Mambo is my business

Our Lady of the Lake University 2007 Literary Festival: An Evening with Oscar Hijuelos
7 pm Wed, Apr 18
Thiry Auditorium
OLLU Campus
434-6711 Ext. 2091
After his critically praised debut novel Our House in the Last World, Oscar Hijuelos wrote his masterpiece, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. His marvelous portrait of the Castillo brothers, who find their destiny as the Mambo Kings, not only touched a chord with critics but with the reading public as well.

Hijuelos, a New York City native of Cuban heritage, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1989 for Mambo Kings. He was the first Latino to receive that honor. A successful film version followed, starring Antonio Banderas.

His later work includes The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien, Mr. Ives’ Christmas (which earned a second Pulitzer nomination for Hijuelos), Empress of the Splendid Season, and A Simple Habana Melody.

“An Evening with Oscar Hijuelos,” Wednesday, April 18, will be a highlight of the OLLU Literary Festival, La Vida Consciente. The Current caught up via email with Hijuelos at his NYC home, where he is working on an as-yet-untitled novel.


When did you first realize that Cuban music would play an important part in your life as a writer, a novelist?

In the 1980s, when I became aware of how story-oriented boleros were; once I did, I found a method for writing the `Mambo Kings`.

Do you consider yourself an American writer first or a Cuban-American one?

I consider myself a New York City writer with Cuban antecedents (and proud on both points.)

Only two Latinos have won the Pulitzer: your Mambo Kings for fiction in 1989 and Nilo Cruz for his drama Anna in the Tropics in 2003. Is there any significance that you both come from a Cuban background?

I think it’s just a coincidence and a fairly miraculous one at that, given the way the official bodies who give out awards put Latino writers into a separate category: I mean, when was the last time a Latino has been nominated for a National Book Award in fiction? Believe me, a lot of Latino writers surely deserve to but rarely get that break.

What caused the Broadway-bound musical version of Mambo Kings to stall before reaching the Great White Way?

The producers got cold feet because of some rather unfair and vitriolic reviews that came during our San Francisco run; even if the crowds loved the show, they pulled the plug.

What was your greatest challenge in adapting your own work for the stage?

Writing shows is an entirely different thing from novels; it takes a while to get the hang of it.

Has your work ever been banned in Fidel’s Cuba?

No, in fact my books have been talked about there for a long time.

What are the liabilities and joys associated with using real-life characters in your novels: from Desi Arnaz in Mambo to composer Moisés Simmons in Habana Melody?

You can know too much sometimes — the best way to write about “real” people is to wing it, and trust that they are human beings, too.

The Cuban music scene has lost many greats in recent years. Who among the remaining musicians keeps this music alive and thriving?

I don’t follow the scene anymore, but I suppose cats like Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo O’Farrill are keeping things going (among a few thousand other musicians.)

Have you ever wanted to write about those great rumberas cubanitas of 1940s Mexican films starring Ninon Sevilla, Maria Antonieta Pons, with Pérez Prado and Toña La Negra lurking in the background?

That’s a great sub-genre to be sure: I really don’t know enough about it to write about it — but what a good idea.

Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag were among your early mentors. What writing gems did you take from them?

Read, read, read, avoid clichés, work every day, and avoid interviews.

You and `wife` Lori Carlson recently co-edited Burnt Sugar, an anthology of contemporary Cuban poetry. Any favorites?

I love them all, whatever their generations, their degree of ‘Cubanness’ etc.

For once and for all, who actually created the mambo? Pérez Prado claimed it was he. Ditto Cachao and Orestes López. Alfonso Arau maintains he created the dance associated with the mambo.

The dance is descended from the rumba, which goes back to the 19th century; as a musical form I guess it evolved in the ’30s; I doubt seriously that any of the above, or, for that matter, any one person, could have created it.

My understanding is that it came about from Cuban and Puerto Rican bands jamming out, against a backdrop of beaucoup percussion — what is called the “Mambo” section — gave dancers lots of time to experiment with their moves; but, as I said, I can’t believe it came from any one source. 



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