LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Oscar Hijuelos became internationally famous for his passionate reflections on the Cuban-American experience in "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." Now he's decided to relate his own experience in a memoir.
In "Thoughts Without Cigarettes," Oscar Hijuelos returns to the New York City streets of his youth. Tom Vitali walked those streets with him.
TOM VITALE: Like Jacob Marley confronting the Ghost of Christmas Past, Oscar Hijuelos sees things on 118th Street and Amsterdam Avenue that are no longer there.
OSCAR HIJUELOS: I had this haunted feeling. And I have to say, just standing here on the corner waiting for you, I felt haunted again, 'cause I don't see the blank walls that you see.
VITALE: He sees the soulful Sicilian shoemaker in a green smock in the window of his repair shop; the row of tenement houses across the street where he used to play; his father, home from work, leaning against a basement rail, smoking cigarettes; the old Freegent's Pharmacy on the corner.
HIJUELOS: There was this soda fountain just through the window, and candy counters and a big telephone booth. You know, the old-style kind, with doors you'd open up? And that's where my folks back when they came here from Cuba in the late '40s and well into the '50s. We didn't have a telephone until the early 19 - about 1964, 1965. This brick wall...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HIJUELOS: ...is where they would go to make their telephone calls, or to receive calls from Cuba.
VITALE: The neighborhood is Morningside Heights. Oscar Hijuelos was born here in 1951.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEIGHBORHOOD NOISE)
HIJUELOS: This building here is 419. My heart is starting to palpitate. This is where I was raised. These two front windows are - were to our living room. As a kid I spent so much time standing at that window 'cause, you know, I was sick as a child and so my mother wouldn't let me out all that much. So I sort of saw this life exploding. I mean, it was such a lively block that it was very hard to feel lonesome, but somehow I could.
VITALE: When he was just four years old on a summer trip to Cuba, he contracted a kidney disease, nephritis. He had to spend a year in a convalescent hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut, miles from his family.
HIJUELOS: My mother always said I went in speaking Spanish and came out speaking English. And I think that could be said about my psychic inner state as well. I was sort of plucked out of the home world I knew and turned into something else. And I don't think I ever outgrew that because I always felt shell-shocked growing up.
VITALE: Hijuelos incorporated his alienation into his fiction, writing stories about lives lived between cultures. His most celebrated novel is about two brothers, Nestor and Cesar Castillo, musicians who leave Cuba with the dream of making it big in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MAMBO KINGS")
ARMAND ASSANTE: (As Cesar Castillo) Come on, will you? Show them in (unintelligible) what a couple of stars look like. Hmm? Smile, will you? We're in America.
VITALE: "The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love" was adapted by Hollywood with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas in the lead roles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MAMBO KINGS")
ANTONIO BANDERAS: (as Nestor Castillo) We must stay in Havana.
ASSANTE: (as Cesar Castillo) But stay for what? Some whore who never even loved you. Is that what you're talking about now?
BANDERAS: (as Nestor Castillo) No, I'm not talking about Maria.
ASSANTE: (as Cesar Castillo) Yeah, a whore who sold herself to another man.
BANDERAS: (as Nestor Castillo) I'm talking about us. We don't belong here.
ASSANTE: (as Cesar Castillo) You don't get it through your head, she's not waiting for you. That's a dream. Now, how long before you're going to give that up? How long?
BANDERAS: (as Nestor Castillo) And you, Cesar, how long before you give up your dream?
VITALE: The novel earned Oscar Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, making him the first Latino ever to receive that award.
CHRISTINA GARCIA: It was so exciting. I mean, if I had been a gymnast I would've done back flips. I was so excited. And it really felt then that it had blown open the possibilities for all of us. All of us who were writing.
VITALE: Christina Garcia is the author of five novels, including "Dreaming in Cuban" and "The Lady Matador's Hotel." Garcia was born in Havana, but like Oscar Hijuelos, she was raised in New York.
GARCIA: I remember meeting Oscar, wow, probably it was in '92 or '93 and I started speaking to him in Spanish and he answered me in English and I completely got how you were just sort of one foot in the culture and the rest of you out of it. And even occasionally this sense of being a fraud in your own culture, you know, 'cause you're a little bit of a participant observer, but more of an observer than a participant.
VITALE: As a child, Oscar Hijuelos did plenty of observing from his apartment window. He eventually found a refuge in reading. His building was literally in the shadow of Columbia University across Amsterdam Avenue. He says his mother would find crates of books on the street.
HIJUELOS: Since we had a bookcase, she wanted to fill the bookcase. So she'd take these books from the street and put them in our shelves. So I grew up, for example, reading things about agriculture in the Midwest in the 1950s, or half a volume of "Oliver Twist" I remember. The cover was still nice, but half of it was missing.
VITALE: Standing on the corner in 90 degree heat, Hijuelos reads a passage about when he was 20, asking himself who am I?
HIJUELOS: (Reading) And why is it that I always swear as I begin to look behind me or turn a corner, that in a moment, I will come upon all that I do not have? A world perhaps Cuban, perhaps familiar that for so many reasons seems to have been taken from me.
VITALE: As for the title of his memoir, "Thoughts Without Cigarettes," Oscar Hijuelos says he smokes when he gets anxious.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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