|Oscar Hijuelos, 1951-2013|
Dear Oscar Hijuelos,
I am ashamed to say that this is a letter I should have sent you long, long ago. I attempted to say what I am about to say to you in person, that one time in New Orleans during the Words and Music Festival. But I stuttered, couldn't say more than "Thank you, thank you," and you so graciously took my hand, shook your head indicating that thanks weren't necessary, and said "You're welcome."
Here is what I should have said, what I'm saying now, too late. When my first book, Love and Ghost Letters, was in the process of being published by a big New York house, I was in my late twenties and completely at a loss as to what this meant. I was writing catalog copy, was asked to start a website, and to list all the famous authors I knew personally who might provide a blurb.
I didn't know a soul who was "famous," at least not in the way they wanted at the publishing house. My editor sighed, gracious with the newbie, and sent out a few calls of her own.
Only one "famous" author bit. That was you, Oscar Hijuelos. You didn't know me from fulana de tal, and yet you read my book and said lovely things about it. When my editor told me, "We got Oscar," I almost passed out. Seriously, if no one else had read my book, and I mean, if only you had read my book, and then all copies, all computer files had been destroyed, I would have been happy.
Because Our House in the Last World and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, for which you won the Pulitzer (the first Latino to do so, y un cubano to boot. Caramba), were some of the first books I read by someone with the same roots as me. You laid down pavement for me, and I walked on it in awe, and wrote until my eyes felt like they were going to fall out of my head, inspired, inspired.
In Mambo Kings, Desi Arnaz plays a role. Did you know he was my abuelo's neighbor in Santiago? And 1951, the year you were born, also welcomed my mother and mother-in-law to the world. What a year. It's my lucky number, 1,951, because it fashioned for me so many wonderful role-models. I could go on, listing the strange coincidences, ones I plucked from your books and from articles about you, and collected greedily as a reader, looking for a connection between us. I'll stop, lest this message get too strange, when what I want to say is simple.
Thank you, Oscar Hijuelos. And I'm sorry I couldn't say this in person. The words you inspired in me slowed to molasses when I met you, got stuck on my tongue, made me falter. But I hope you intuited all this in my simple thanks that day.
I like to imagine that they're playing some mambo in the heavens for you now, to welcome you.
Con cariño siempre,
Readers, for a taste of Oscar Hijuelos' work, check out this amazing program from The Greene Space, including a reading by Oscar Hijuelos and music by the incomparable Chuchito Valdéz.