Oscar Hijuelos was a Durham, North Carolina-based novelist. He died October 12, 2013.
Our House in the Last World, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, Empress of the Splendid Season, Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir
1985 Rome Prize (Our House in the Last World); 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love); Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation
Which one or two American books or plays would you yourself recommend to the foreign leaders? Why?
Well, for one, Gem of the Ocean, a brilliant play by August Wilson, and in terms of (relatively) contemporary fiction, I rather think that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Rudy Anaya's Bless Me Ultima would be eye-opening. (And to go further back, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mr. Twain, of course.)
I think each speaks to a certain formative time in American history. August Wilson addresses the legacy of slavery, while Ralph Ellison's novel addresses the emerging African American male, at the cusp of a time when everything began to change in terms of civil rights. Rudy Anaya's book recounts a saga, taken from a certain moment in Mexican-American history, while Twain's very famous book offers a lyric and tender look at yet another time, pre-Civil War America. Of course my list could go on, but I think each of these books is a piece of the puzzle that comprises the collective, ever-emerging American identity.
Who in your childhood—for example, parent or teacher—encouraged you to read books, and which one or two books do you remember most fondly?
Oddly enough, I really didn't have a teacher or parent to guide me; my mother, though, was somewhat of a creative soul, who wrote poetry, so I always had that in my head. As for influences, a childhood friend who always had books in his home seems to have had a positive influence on me, though the only ones I can recall reading now were Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, a copy of which my mother found somewhere—I still have it.
Which books by writers of the other G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom) have been most important to you as a writer?
Goodness. During my formative years as a writer, I very much liked Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that would be the tip of an iceberg that included other writers like Julio Cortázar, José Donoso and Carlos Fuentes, all Latin Americans. At the same time, I was very much under the spell of two rather unlike writers—the Polish/British writer Joseph Conrad and, from Ireland, Flann O'Brien, whose fanciful works were always interesting to me, even if they hadn't anything to do with my Cuban ancestry.