Luke Epplin interviews Oscar Hijuelos
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author on his new memoir, recovering his Latin roots in America, his relationship with Donald Barthelme, and how he found his voice.
Marcel Proust, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker all suffered isolating illnesses as children. Unlike Oscar Hijuelos, however, none lost his native tongue. Born to Cuban immigrant parents in 1951, Hijuelos grew up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan. When he was four, Hijuelos’s mother took him and his older brother on a lengthy trip to her hometown of Holguín, along the northeastern coast of Cuba. Hijuelos contracted a life-threatening kidney disorder while there; upon return to the United States, he convalesced in a hospital in Connecticut for a year, estranged from his family and his native tongue.
Feeling bewildered and maligned for his ignorance of English, Hijuelos recalls that he began to associate Spanish, a language that before then had “wrapped around [his] soul like a blanket,” with disease and disapproval. Even though he never lost his comprehension of Spanish, he would soon become paralyzed when called upon to speak it. As he muses in his just-released memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, “What I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubanness’ into air.”
As a pale-skinned Cuban-American who struggled to speak Spanish, Hijuelos drifted through his childhood and adolescence with little sense of his own identity—an outsider both to his parents’s culture and to the multiple ethnic groups that populated his Manhattan neighborhood. He remained acutely aware that, in his own words, “something inside of me was missing, an element of personality in need of repair.”
That Hijuelos, whose novels paint vivid portraits of Cuban-American life in the United States, grew up linguistically and psychologically disconnected from his Hispanic heritage, comes as a surprise. But it was primarily through writing, albeit in English, that he would find the means not only to explore his childhood alienation but also to reconnect with his Hispanic roots.