Alert
Close

Join us at AARP's 2015 Life@50+ National Event and Expo in sunny Miami.  Learn more

Highlights

Open

2015 LIFE@50+ MIAMI

Miami skyline viewed through palm trees.

Enjoy fun in the sun during Life@50+, May 14-16, 2015

AARP-iPad-ePub-app

AARP TV

Watch episodes of AARP Live and other AARP broadcasts.

Most Popular

Viewed

Oscar Hijuelos

Mambo in Double Time: The Beat Goes On

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

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.

Also of Interest

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts

Processing

Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

AARP Bookstore

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save up to 20% on live Cirque du Soleil shows with their AARP membership card.

Member Benefit AARP Regal 2

Members pay $8 for Regal ePremiere tickets purchased online. Conditions apply.

Movies Unlimited

Members save 10% on purchases of DVDs & Blu-ray discs from Movies Unlimited.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.