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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.

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 Not counting the three unpublished novels he's hurled into fireplaces, his latest, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, is his eighth, and returns to the story played out in his second novel, the 1990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.  


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?

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