An introduction to Oscar Hijuelos - July 5, 2011

"For a Latino writer there is little escape of an autobiographical chassis to build upon."

A few weeks ago I introduced Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Oscar Hijuelos at Collected Works Bookstore and Cantina. Many people may not know that it was his novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love that won the prize. The film version of the book, which featured Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, was by all measure a success, but it did little translate the warmth and nuance of Hijuelos’ prose and panoramic narrative. Still, the reading and dinner that followed renewed my interest in his published work and his books to come. The following is my intro:

“In a sense, writing a memoir is what all writers do, and as much as we designate and wrestle words into-fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose the way in which we witness, absorb and respond to the world around us is tethered first to the intimate images of our lives projected onto unfamiliar forms, until they too become part of us. 

For a Latino writer there is little escape of an autobiographical chassis to build upon. I’m reminded of Sheryl Luna’s poem “Bone,” where she writes of her grandmother, “This old woman rises like the blue sky, rises like the fat turkey vultures that make death something beautiful, something towards flight, something that circles in a group and knows it is best not to approach death alone.” It’s the word that struggles, but ultimately succeeds in translating place and a passage simultaneously…the light and emptiness of our lives, at once.

As I read various online biographies on Oscar Hijuelos to compile this introduction, I began to feel very small and inconsequential. The books, the Pulitzer Prize, the prestigious teaching posts…. But on page 194, of his new memoir “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” a revelation struck deeply within memories of my graduate writing program; a piercing salvo outlining the path of so many of us, so young, who have wandered through maze of identity; the flux of embarrassment and embrace; the symbol of where we are and where we may not have been, save for the pulse of idioms and other residues of language, and yet forges so much of our lines and stanzas and ultimately ourselves.
But most importantly, it is a breach into a vast longing universally drawn and shaped from the ether…he writes, “The strangeness of my life –of feeling that something had been torn out from inside of me, like a kidney, curiously enough, in my mind shaped like the island of Cuba, that was as empty as air---gnawed at me everyday.” 

Please help me welcome, Oscar Hijuelos.”