It was the cacophony of construction noise from Donald Trump’s ongoing redevelopment of the Upper West Side that caused Oscar Hijuelos to anxiously reach for a phantom cigarette. Despite having kicked the habit years prior, this instinctive reaction inspired the title of his memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes.”
In his first foray into non-fiction, Hijuelos initially set out to analyze his various anxieties about life, but instead reflected more on his formative years as the son of Cuban immigrants in New York.
This recent work comes 21 years after his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” Hijuelos was the first Hispanic-American to win the prestigious award.
In fiction, Hijuelos explores the tormented inner lives of immigrants. His characters yearn to belong but feel restrained by self-doubt. As the son of Cuban immigrants, Hijuelos lived in his own sort of limbo, simultaneously separated from his family’s Cuban roots but not yet fully embedded in America. This lack of confidence, which Hijuelos attributes partially to his parents, was a stumbling block for his early writing career.
Hijuelos said his mother was in a constant state of anxiety. She worried about getting behind on bill payments or that an envelope would arrive in the mail penalizing the family for violating some unknown government regulation. Hijuelos said he carried this hesitation with him for many years, refusing to believe the compliments others gave him. But he said it has helped humble him as a writer. “For me, when I’m sitting down to write something, I have to really pretend that I have an ego about [writing], but I really don’t,” Hijuelos said.
So after writing the memoir, has Hijuelos found a sense of inner peace? While he hesitates to describe himself as “peaceful,” he finds happiness through creativity and relationships. For him, peace “comes more in moments instead of waterfalls.”
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In this SundayArts Profile, correspondent Raphael Pi Roman speaks to Oscar Hijuelos about his new memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” at the Americas Society in Manhattan. Hijuelos won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”