Oscar Hijuelos Sings Songs of Himself

Cuban Pulitzer Prize-winner tries his hand at memoir.

The tone of Oscar Hijuelos‘ new memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes — with packloads of “maybes” and “perhapses” — has a hallucinatory quality, with fine-boned descriptions applied to stories Hijuelos admits he only half-knows or remembers. For instance, the history of his mother’s and father’s families, including a rich (if highly theoretical) retelling of his parents’ first meeting at the Neptuno movie theater in Holguín, Cuba; and his metamorphoses from fearless toddler to sickly, comics-reading child to rambunctious guitar-playing teen of the Manhattan streets to 20th-century literary light. “The hardest thing about writing this book,” Hijuelos said, “was to prioritize — to pick scenes or memories that would be telling, despite having other, perhaps more pleasant (or harsher) memories to choose from. At any given moment in the writing I could have easily taken many a different approach to the narrative. Many roads, word- and memory-wise, can lead to what you are trying to get across.”

Hijuelos, who reads at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) to benefit KPFA and La Peña on Friday, June 17, explained that the writing process for his memoir “involved a kind of self-psychoanalysis: What does one really remember from childhood, anyway, particularly as so much time has gone by?” His older brother helped him flesh out recollections of their parents, and a cousin provided the research upon which he based much of the sections regarding the extended family. Throughout the book, Hijuelos struggles with his warring identities — growing up incongruously towheaded and having all but abandoned speaking Spanish during a long childhood hospital stay — and over it all hangs the elusive presence of his late father Pascual, who died when Hijuelos was just shy of eighteen. Pascual was a real Cubano, a hardworking, hard-partying, social animal with a wandering eye, and Hijuelos writes of never really having gotten to know him, as far from his roots as he often felt.

Of his writing about this disconnectedness in his first novel, Our House in the Last World, he said, “I came to realize just how important my Cuban origins were. This epiphany crept up on me, but only gradually. And then it became a source of pride. The caveat, however, as my career progressed, came down to the fact that no matter how artfully one writes, the work is always seen in that sociological Latino context. I really can’t complain about that, however. I am Latino — and Cuban — but I sometimes feel exasperated when I see how often the Latino brand seems to exclude one from discussions about the glorious history of American literature.” His greatest fame, of course, came for the luxuriant 1989, muy Cubano novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love, which made him the first US-born Hispanic to win the literary Pulitzer.

For this latest achievement, the decade-spanning memoir, the author had a big story to tell, and endeavored to tell it — even with all of its side trips — as plainly as possible: “I simply tried to avoid the kind of super-sensitive and lyric posturing that many memoirs seem to have. I wanted to strive, perhaps not always successfully, for a straightforward narrative that dispensed with all that nonsense. I mean, who the hell really thinks, cigarettes or not, in so many precious words?” 7:30 p.m., $12-$15. 510-849-2568 or LaPena.org


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