Oscar Hijuelos has long been associated with the music of his Hispanic heritage, thanks to his 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The story, about two brothers who try to make it big as mambo musicians in 1950s America, heavily examines what it means to reconcile the worlds of both Cuba and America. The book earned Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, making him not only one of the country’s most renowned Latino writers, but also the first Hispanic novelist to win the honor.
In his newest work, the memoir entitled Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Hijuelos discusses his personal experiences as a Cuban-American growing up in the 1950s. Among the revelations found in the book: He didn’t always love the Latin musical genres that later helped make him famous. We spoke with Hijuelos about his experiences with music, and how it inspires him in his daily life.
BIO: Music plays a large role in both your personal life as well as your writing. How did you become interested in music?
Oscar: I started playing guitar at about the age of 12, loved fiddling with other instruments, from violin (badly) to piano (by ear) and have always loved both classical music and jazz, as well as certain styles of rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, I grew up hearing Latin music but, to be honest, aside from my personal circumstances, like most kids I wanted to rebel against what I considered to be such old fashioned fare.
B: Do you listen to music when you write? What genres?
O: Once, while being interviewed with Rubén Blades, he mentioned the fact that, although he was known as a great Latin musician and songwriter, his first entrée into music came out of his passions for the Beatles. As such I had my favorite musicians: guys like Lou Reed and guitarists like Django Rheinhardt and Joe Pass. It was only later, when I started writing fiction, that I re-discovered Latin music—loving everything from the old style boleros and mambos to the latter day boogaloo—all of it seemed so wonderful—that’s all I would listen to for years.
These days, however, I go through stages when I listen to all kinds of music. Mainly I enjoy listening to Bach, but also have a recording of church bells that somehow always cheers me up. I enjoy listening to contemporary rock on the college stations while I’m taking long walks, love gospel and soul music, am fascinated by hip-hop and rap as the new kind of urban “beat” poetry and, come to think of it, find something interesting about just any kind of music.
B: Your career trajectory makes you an unlikely writer, with your degree from City College and your time spent occasionally moonlighting as a musician. What do you think led to your artistic lifestyle?
O: Pure naiveté. But I also had a lot of questions to ask about myself, which I could only seek to answer through prose. Much as I loved music, and for that matter the visual arts, writing is the only form that leads to—and allows for—the direct expression of self-exploratory emotions…and because emotions are so hard to pin down and express in words, I obviously made the hardest aesthetic choice.