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tv   Book TV  CSPAN  August 21, 2011 8:45am-9:30am EDT

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has responded to the book. have you been able to get coverage? i'm curious to know. >> we've had a review. [laughter] and we actually -- i think he is here somewhere. he is back there. is kind of to run an excerpt, so without any sort of -- i think there's been a fairly positive, more amongst people. i the woman who called me today who's been trying to get the book for three days and calling me personally. i don't know how she got my cell number. she's been trying to track down the book. truthfully more than in the i think there are people who have tracked down this book and been interested in it because i think of what kelvin has been willing to share, something that people want to know. what is it really like. so it's been more of a personal fan and media event, like a wire or something.
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>> we've had for so far. we probably have more. so spent also the book is on sale in the back. >> we also have a lot of media attention over in the u.k. as well. we have people helping us with the sale of the book. >> we're going to do a tour of europe. yes, we are. >> can i say one other thing? and i said this in the book, 22 and half years i've been a baltimore city police officer. a lot of times we are working these cases but a lot of times i had to sometimes put my family second to help other families get closure in life. and my wife is here tonight. she sits over there. and i want -- [applause] >> thanks for putting up with me for 22 nephews. my two daughters are back there,
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also. ashley and candace. >> and my fiancé is over here. >> thank you guys very much for coming out and putting up with the heat. you guys will be glad to sign copies. we have copies of the book on sale in the back. the bar in the back is open. please feel free to browse around. thank you very much. [applause] >> next on book tv oscar hijuelos talks about growing up in new york city in the 1950s as a such cuban immigrants. it's about 45 minutes. >> thank you. we are thrilled to be here today with oscar hijuelos. those of you who know him probably know him best from one pulitzrizeht novels which won a pulitzer prize, but first for a latino writer.has had m he hasil had many milestones sie
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then, has written some of those beautiful fiction and now has written about himself and a a nonfiction way. you oscar, really thrilled you're here. >> thank you. >> why now? why why a memoir now? >> there's a short answer and ag long answer. >> we have a bit of time.swer. >> the long answer is that i in my first novel which was called our house in the last world, i sort of talk about i talked about the influence on my life when i was coming up and call our house in the last world, that came down to this. i went through some difficulty as a child. i was separated from my family for a year because of illness and i went through a period wed having been interest in the culture and language i found
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myself suddenly immersed in american culture and language. as my mother would say i went into the hospital speaking spanish and came out speaking english and so my return, even though i knew my family loved me and i could understand spanish and communicate in certain ways with them, i stopped speaking it easily without any psychological uptightne uptightness. these are notions i put it to my first novel. than six years later, i published "the mambo kings play songs of love" which was an explosive celebration of my cuban routes and music and involved so many fantasies and realities that i grew up with, people would look at me, blonde,
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fair skin, very new york in his demeanor and ask how on earth does that happen and i would have to explain and lot of people have thought that "the mambo kings play songs of love" was my first novel so i found myself explaining myself again and again, explaining just what i was about with each new book. people are curious. how do you write this book about your upbringing and other related issues to latinos? so in a way "thoughts without cigarettes" is a response to all these people who have asked me these questions over the years. how did you come about as a human being and get these crazy ideas for these books? the short answer is the irs. >> which you had a run in with.
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>> not really. yes i did, as a matter of fact. that i put that in the memoir? >> funny how memoirs become confessionals. >> before we go on and we move in and out of serious tone and talk about many wonderful things i want you to know, trying to undermine anyone i am speaking with for the sake of a cheap laugh. >> i appreciate that too. the mention spanish and you write interestingly about your mother and your father but your mother quite a strong-willed person who never quite entirely learned english. read an excerpt here about you and her and some others. >> sounds like something i have been dying to do all day.
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it is crazy writing a book. would you agree? when you are writing them you inhabit such an intimate space it is like you are having a conversation with yourself and conversations with people you have always known and somehow it is almost as if you are in a confessional but when it is all down on paper and someone actually printed it becomes public. >> we are outing you. >> this is the first time i have read this allowed. this scene takes place after -- it is pretty self-explanatory. you would think a child in such close proximity to so loquacious and opinionated a woman would have picked up a piece of that lost mother tongue again through
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constant exposure. but that is just what should have happened. the simple truth is she never spoke to me but directed her tirades or aphorisms as 4 stories at me. my mother might have gently prodded ease the spanish language out of me or at the very least gone over the kinds of exercises that most cuban mothers might with their children like the rolling of the ares or repetition of tongue twisters -- i am having trouble with it now or starting from scratch, keeping me -- teaching me when things were called or how the spanish alphabet worked out. in my case gently cajoling me to
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speak more spanish day by day. who knows how my feelings about refusing to speak it might have changed? whatever the reasons, that sort of patience, organization, just not part of the nature. given the more immediate concerns, years later, i don't know why you didn't want to learn as if that was something that was offered and i now wish he had been more demanding about my speaking spanish my guess is i would still find ways of pushing that language away. i like that piece. i can believe i wrote it. >> the book is packed with these real insights that surely in
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reflection produce along view of a childhood that was quite troubled. >> i would say so. the most interesting thing about writing this is when you are doing fiction about, quote, your life, you can add -- with intervening thoughts, symbology and language and somehow it is buffeted. as i was writing this more and more i realized i had been raised having gone through a major drama which was to be separated from my home for a year. >> because of illness. >> the irony is that which separated me from my, quote, humanness and the language came from a disease that i grew up thinking of as the cuban disease because are attracted it when i was in cuba when i first fell
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ill but psychologically i have or parents of -- i love the language i want to be close to but on the other hand hadn't you just been burned by it? interestingly enough i had never read as aloud before. i heard a word in spanish but could register if in an english. i wonder what that means. is there a doctor in the house? >> or ailing west. so t . so the book is about identity. if you were to big -- give short answers? >> are have always been a loner and take deep pride ini have al
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and take deep pride in my cuban routes, always even when i was shellshocked. cubans would come to the house and the shellshocked because my parents were darker than i was. >> as opposed to? >> i had an irish great great grandfather named o'connor who emigrated to cuba on a ship in the 1820s and married a descendant named conception. i always wanted to write a book about conception o'connor. there are blunts and fair skinned people and relatives in my family and so forth but in my upbringing my brother's nickname was pinky but he spoke better spanish and use to get beat up by latinos and white guys.
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in the context of where i grew up which was new york in the 50s and 60s the race thing was pretty pronounced. last night i was in washington and ran into a puerto ricans woman who actually went to the same high school i did and she said you went there? how come you didn't get beat up all time? it was mostly black and latino. i don't know. i use to sculpt a lot. >> it was a rough neighborhood in the shadow of columbia university. >> interestingly enough, i did grow up in the town, most of the parents i knew, my friend's parents were working-class folks, blue collar jobs, etc. but quite an interesting
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neighborhoods. we were on the cusp of harlem. to listen to music and ca james brown act was the ticket. you also have access to downtown and a university ambiance. i recall being very aware of books for example, going by bookstores on broadway and being fascinated by the prospect of going inside but couldn't bring myself to do that for many years because i thought it was for a different kind of person, a different class, better educated class. on the other hand my mother who did love books but used to collect them as decorative objects almost and since we live in the university neighborhood and because of that we sometimes come across carton's of books left behind by college students under stairwells.
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so i kind of read the book that came into the house. stuff like agriculture development in the midwest, 1954. we had one half volume of oliver twist. nice bold pages but only half -- that kind of thing. it was an interesting neighborhood. part of new york when it was quite a different place when it was only about -- you didn't need a lot of money to live there. people like st. minstrels and i remember a truck pulling up, and i came up after all that passed and there were also gains. >> i was really taken aback by the close calls you had and some of the path your friends took. some of them did not end up so
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well. >> no. unfortunately. if you grow up in my neighborhood and you were dumb enough to take a shortcut through the projects, to save yourself five minutes, dumped a couple times when it was pretty rough, i would get jumped quite a bit but you get used to it after a while it grows on you. but aside from that, ironically when i was a kid in thaw hospital for so long, you submitted blood transfusions and blood being tested in the eagles, in my neighborhood where a lot of teenagers became her when addicts, my teenage years coincided with a moment in new york history when drugs started coming in big time. to make a very long story short
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i developed a phobia, never began to think about doing that -- going that route. some of these things that seemed so troublesome to me were protective. >> your brother ran into a situation of his own and ended up having to leave home pretty abruptly. >> interestingly enough he had a girlfriend whose family were police, police officers and brothers all and i think they objected to his intimacy with their sisters so he ended up leaving town and joining the air force. that is in the book not as an invasion of any privacy but more or less that he was left home when he was 17 and i was 10 years old and suddenly i was in
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household by myself with my mother and father contending with all these issues of language and other kinds of stresses. >> not exactly laid bare in the first novel that you wrote, the parallel to those characters pretty sharply seen by your family. >> they picked up the book and -- i am not sure my mother could read english well enough to understand everything i had written. >> that leads us to the next -- >> i am glad i gave you -- which one is this? of day. how long am i reading it? >> as long as you want. >> okay. my older brother for what it is
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worth made no bones about telling me my mother had been upset by the book as if she could read it. but she could not bear any passages about pop drinking and on top of the ball had gotten a lot of stuff wrong. and that my portrayal of family friends like olga were offensive and i had no business describing her or someone like her as the kind of in glorious lot of who would problem around in a negligee and reveal her fabulous figure in our living room as i was growing up. you feel offended by that. in this end i believed him and took to skulking of my block. i did a lot of skulking in those days whenever i visited my mother. worries about running into any of the folks i had betrayed i had gotten ducking behind the car coming out of my mother's building but she saw me.
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come over a year, she ordered. i did. wire you avoiding me? won't bite you. i know. there is something you should hear, she said. she with her curls hairdo and intensely dark features the personal i read your book and i will tell you that i loved it. and she flashed a smile. i don't even remember the next line. and she flashed me a sweet, to thawy smile. and thank you for putting me in it. you got me right. i had more or less describe the way she had been as a cuban bombshell who left men breathless. she did chastise me about other things. you were too hard on your
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mother. i don't blame you, she said. she could be difficult but you were still too hard on her. she did not mention my pop the she must have been thinking about him as well. as i went by her on my way to see my mother who appeared out at me from behind the venetian blinds, olga gave me a kiss on the cheek. her final appraisal, we are proud of view. >> that is wonderful. this gives a wonderful piece of the humanity in your family. it is almost painful, the memory of your dad. there is a beautiful section of the book and our will let you catch your breath. >> is there any more about the
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that is okay. >> you talk about what your father did not teach you. >> many things. my brother and i have discussed the notion that we somehow came up in this world without much guidance. wasn't anything that -- any lack of guidance that was done on purpose i don't think. my parents, immigrants of that generation who were working hard to get by, to teach us. information is power as they say. as long as i can remember, my
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mother was absolutely confounded by the system. any time we got legal notices, my father was no -- whenever he knew he did not impart. >> what do they teach you? you have this almost mystical connection to your father seemingly at the moment he passes away. you feel a very odd pain that seems to mimic his. you feel his specter in your room. >> it is a very emotional issue for me but you used the term humanity. my father grew up on farms in cuba and came to the united states in his late 20ss and came
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on to a new world. what he brought with him was this incredibly -- i don't know if there is an equivalent in other cultures. a courtly planeness -- a lot of class and kindness. i recall him for his gentle nature and work ethic. did he teach me how to drive our car? did he teach me how to swim? did he teach me how to rumba? that instructive relationship with either him or my mother. i felt a deep connection, he was very cuban. i will tell you an anecdote that is not in the book.
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when i was growing up, in my 20s i became more and more conscious of something i used to hear a lot tea and from cubans. they would say to me you don't look particularly cuban. i could never understand it because even low i am fair and what i had hair blond, i looked aloud like my father. to me he was the ultimate cuban. for years i wondered how could it be that if i resembled my father, how did he, the ultimate cuban, how could that be? why is it that he always looked cuban? he never looked cuban.
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the perceptions, or self delusion, basically putting them in perspective and prioritizing what the truth might be. and opinions and juggling to make it coherent enough for someone else to get what you are trying to convey. >> he died on the job. >> yes. he worked at the bill more hotel in the 40s and had two jobs for most of his life in new york but not to belabor the hardship of all that, but he was working a job one night and local faculty, university faculty restaurant in butler hall, literally a block away from where i grew up.
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when he wasn't feeling well, cigarettes would make me feel better. and while he was doing that he collapsed. in the memoir i mentioned a fact that among the effects that came home where some cigarettes and wanting to commune with him at a couple now and then. very strange but at the time almost seem like part of a ritual. >> those incredible influences in my life, you make what some would say is the sharp right turn towards the writing life and how does that happen? >> i asked myself that every day. and high school i was a pretty good student. i did well in the exams but hardly ever showed up because my
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school was pretty rough. i am giving you the long story. i basically pass all my courses, bought an academic diploma and began an odyssey -- subway schools in new york city. i worked for macy's department store for year. that is an outtake. when i was in school a very nice professor in the bronx, some sort of essay. remember the two words that were not clever or great. freely frolicking. you really have something here and it was the first time anyone
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was ever so complementary. i used to sing around town and if you heard me sing and you would understand why no one ever complemented me. it was the first time i felt good but never thought i would be a creative writer. sort of reading more books. i love the theater. i have not lady friend who was an actress and used to go to theater all the time and started riding very naturalistic plays when sam shepard and those guys were happening. sort of writing about my family. i am not sure about the dialogue, but that let me into trying to write fiction and once i attempted that i had the incredible luck of writers in
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the day. there in her -- they encouraged me to write, being nice to me. on the other hand, something about the process was fulfilling and nurturing, it was taking the question i had about myself and putting them into a container space eventually. the beauty of that, isa this tooth young folks or older folks, i was in an old age home once and it is student who was 107 years old was just starting to write. >> never too late.
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>> never too late. if you have a strong emotion or memory about something get it down on paper because in five years or six years it could turn the hair. i didn't realize that when i started writing i'm glad i did because a lot of my emotions which were very raw ended up keeping me going even when i had myself about. >> so you talk about teaching writing because you are teaching at duke university and you don't have students in that class 107 years old. but they are at the point you were when you entered college but in a more privileged setting. how do you relate to them? what do you want them to take away from your class? >> and was very lucky to have someone like donald ball or for that matter susan saw on tag,
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what they call word people, a word man. i am a word man. i look at the language and i try to see what is happening with a young writer, what they do best and what they do worse. i tried to steer them away from cliches but it is a different situation now. i don't understand the internet water -- world. i don't understand why anyone would want to be plugged into one of those things all day. i don't get it. to me what i see, kids walking with notebooks and all this, you can't go for an hour without seeing someone with all this and i think they're being plugged into some alien intelligence from outer space that is messing with their brains and exerting on some level true mind control because their whole frame of reference is this internet
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cyberof world where you can get books on line and don't haline o a library, information easily gone without hard work by not putting that down. this is the way the future is going to be, but the process of writing which makes everything so pretty because they have instant spell check and instant thesaurus makes itself look good and i try to disavow them of the notion that because the paragraph looks good on a page that it is good. it has to have heart and be about something that is meaningful. so i try to treat them as seriously as i am capable. >> how large a class? >> are taught them what i would call -- trying to remember. constructing narrative is one of the courses that i taught.
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ahead too many kids in it. i had 17 and the ideal number is 10. people say i have been -- i am graduating and dying to take your course and i'm only there one semesters or fill up for class more than i should. >> that is a lot of papers to grade, i can attest. we haven't spoken about creating that but i want to open it up to the audience for a question. do we have audience questions? if you give your thoughts to the microphone we would appreciate that. >> i have always believed that day memorex has to have an extraordinary memory. it seems to me from it what you described you may but i wonder when you have a gap what you do to fill it? >> i make things up.
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one section of the book which is very surrealistic to me in a way was describing what i call in the book a loss told, the black hole of my childhood spent in all this time in a hospital. i actually literally remembered always picking machines, being very aware of windows. not getting out of locked doors. nurses and paper cups, beds emptying, certain smells. i would have had two paragraphs worth of material. but as soon as i overlay it with what i imagine or try to imagine i was feeling at the time the narrative opens up into discussions of what those things mean or do to you.
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it is almost like intense self psychoanalysis. i have no idea -- that hospital in connecticut -- i have no idea what they really look like but i have a mental inward image of what they look like. so it is a combination of subjective with what you know of the facts. that is the best way i can put it. there's a little novelistic hanky-panky going on but it is hard work, believe me. >> howard did your family and the other cubans you knew react when fidel castro came to new york city in 1960 and stayed in a hotel in harlem and address the united nations? >> you read a little bit about that. >> thank you for that question. he was a big hero for many
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cubans until he overtly came out with communism and all that. my father for example. the magazine to raise money for the revolution. i recall my father met him or was among a crowd when he came to columbia university campus. i don't recall having a sense of my family's response to him at the hotel although local neighborhood kids thought it was rather funny. some went down there. i am trying to remember if i did go down there to check out. i might have but a lot of time has gone by. if your question was how we felt politically, ultimately -- had anyone known that was at the
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beginning of a long estrangement, i don't know how anyone could have stayed same. >> you talk a little bit about the divide between your family that came out before castro took power and goes relatives who came after. the peculiar advantage of being in that class. they went to new jersey and were able to buy a house and a car. >> my mother used to -- my mother and father are always helping relatives and friends come out with whatever they could. always seemed whenever we were in a state, and ok apartment, not bad. getting along, no locations. we never went to restaurants or
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movies or broadway show until i went by myself. once with nuns and i remember when it came to new york city, shown in carnegie hall. >> something of a men would enjoy? >> i don't know what they enjoy but they do. my point is quite frankly the united states government really helped the exile community when they came to the country and there are lots of things available to them in terms of getting people on their feet, a lot of cubans took advantage of and rightfully so, my family did not have that advantage. there's also a have to do that my relatives experienced and there's something to be said about a coherent and tight community.
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i remember miami before the cubans came in and it was a sleepy town. you go down now and it is quite different. >> in union city which your relatives moved in. next question please. >> my name is john kelly. i am a writer for the boston phoenix. thanks for being here today. >> thank you for coming. >> i have a two part question. the first is i was curious what impact the reception of "the mambo kings play songs of love" had on your life. >> there is a great movie, a great scene in a very bad movie, it features michael caine coming back from a divorce lawyer. he has been divorced 67 times and he gets into an elevator,
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and two elevators come down and is always falling madly in love with women and in one there's this beautiful willowy blonde smiling at him and in the other is a black panther kind of guy with a snarling dog and michael caine gets in the elevator with the black panther guy. had i known -
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>> like, i mean, i made -- i met a lot of wonderful people in that time, but i've also met a lot of wonderful people who weren't. and i came from a background in which someone wanted to befriend you, they were being sincere, and i found myself sometimes in a world where it's what you were about in that moment as opposed to who you were. having said that, i've always enjoyed meeting people who like my books, and be i've found traveling in europe and being-ad published over there and in different parts of the world very exhilarating.d but with i think in retrospect i would have done somethingnt differently although i don't want to go into that now. >> okay. >> because you have to read the book. read the book "thoughts without cigarettes". >> the second question was when
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you are writing fiction or the memoir, how do you decide how to protect people in your life? in other words sometimes people are offended if you include them in your book or a character is an amalgamation -- >> we touched a little bit on that. >> i don't have anyone in the book who i think and kindly of. i hope that comes for. sometimes it is a little raw but i did my best. if someone happens to be offended by a certain something, i don't know. >> that is very clear. that does come through in this book. it only hit the stand two days
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ago but if you get to read this book and i hope you do, it is a touching book about someone coming to terms with an upbringing was a surge in the set of circumstances. and really making choices that reform a life. would you say that? >> if you want me to, yes. >> we're all in agreement. you make it so easy. so tell us about that. you are a different animal from the rest of your family. >> i have a creative brother. my mother was quite creative. she wrote wonderful poetry and i include -- she is really a marvel. i think the message, when i was in school i was always getting in trouble in grammar school because i was always making


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