodwork who are supposedly looking out after you. There's an old blues song that goes, "She's got a mouth full of gimme and a hand full of much obliged," and basically that's it. Unless you have guidance, it's a hard world to experience, but it has its perks. I would always advise, as [novelist and New York University professor] E.L. Doctorow advised me back then: don't get carried away, and just remember the work. I actually passed that bit of advice on to Junot Díaz.

Q.

Now that you mention Junot Díaz, 18 years passed before he, another Latino, would win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Does this say something about the state of publishing? Are Latinos still marginalized?

A.

I almost wrote an op-ed piece about this. I received a beaming letter from the National Book Award Foundation because Mambo Kings had been nominated, and it listed prominent National Book Award winners from the past 50 years. In going down the list, I noticed there hadn't been a single Latino winner ever, and you see that same kind of thing with other major institutions. Occasionally, a book that is so overwhelmingly interesting, unique, and original comes out that whoever they are—and I think they are well-intentioned—will throw us a bone. With Mambo Kings, I was very lucky; I never expected it. Now there are more presses and more editors working within mainstream houses trying to find ways to attract Hispanic readers. But essentially, I think we are off in our own little subsection of American literature.

Q.

In both Mambo Kings and Beautiful Maria of My Soul, Nestor is obsessed with María. It would seem, however, that reading these two novels only as love stories would be missing the point: María is actually an embodiment of Cuba and everything he left behind. Is it too simple to say that Cuba is a beautiful woman and her name is María?

A. It would be simple but, quite frankly, that is exactly what I was thinking when I wrote Mambo Kings and had Nestor writing this song, "Beautiful María of My Alma." It could've been "La bella Cuba de mi alma" [Beautiful Cuba of my soul]. I got that notion from when I was a kid growing up in New York as a son of Cubans, and was touched by this sort of ethereal quality of boleros, and this story of longing they all had. And really, when you come down to it, boleros are about longing for youth, longing for early loves, and a passion for a place, time, and people. In fact, I mentioned to my editor that this new book, Beautiful María, is story of Cuba itself.

Q. The novel has quite the historical sweep, opening in Cuba in 1947, and closing in New York in 1994. Did it require a lot of research?

A.  My take on Cuba is partly memory-bound, partly melancholic. I read this interesting thing about the word "nostalgia," which is often used about my writing: that it comes from a term ship doctors used to describe a disease when sailors had been out to sea for a few years and were getting homesick. I've always had that, in terms of writing, this thing that is physical,that makes you homesick. For me it is a home that I never really knew and have always seen partly through literature and the great Cuban writers. My writing about Cuba [is] more like an act of creation. Whatever my Cuba is about, it's my own version. I'm not a cultural anthropologist

Q. In her sixties, María continues to be vivacious, feisty, and sexually active. Do you think this is an antidote to how aging can sometimes be stereotyped in fiction.

A. I grew up around very vital, aging women, but they were very vivacious. My mother passed away four years ago, at 95, and she literally asked me, "¿Estoy poniendo me vieja?" [Am I growing old?] I said, "Nineties? You're probably getting up there." But I think there is a lot of vitality, and it's a cliché that people say you are as young as you feel. But in certain cases, not dwelling on the obsessive morbidities and possibilities helps—and taking care of yourself, as well.

Q. There's an occasional frame around this story with María passing on her stories to her pediatrician daughter, Teresa. Why did you choose this intergenerational angle for the novel?

A. I needed the filter of the daughter to re-imagine her mother's experience. So while the novel is María's story, I think the narrative itself is like the daughter thinking about her mother's existence. If the real María was sitting in this very room, she'd probably say, "What are you talking about? It wasn't like that." You need a point of view in a novel, and the daughter's is the Cuba she never had, and the mother's is the Cuba she once had and misses. But she's also in this new situation. The relationship that Cubans and Latinos have to the past is something I dwell on in my books because, frankly, the modern current life we are living in America today is a little on the cold side.

Q. Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your work?

A. Older Cubans in their sixties and seventies appreciate what I do in trying to recapture the time and the period. I did an event last year with Gay Talese, [a writer] at Columbia University, and a very nice Cuban couple from Havana came up to me and said, "If you ever need any information about Havana, just call us." On the other hand, I'll be in Coral Gables with 20-year-old kids writing sound poetry about Cuba, and they tell me they like the way I write but aren't sure they can get into it, all that old stuff their abuelos [grandparents] are hung up on. The way they relate to it is quite different, and I can't blame them; their Cuba is now Miami. People in their forties, fifties, and onward enjoy the whole world of books in a different way than the Internet-age kids do.

Q. Did your parents and grandparents read your novels?

A. All my grandparents were both gone by the mid-1950s, and my mother tried to read Mambo Kings, but she thought it was muy sucio [very dirty]. I wrote a character based on my mother's friend, where she's always coming down and modeling lingerie and I remembered her as a complete babe. When my mother read my first novel, she said, "Olga is going to be really angry with you." And then, when I ran into Olga, she said, "That was so nice what you wrote about me." My mother tried to read Our House in the Last World, but it was hard for her because it was my truth on our family's hard upbringing.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. It's a memoir called Thoughts Without Cigarettes. It's about how I came up in the world and runs parallel to my first novel, Our House in the Last World. But it's more accurate, the way things really happened as opposed to the way I imagined that they happened. I've been an on-and-off smoker since I was 10 years old, and I'm still walking around, which amazes me. It's about relationships with things, and it's really about how one finds one's way and how I became a writer and how various addictions—including cigarettes, alcohol, love, passion, and work—can crop up without us being really aware of them.

Q. Did your parents and grandparents read your novels?

A. All my grandparents were both gone by the mid-1950s, and my mother tried to read Mambo Kings, but she thought it was muy sucio [very dirty]. I wrote a character based on my mother's friend, where she's always coming down and modeling lingerie and I remembered her as a complete babe. When my mother read my first novel, she said, "Olga is going to be really angry with you." And then, when I ran into Olga, she said, "That was so nice what you wrote about me." My mother tried to read Our House in the Last World, but it was hard for her because it was my truth on our family's hard upbringing.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. It's a memoir called Thoughts Without Cigarettes. It's about how I came up in the world and runs parallel to my first novel, Our House in the Last World. But it's more accurate, the way things really happened as opposed to the way I imagined that they happened. I've been an on-and-off smoker since I was 10 years old, and I'm still walking around, which amazes me. It's about relationships with things, and it's really about how one finds one's way and how I became a writer and how various addictions—including cigarettes, alcohol, love, passion, and work—can crop up without us being really aware of them.

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