As a reader, I’m always thrilled when one of my favorite authors writes a memoir or autobiography, or publishes a collection of letters or journals. Perhaps it’s voyeuristic, but I really enjoy a glimpse of the person behind the writer of those words I’ve come to love. And when I stumble upon a new writer, I’ll always search out their complete bibliography, to see if any personal writing or creative nonfiction is part of their body of work.
But with Thoughts Without Cigarettes, a memoir by Oscar Hijuelos, the tables are turned. I must admit I was not familiar with any of Mr. Hijuelos’ work, although his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, won a Pulitzer Prize. After reading this wonderful memoir about his youth in New York City, his Cuban heritage, and the people and places that shaped his writing and his life, I am eager to acquaint myself with everything he’s written.
Hijuelos’ has the gift of elevating the everyday to something interesting and important, which I think is vital in memoir writing. He spent his childhood in West Harlem in the 1950’s, the son of two Cuban immigrants. When he was quite young, a severe bout of nephritis required several weeks of hospitalization, which becomes a pivotal event in his memory. His descriptions of this event, and the ensuing years when his mother was extremely overprotective, determined to keep him safe from any further exposure to “bacteria,” are picture perfect, and take us right into the emotional mind set of this small boy. Hijuelos’ relationship with his father, a cook at the Biltmore hotel who died suddenly when Hijuleos’ was 17, is also beautifully portrayed.
Hijuelos’ didn’t grow up with the idea of becoming a writer, and in fact, wasn’t even much of a reader until he got to college. He spent a lot of time in his youth playing music, skipping school to play guitar and drink beer. When he began attending City College of New York, his writing talent was noticed and nurtured. “I had a lot of questions to ask myself,” Hijuelos says in an interview, “which I could only seek to answer through prose: much as I loved music, and for that matter, the visual arts, writing is the only form that leads to – and allows for -the direct expression of self-exploratory emotions.”
Thoughts Without Cigarettes is a beautifully written self-exploration of the writer’s emotions and memories. If you’re familiar with Hijuelos’ work, you’ll enjoy it for the way it shapes the man behind those words. If you’ve not read his other writing, you’ll want to, and very soon.
I know I do.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.