Oscar Hijuelos

Gabrielle David

Oscar Hijuelos: Identity, Memory & Diaspora
Gabrielle David
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4

As the first Latino author to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize, with extraordinary insight and wit, Oscar Hijuelos engages in a frank conversation about the Cuban American experience, his books, and the unique challenges Latino writers face in America’s publishing industry.

THE WAYS IN WHICH CUBAN AMERICANS have been able to keep a living memory of Cuba while developing and thriving in America are both intriguing and complicated. What’s even more interesting is that Cuban American literature experienced a “boom” during the 1990s and, consequently, some of its writers have risen to national and even international prominence. Oscar Hijuelos, whose work has been noted for his rich, detailed descriptions of Cuban American life, is one of those writers.

Hijuelos, whose parents emigrated to the United States during the 1940s, was born and raised in West Harlem, New York. As a young child, he suffered from acute nephritis after a vacation trip to Cuba with his mother and brother, that necessitated a year-long stay in St. Luke’s Convalescent Hospital in Connecticut. This essentially took him from the language and the people he loved, an incident that would greatly impact his life and his books.

From a young age, music played a large role in Hijuelos’ life. At about the age of 12, he began playing instruments, such as the guitar and even explored the violin and piano. However, his early music appreciation of classical music, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll, did not include the Latin music genres that would later infuse his writing and make him famous.

Because he didn’t have many books at his disposal, Hijuelos’ reading came mostly from whatever he was given at school. This led to frequent trips to the library on 125th Street and many secondhand book shops, where he read anything he could get his hands on — from Huckleberry Finn to Tarzan.

After graduating from high school, Hijuelos eventually matriculated into City College of New York and studied writing under Donald Barthelme (who became a life-long mentor and friend), Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, Frederic Tuten, and others, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. While in college, Hijuelos discovered a vast range of writers, and was especially taken with Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, and Anton Chekov.

Hijuelos honed his craft while working full-time in an assortment of jobs, including advertising. By 1978, a short story he had published in Persea magazine, “Columbus Discovering America,” received an outstanding writer citation from Pushcart Press. This exposure led to an Oscar Cintas fiction writing grant and, in 1980, a Breadloaf Writers Conference scholarship. Hijuelos also received grants from the Creative Artists Programs Service in 1982 and the Ingram Merrill Foundation in 1983. He published his first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983), which follows the life of a Cuban family in the United States during the 1940s. In the coming decade he went on to win several awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation grant in the category of fiction.

It was Hijuelos’ second novel, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), that put his name on the map. Set in the 1950s, Mambo Kings is a bittersweet exploration of the lives of two Cuban-born brothers and their journey from Havana to New York where they start a mambo orchestra. Described by critics as lyrical and exhilarating, Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, becoming the first U.S. Latino author to do so. Mambo Kings, which was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989, as well as the National Book Award, was made into a movie starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante. In 2005, Hijuelos adapted the novel for the stage. Unfortunately, while it played in San Francisco, it did not make it to Broadway.

The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1993), Hijuelos’s third novel, focuses on a family dynamic that is dominated by femininity, where the maternal and sexual presence of femaleness overwhelms the household. Mr. Ives’ Christmas (1995) has been referred to by critics as his most spiritual work. The title character was adopted as a young child and has few cultural roots, though Hijuelos implies that Ives is Hispanic, as he is drawn time and again to New York’s Latino community. In 1999, Hijuelos struck a balance between his Cuban roots and his interest in American society in general with the novel Empress of the Splendid Season. For his sixth novel, Hijuelos brings music back to the fore in A Simple Habana Melody: From When the World was Good (2002). Like Mambo Kings, A Simple Habana Melody inhabits the fine-tuned world of working musicians with the story of Israel Levis, a Cuban composer whose 1928 Rumba composition, “Rosas Puras,” or “Pretty Roses,” takes Europe and America by storm.

Along the way, Hijuelos put out a CD and published a young adult novel. Stranger Than Fiction by Don’t Quit Your Day Job Records, is a playful double-CD collection of 32 songs that features authors (such as such as Dave Barry, Matt Groening, Ken Follett, Molly Ivins, and Stephen King) playing and singing music. Recorded in 1998, Hijuelos performed lead vocal and guitar on the track named “I Want to Eat,” with harmony vocal by Lori Marie Carlson and Ed Baker on keyboards. Proceeds from the CD are donated to the PEN Writers Special Fund and other charities chosen by the authors. Hijuelos took another detour and published Dark Dude (2008), a young adult novel that follows the adventures of Rico, a fair-skinned Cuban boy from New York City who never seems to fit in with his darker-skinned inner city peers.

In 2010, Hijuelos published Beautiful María, a retelling of the Mambo Kings story through the eyes of María García y Cifuentes, “the lady behind a famous song.” After publishing eight novels, Hijuelos published his memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes (2011), which while introducing readers to the colorful circumstances of his upbringing, reveals his struggle to merge his Cuban and American identities. What’s interesting is that in each of his novels, Hijuelos has woven biographical events into some of his characters, so Thoughts Without Cigarettes seems like a natural progression that exposes readers to the “man behind the curtain.”

Known and admired around the world, Hijuelos’ works have been translated into 25 languages. He was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 2000 as part of the National Hispanic Heritage Awards, and in 2003 was the first recipient of the first Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. In 2011, he was selected as a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), an independent research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Hijuelos is currently teaching creative writing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where his wife, writer, editor and translator, Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, also teaches.

One of the leading Cuban American writers working today, Oscar Hijuelos continues to depict the Latino experience in his work. The theme of separation and isolation, especially from family, saturates Hijuelos’ novels. He has previously stated his disappointment about a U.S. literary establishment “that still typecasts Latino writers, still leaves us out of the discussion. I mean, I love Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon, too — but our books are as American as theirs.” In this interview, with the delicious wit of Oscar Wilde, Hijuelos shares his thoughts on the Cuban American experience, U.S. Latino literature, and his place in the American literary scene.

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You’ve been classified as an immigrant writer, and it seems that most reviewers speak of you either as a Cuban American writer, a Latino writer, or a Hispanic writer. Since the theme of this issue is “¿What is a Nombre?” what’s your take on the whole Latino/Hispanic label? Do you find these ethnic designations unfair or too narrow?

As far as I am concerned, Latino writers are definitely considered a sub-species, separate onto itself, as far as mainstream American Literature is concerned. Though we share many cultural attributes and linguistic similarities, we are by no means taken as seriously by the literary powers that be as are many of our peers of differing ethnic and social/economic backgrounds. We are to American literature as Samoa is to the mainland — we are defined as hyphen-American writers, whose work is considered (as I have seen over the years) quaint, exotic, colorful, vibrant, heartfelt, and-down-to-earth, but hardly ever “literary” in the good old Fitzgerald/Cheever/Vonnegut/Franzen sense; another term usually applied to those of us who have written about our roots is that of “immigrant,” which, while true, in most cases doesn’t begin to convey the complexities of what I would call the REST OF THE STORY. . .

I know this first-hand. For example, my third novel, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1992), was a pastoral and diverse portrait of three generations of Cubans, and though the notion is dated now (except among old school cinephiles), I structured its frame around a “Hollywood” movie of the late 1930s, Sullivan’s Travels, a film about a coddled movie director, played by the actor Joel McCrea , who hits the road to find the real depression-era America. Intending to plant at least a few hints about this in the narrative — well, to hit people over the head — my main character, Emilio, looks almost exactly like Joel McCrea, to the point that when they actually meet at a party in “Hollywood,” sometime in the 1950s, the real McCrea says to Emilio something like, “Hey, you could be my twin.” The book is also filled other allusions to Sullivan’s Travels, too many to relate (or remember) right now, but the upshot is that, while a number of European reviewers picked up on that allusion and saw that the book had many different sides to it, not a single stateside reviewer did, seeing the book only through the distortions of that catch-word lens or perception of us: “we-speaky-good-enough-English-writers” to write books about our number one (I mean “numero uno”) concern — our IMMIGRANT ROOTS, to the point that the REST OF THE STORY is ignored, overlooked, maybe not even absorbed at all.

Since you’ve pushed that button, and since I’m on the subject of Fourteen Sisters, I will tell you two more things about the way it was received here in the States that set off little bells in my head. I wrote most of that book, some six hundred printed pages long, while doing my best to utilize a female-oriented vocabulary (or what I considered as such), of words that sounded “feminine” and sentences that rippled with curvaceous language, soft vowels, delicate constructions and syntax, in the kind of literary sleight of hand and pastiche that I would not have the patience or ambition for today. Needless to say that aspect of the book was ignored, as was the fact that at its core is a narrative about an Irishman, a photographer, who travels to Cuba in the late 19th century and gets caught up in the Spanish-American war — a long section, one of the hearts of the book, that I did a lot of research for and which, nevertheless, was never mentioned by any of the reviewers. (On the other hand, around the same time, a much slimmer kind of portraiture about the same war, strung out over several hundred pages, with just little dabs of local Cuban color thrown in from time to time, by Elmore Leonard — not to pick on him, he is great at what he does — was greeted as an historical novel of the first magnitude, or the second coming of Christ.) I have since supposed that my book might have been perceived differently were my name not “Hijuelos:”: possibly, were I an Updike or, these days, a Franzen (among so many non-Latino others) that novel might have been perceived through the literary genius detecting microscope that is rarely pulled out when it comes to Latinos.

Well, since I’m starting to ramble, though I could, I won’t go on — but you get the drift.

Your parents emigrated to the U.S. during the 1940s, making you a first generation Cuban American, well before Castro and the Revolution. Coupled with the fact that you lived in Harlem, I would imagine that you did not grow up with the expat attitudes that typically exist among Cuban Americans. In that regard, are you able to connect to the Cuban American community and its politics? And how does this relationship affect your writing?

First of all, I love just about every Cuban I’ve ever met, but I absolutely hate the question. It’s far too complicated a subject to ask a writer to honestly address, particularly through this impersonal venue. But here, I will briefly try: Indeed, I grew up in New York City, during the 1960s, when every kind of anti-war, pro-civil-rights, down with the system, hurray for Che Guevara sentiment was in the air; at the same time, I was deeply aware that we had a lot of family down in Cuba suffering because of the revolution. So I grew up with two sets of ears, as it were — one attuned to the pro-Castro, the other to the anti-Castro sentiments that were quite polarizing in those days, possibly more so than today. But I’ve always tried to be fair-minded and balanced about those issues/polarities in my books, something that some Cubans haven’t always appreciated. Or to put it differently, for super-leftists (usually non-Cuban armchair socialists), I am never left-wing enough; while for the right-wingers, among the Miami community for example, my work has never been anti-Castro enough. Having seen/heard both sides, I have walked my own path: while I once turned down writing pamphlets for a very prominent anti-Castro organization in Miami, I have also turned down invitations to visit Cuba, years ago, from the government — I just didn’t want to be used by either extreme; by any measure, I am a moderate, even a progressive, when it comes to Cuban politics. Just that alone would have made me quite unpopular in Miami were it not for the fact that, with Cubans — at least the ones I’ve gotten to know — their sense of pride over my accomplishments (for, to this day, I can still pack the house at Mitch Kaplan’s Books & Books in Coral Gables) has made them forgive whatever faults and shortcomings they find in my way of thinking and politics. Or, as some nice old abuela once told me, “Don’t worry, we know that you grew up in New York, but we still love you anyway, paisano.”

One of the things that tires scholars of Cuban American letters is the fact that much of it is dominated by the metaphor of nostalgia (yes, the “nostalgia” word!). Do you believe this to be true and do you think there will ever be a time when being Cuban is looked at in a different light? Can Cuban American literature as a whole move beyond Castro and talk about other things?

Yes, that’s true to a certain extent, there’s even a joke about it that goes: “How many Cubans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” — the answer being, “Six, one to screw it in, and five to talk about how the light used to be much nicer in Cuba.” Yes, it’s a problem, or has been a problem with a certain generation of Cuban American writers — but how could they/we/I help it? We are our history, and for a lot of Cuban Americans, the story of their life in this country seems always to have been told in the light of what was left behind/what could have been and, in fact, the truly beautiful sense of nature and culture that they will never know in its purest form. But, it doesn’t particularly have to do with the revolution: my own father, who came to the states in the 1940s, missed the hell out of Cuba — a feeling that only intensified when it became politically/legally impossible for him or my mother ever to go back there; though I had visited Cuba in the 1950s, I didn’t return until 2002 — and what is true of my story is also the same with countless stateside Cubans of a certain generation. And while it may be a tired story to some (unlike the perennially told stories of dysfunctional upper income households) it was the story that many of us have been given: but to say that it is the only thing we can write about is pure rubbish, particularly given the new generation of writers who have achieved a certain distance from that nostalgia thing, like the poet Adrian Castro out of Miami, who, while writing a hip-hoppy musically charged celebration of his Cuban roots, veers into contemplations about what it is like to be a young Latino/Cubano today.

No, all kinds of stuff is out there, and if it’s not been out there it’s because publishers have only wanted that from Cuban American writers — from my own experience I know that whenever I’ve attempted to write about new “non-Cuban” subjects, editors don’t know what to make of it — or to put it differently, whenever “me no talkee tan mucho about arroz con pollo” in a certain work, I’m told that it doesn’t sound like me: or to translate it into English: when it comes to Cuban American (and I think Latino) writers in general, our work continues to exist in some literary colony, a sugar mill which is only occasionally checked on by the masters to make sure we’re still breathing.

Still, I remain optimistic for the future. Hey, when the current vogues for the same kinds of stories by Asian/Eastern European/Indian writers has played out, a new generation of critics and scholars, bored with them, may well turn back to us.

To what do you attribute your passion for writing novels, and by the way, since you recorded an album, I think it’s fair to ask if you have ever written or published any poetry, or are considering it? You seem like a guy who will try something at least once!

Oh yeah, I’ll try anything at least once; the problem with being that sort of guy is that, when I first started to write, I became inexplicably ( or “inner-spickily”) enchanted with the notion of becoming good at something; it was like falling in love with a vision of a new me. The fact that I came from a bookless household with, however, a rather poetic/creative mother, seems to have given me the mistakenly romantic notion that writing novels, which seems to have always been the form I’ve focused on, would be the stuff of dreams, rather than the fruit of much hard labor, particularly since I go out of my way to write correct sentences, avoid clichés, and plumb the depths of my soul, which, very few critics seems to notice. Having said that, I think literature, in its purest form — that is to say, the stuff that is somehow articulated from the heart and not written for the marketplace — is one of the last vestiges of a far more pensive, less noisy age. Think it was Paul Auster who said that writers are akin to 16th century Benedictine Monks, but that was 20 years ago before the current gadget in your face age — I can’t imagine what he’s thinking now.

As for an album? No, I only recorded one (I thought) half-witty tune that had nothing to do with my “Latino-ness,” for a CD that was intended, or so I thought, to raise money for First Amendment rights.
And in a way, I have written poetry, if you count Beautiful Maria of My Soul; but you are right, perhaps that is something I should try one day.

Were you surprised about Mambo Kings? I remember that time . . . it seemed to explode into America’s culture and consciousness, both the book and the movie. Did you anticipate or expect it, you know, did you have that writers’ moment when you said to yourself this is a blockbuster and an award-winning book? Or did it come as a complete surprise? To what do you attribute to its success?

You have to remember that when I published The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, nobody, but nobody, in the New York mainstream press published homegrown Latino authors. As far as the American public was concerned, Latino writing had to do with the likes of Carlos Fuentes, [Gabriel] Garcia Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa — the boom writers. We homegrown guys were largely overlooked, except by smaller regional presses. I’m talking about the likes of Rudy Anaya, for example, writers fighting the good fight but unknown to the greater American public. In my case, I had zero expectations for Mambo Kings, despite the fact that I knew it was a hell of a book, and quite original — and while my publisher, FSG — believed in it and were very kind to me, they, too, had no expectations. But, when the book came out, even in pre-pub-stage, enormous amounts of attention were heaped upon it, and even the New York Times Sunday Review, which rarely reviews Latino books now, gave it a front page rave. Of course, I was surprised, and while I can’t begin to convey the complexity of that experience, I will say that to have authored a book that seemed to have made a difference, in the way that publishers regarded Latino authors or opened doors to others, made me feel quite proud, as did the fact that it was published and well-received internationally.

Of course, its success was owed to its crossover atmosphere — its I Love Lucy meets the Cuban mambo — but it was also a sexy and interesting book in other ways, in terms of language. I have days when I pick it up and can’t figure out how on earth I came up with parts of the novel — in other words, the fact that it had literary chops helped spread its popularity.

One thing I do know: it was the right book to come out at the right time, and while it had a real impact back then, I sometimes wonder if, given the plastic nature of current literature, it would have been published at all now.

What was it like to win the Pulitzer Prize? It was almost 20 years before another Latino took home the prize (Junot Diaz). Do you think this says something about the state of publishing? Or do you think Latino-themed books appeal to a much smaller audience, making it impossible for Latino literature to become fully mainstream?

My Pulitzer was a matter of luck: believe me, I know, given how rare it is for the prize committees to take Latino books seriously. I’m proud of my Pulitzer and happy for Junot, but it hasn’t worked out when you figure in the percentages for Latino authors in general: we who speaketh in the lingo of the barrio or the campo and in the tongue of our immigrant mothers and fathers in the lit department; and we REMAIN objects of curiosity, And while I have always taken pride in my Pulitzer, I feel that all the progress that was made has been rescinded — poor Latino book sales are partly responsible — we just don’t turn out for each other the way African American folks do for their authors (on the other hand, we are in so many sub-groups that solidarity is harder to achieve). Yet our work is also sluffed off to the side by the mainstream because of “socialogical” attitudes — another kind of ghetto; as if the issues that affect Latinos, personally and in terms of society, aren’t really applicable to all Americans. Or to put it differently, “Yes Virginia, there is a subtle form of PREJUDICE at work, at almost every level of society.” (I mean among the literary snobs of the establishment, as well as in the rest of the country: to wit, Arizona, where the Tuscon Public School system has banned a great number of books by Latino authors from their curriculum.)

But to reiterate: yes, we are viewed with a certain kind of caution and from a distance; we may have our own sections in bookstores (at least when they existed) under the heading of LATINO literature, but it’s a rare thing to hear Latino authors included in any discussions of serious contemporary American literature. Twenty years ago, it was all about Mailer, Bellow, Updike, Cheever; now it’s Franzen, Foer, Lethem; and while a bone is thrown our way occasionally — to wit Junot Diaz’s success (and Pulitzer) and, to a lesser degree, with new lights like Justin Torres, whose main sense of identity has to do with his sexuality rather than his roots, most publishers haven’t the slightest idea what to do with us. Part of that problem is ignorance — and the whole “sociology” cloud that hangs over Latino lit, as well as the fact that Latino writers are broken up into so many sub-groups — Puerto Rican, Domincan, Cuban, and Chicano (Mexican-American), etc. — so the audience is fragmented. Though a writer like Junot Diaz, whose books really appeals to young folks will, I think, continue to thrive, though I have once to hear him included in any discussions of American literature.

You’ve written eight novels thus far, but your latest book, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, is a memoir. Why the departure from novels and what would you say was your biggest challenge writing it?

Goodness, getting everything straight — or trying to remember, as best one can, how things seem to have happened — you do know that, after a certain point, unless you’re the sort to keep meticulous journals, like say the late Reynolds Price, it’s really difficult to get things right, particularly given the ever-widening amounts of time that have passed. In fact, if I had tried to write this memoir twenty years ago, I’m sure I would have made entirely different choices and had far more accurate memories — but I did the best that I could at the time.

As for my motivation? Oh, I’ve read once too often about some confused notions about my life: one of them had it that I had been raised in an upper middle class environment — it’s even in a book — From Bomba to Hip Hop, by Juan Flores. What cracked me up is that the author seems to have confused me with some other Hijuelos whose father did not drop dead when he was seventeen, and who did not attend Brandeis High School and the CUNY system, and who did not come up without as much as an inkling about how the world worked. (Wish the guy had bothered to actually talk to me instead of jumping to conclusions but, who knows, he probably got his info off the internet — like other folks who have written about me.) Having said this, I wanted to give a more accurate impression of my upbringing, though I could have approached the same sort of materials from many different perspectives — I just happened to chose one.

You also wrote Dark Dude, a book for teens. There were parts of Dark Dude that were clearly autobiographical, something one often finds in most of your books, that one character that’s really Oscar. What was your intention, to appeal to Latino teens or raise awareness about Latino teens to a general audience? Any plans in the works to publish more teen books?

Uh, Dark Dude was sketchily autobiographical: but far more so in the outtakes, which the editor, the wonderful Caitlyn Dlouhy of Atheneum Books, found too “adult” in tone and language. In fact, the household and a few of the events in the books have parallels to what I went through, though the main character, the Dark Dude, Rico, is a far more pensive kid than I was at his age: but take the title — indeed I heard some blacks refer to me as a “dark dude” on account of my white skin — reverse thinking, yes? — and though that happened more than thirty years ago, it remained with me ever since; I also played down the race thing in my neighborhood, which was quite strong; that is, if someone got mugged on the street at night, or stabbed in the gut, chances were that it was predicated by race — I mean that although the civil rights thing had just happened, New York in the 1960s was still a city of neighborhoods — some rich, some middle class, but a lot of them filled with pissed-off-at-life kids of all races who found any perceived slight a reason to hassle you to death: all that was played down in the book.

As for your second question within a question: Not ever having been a typical Latino, I wrote this book for other kids, both Latino and not, who might feel a bit different from their peers and friends. My point being that Latinos come in many shapes, shades, and backgrounds, though a lot of that direct messaging was also left on the cutting room floor. But, yes, I intended it for Latino teens, though I will tell you that it was a rough thing for me, bald, in my fifties, fair skinned and all, to be on tour and addressing a room of gangbangers from East L.A., to whom the Dark Dude’s trauma’s and scuffles with life seemed pithy in comparison to their own (much harder) experiences. But you do what you can do, verdad?

And yes, I’m thinking about another book as a YA — it’s been on the boards for a while, I’m just trying to get something else going on the adult side.

You once said in the New York Times (1993) that you considered yourself a, “New York writer of Cuban parentage, with different influences,” and that your, “background is an important element, the most important, but not the only one.” Since then, your work continues to paint vivid portraits of Cuban American life in the U.S. What is “not the only one” you were referring to, perhaps a novel without Cuban American characters (if that is at all possible)? But even if one could entertain that notion, wouldn’t this be difficult since writers generally write about what they know and the work comes from who they are?

My remark to the New York Times, which I do not particularly remember, probably came in response to the number of times I’d heard, “You sure don’t seem Cuban,” or, “You’re not like any Cubans I know.” My response about “different influences,” then, must have been about my cosmopolitan upbringing in New York City, my interest in art and music, and that inward little world that somehow exists apart from one’s roots. I love jazz, for example, and not just Afro-Cuban jazz, but everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington and Bill Evans: or to put it differently, the merengue is not always in my step, nor am I always ready to sing “Guantanamera” at a moment’s notice. I have an interest in antiquity, in archeology, in aesthetics in general: I love music, both Bach and Chucho Valdés — so I guess what I meant to say is that yes, if you prick me I will bleed — yes, I am a human, with more than one side to him . . . .

I’ve read that you felt that you grew up linguistically and psychologically disconnected from your Latino heritage because you didn’t speak fluent Spanish and that you are a “white” Cuban. What impact did this have on your growing up, and has writing the type of stories you have written over the years helped you reconnect to your cultural roots?

Excuse me, but I think you should mention that I spent a year in a hospital, away from my family, as a four or five-year-old kid; that alone should have messed me up in terms of my sense of self, but to have the image/identity thing further complicated by the fact that I’ve never looked Latino — which really counts for something on both ends of the spectrum — I should have ended up in a loony bin instead of becoming the suave, infinitely self-composed writer I am today. By the way, a lot of the Cubans I’ve known were also whiter than not, though I have cousins who are quite black — so it’s always been a mix. Growing up I always felt like a spy, eavesdropping on what some “whiteys” feel about “spics” and, around Latinos I did not know, finding out what some very pissed off Latinos felt about “whiteys” — it was sobering to tell you the least. Yet, what it comes down to is not only skin, but the language thing — at least when I was growing up, my outsider-ness, as it were, was imposed on me. It was nothing that I asked for — surely not the year away from home — and yet, I have been lucky to have transformed those sad energies and circumstances into something compensational. So I agree that my writing provided me with the means — the mask, as it were — to approach and re-enter that side of my identity that is both language-driven and emotionally Cuban. As for my Spanish, I can get along with it, though I wish that as a child and teen I had been pushed, or had forced myself, to study it — even in school, something which never happened.

I found The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien particularly daring and brave because you wrote this book from a woman’s perspective and, in fact, your narrative was once described as “male celebration of femininity.” You have always had strong female characters in your books and, clearly, not only do they come from the heart, you are very mindful of them. How are you able to put your “machismo” aside to create these very real, poignant, yet powerful women? Where do these characters come from? And as a result, do you think you’ve developed a special relationship with your women readers?

I mentioned something about Fourteen Sisters in one of my earlier response, but to answer your question, I wrote that book feeling a counter energy to Mambo Kings, and indeed, I did grow up around some very wonderful and powerful women. My relatives and my mother’s coterie of friends, Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, were ladies whom I rather adored because they were so kind to me. In addition, my father grew up on a farm in Cuba with eight sisters — on some level, I think just that knowledge empowered me to write about women, and I hope I did a good job. As for your query about building a fan base among my female readers — I really don’t know. I do recall that readings for that book were mostly packed with women, but at readings for my subsequent books, it has always been a mix of men and women.

After being strictly a “professional writer” for years (after leaving advertising), what made you decide to teach? And being the consummate New Yorker, how did you land at Duke? How has it affected your life and your writing?

First of all, I left my private sector job, involving ads with subways, buses, trains, and airports, back in 1984. Not long after, I learned that my first novel, Our House in the Last World, had me in the running for a Rome Prize in literature — which I accepted, going off to live in Italy for almost two years — the beginning of a somewhat different (and far more fantastic) life than I had known. After that, from about 1986 until 2008, I had managed to survive off of my writing, though here and there were a few teaching stints — mainly Hofstra University for a year (1989) just before Mambo Kings won a Pulitzer, and other gigs that involved visits to cancer and suicide wards, and old age homes — even a six month stint teaching a night class up in Lake George. Aside from that, as of 1990 or so, I had been what I’ve always called “gainfully unemployed.”

However, in 2007, I happened to be in New Orleans, at a post-Katrina Faulkner festival, participating on a panel with several other writers; it turned out that someone in Duke had been in the audience, and afterwards he approached me, asking if I would ever be interested in teaching at Duke. Whatever reservations I had at the time, I ended up making a visit down there, and, to my surprise (it’s a much longer story), though they had been conducting a year-long search, they enthusiastically voted to hire me; and I’ve been there during the Spring semesters for the past five years.

Having said this, every time I go down there from New York, it takes me about a month to get readjusted to the different pace of life and quiet and also, as well, getting around in a car. On the positive side, I’ve come to really like the folks there, and I’ve enjoyed working with the students, most of whom are really bright. In general, I treat my time down here as a visit to an art colony, with the difference being that I set aside three days a week for my course work, and the rest for my own. Somehow I’ve managed to be productive enough, though by the time I leave, usually in early May, I’m dying to reconnect with the crazy city, whose energies I connect with, and feel nurtured by, in an entirely different way.
What do you teach and what do you convey to your students, in terms of the craft? What advice do you give to these upcoming writers?

I won’t go into everything I do, but I try to make them “sentence” and “word” aware — and that there is a very great difference between just spilling your thoughts out on paper (or computer) and composing lines and narratives that have weight, swing, and integrity. Though most of my students are pre-med, pre-engineering, and pre-law (Duke being a professions-oriented university), I do my best to persuade them that writing well can be a great asset to their lives, no matter what field they go into. I also try to help them develop a discerning mind when it comes to books. One of my mantras is that just because a book is successful commercially, or famous, or has won prizes, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I will cite by name, for example, major prize-winning books that I have put into, “the-game-is-sometimes-rigged,” category, something which seems to be happening with more frequency; that is, books that are written loosely, stupidly, without any sentence sense or nuance that are somehow raved about in certain important venues — the critics of which should be ashamed of themselves. I also point out that there is a difference between top tier writing and what is often passed off as such. In other words, I try to turn them into refined, discerning readers — the writing end of it works mainly to make them more aware of the craft involved.

Do you feel today’s students have acquired an interest or an awareness about Latino literature and the writers? If so, why?

As far as I can see, today’s students, unless they are lit majors, aren’t all that interested in Latino literature. Or to put it differently, they aren’t as aware or concerned about the history of Latinos in this country, this internet generation, whatever their ethnicity, have long since moved on to much cooler things like internet games and music and the diversions of YouTube, etc. While kids today are just as bright, maybe even brighter than students of my generation, they don’t seem (for the most part) as sensitive to issues. It’s a class thing, too. I’ve had Latino students, from fairly well-off backgrounds, who seemed oblivious to their roots, as if indeed their parents had encouraged them to move on and never look back. But literature is part of that looking back, of looking into the mirror, and if you are a Latino merrily dancing into a homogenized life as perpetuated by American-trans-world culture, THE ACT OF LOOKING INTO THE MIRROR OF LATINO LITERATURE, SAY A BOOK about hard issues and pity notions like prejudice and generational struggles, JUST WOULDN’T OCCUR TO YOU. Having said this, I’ve encountered Latino students (at Duke) who, in reading certain books that I recommend, are anxious for more. And in my travels, I have encountered many young Latinos who are absolutely determined to celebrate their cultures in whatever way possible — and, of course, they embrace that literature deeply, though I don’t think Latino literature (always off in its own separate category) gets the audience among non-Latinos that it deserves. (There are exceptions of course. Junot Díaz with his “hip-hop-ghetto-speak” seems to really have a lot of cross over appeal, and, among readers, there are always discerning folks to be found, regardless of their roots.) Anyway, I’m boring myself to death with this prattle.

You were recently elected as a fellow into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. What does this mean and what are your plans as a fellow?

It’s the first academy I’ve been invited to join. I am pretty sure it happened because I got to know someone in that organization purely by chance — but I am grateful for the distinction, and at least they do seem to include Latinos in their membership, unlike the American Institute of Arts and Letters, for whom Latinos do not seem to exist. Last year, for example, among all the prizes given out, not a one went to a Latino: not in lit, architecture, music, the arts, drama, etc. The biggest irony, of course, is that their annual gala is held in a building that shares a plaza with the Hispanic Society of America located uptown in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and this cracks me up.
What Cuban American writers should readers look out for?

Well, to shamelessly plug my wife’s efforts, I would recommend an anthology of Cuban American poetry that she put together called Burnt Sugar. I also like Carlos Eire, Carlos Frias, Alfredo José Estrada, Miguel Estrada, Carolina Hospital, Roberto Fernández, Cristina Garcia, Ana Menéndez, Virgil Suarez, and Gustavo Pérez Firmat, among others, but this is to be a continued list.

GABRIELLE DAVID is the editor-in-chief of phati’tude Literary Magazine and publisher of 2Leaf Press.

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Source: Gabrielle David

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