A Conversation with Oscar Hijuelos, author of DARK DUDE
Q: You've said this is the sort of book you wished you had been able to read when you were growing up. What do you mean by this? OH: As a kid I had all kinds of questions about how I fit it with my neighborhood and friends and other Latinos. So I would have been happy to find a book about a kid going through the same thing as I was, like Rico does in Dark Dude.
Q: As a writer for adults, how did you decide to write a book for teens? OH: Well, my wife, Lori, is starting up a line with the Latino reader in mind that would bring the best of YA Latino writing to the general public as well; since I was interested in helping that line get a good start, I decided to write Dark Dude, a book that I’m really proud of.
Q: Are there parts to Dark Dude that are autobiographical? OH: Yeah– there are similarities between myself and Rico, the main one being that I was a light-skinned Latino, trying to figure things out. And my neighborhood was pretty funky, and so was the high school I attended. But the main thing is that while I was a lot like Rico at his age, the guy’s way brighter than I was.
Q: Did you read a lot as a child? OH: I read what I was given at school – we didn’t have many books at home ? and because most kids read comics, I did too, but they got me into reading so much that I used to haunt the local library on 125th Street (like Rico) and cheapo secondhand book shops, where I read everything I could get my hands on – everything from Huck Finn to Tarzan books.
Q: What writers influenced you to start to write yourself? Did you write your own comics when you were younger? OH: I started writing my own stuff when I was in high school – my first story was about these guys stranded on another planet – but when I got to college and started seeing how many wonderful writers there were, I read more and more. My favorites were Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, and Anton Chekov (but you name them and I liked them). The stuff I never had a chance to read, especially when I was a kid? Children’s books, titles like The Little Engine that Could, Wind in the Willows etc., stuff that most middle-class kids read; but I did love comics, and when I got a little older, oh about twenty-two or so, I went over to D.C. with a couple of scripts (about a vampire and a vampire hunter who happened to be brothers!) to sell, but I didn’t have too much luck. Like Rico’s pal, Jimmy, I always drew my own comics, not so much in the “superhero” style but more in the newspaper comic strip/funny animal way – I did it for friends and family. I just loved that pen and ink drawing style, and maybe that’s why comics pop up in at least two of my books, Mr. Ives Christmas and Dark Dude.
Q: What was the best thing about growing up in Harlem in the 1960s? OH: The best was the music and the street life – lots of kids everywhere – and things were really cheap – like double-feature monster movies for fifty cents. The worst was that you had to watch your back all the time, especially at night, and lock up your apartment.
Q: What do you hope teens take away when they finish Dark Dude? OH: Well, two things: 1) Not to let things get you down, no matter how rough things get sometimes, and 2) That there all kinds of ways of being yourself and a Latino – or whatever else you might happen to be – at the same time. In other words there are many ways of being just who you are.
Q: What was your initial response when you first heard you'd won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love? OH: Aggggh! Yay! Happy, happy! Oh, no! – which is to say I didn’t know what to make of all the attention quiet me was suddenly getting. But I was happy that it made my family feel proud.
Q: Did everything you wrote pretty much make it into the final novel? Were there any sections that didn't make the final cut? OH: Actually, no – I tried all kinds of things before it came out just right (or as right as I could make it.)
There were a lot of scenes that I left out. One of them, for example, was about a girl named Alicia who turns up in a cameo in the book; anyway, I had a whole section about her. This is just a part of it:
In the meantime, to speak of minor disasters, I’d fallen in love. Her name was Alicia, a Cuban girl I’ve had my eye on since the fourth grade. But did she like me? I didn’t think so. When she’d stand around in front of our grammar school with her Latina friends, and they started talking among themselves, I was pretty sure they were making fun of me, “goofing.” I always looked away, or pretended that I didn’t notice, but just standing next to her, I’d blush, and she’d smile, all smirky; one day she came up with her own nickname for me, not “dark dude” but “Pinky.” I always dreamed about her, but then I went really crazy in the seventh and eighth grades when the way she suddenly blossomed hit me like a truck; I couldn’t keep my eyes off her and no matter what she was doing she always seemed lovely as lovely could be. I’d see her standing on the sidewalk in front of church popping pink gum bubbles or chewing down the eraser of a number two pencil, the color of her lips, during religion class, and think she was the most graceful and beautiful girl in the world. She was also smart. Even without paying much attention at school, she always made numero uno student, the nuns rewarding her with all these certificates, despite her bad habits. She was always passing notes, chewing gum, and looking out the windows, bored. And while her crowd consisted of the kind of girls who smoked cigarettes and snuck beers in an alley, she had a whole other side to her, taking piano and ballet lessons after school, along with French, despite the fact that she had been raised in a slum. And even if she sloughed off her classroom studies, she was a secret student. From time to time, I would see Alicia in the library reading books. How fine was she? I once saw her standing on the corner, during a sudden rainfall, and along comes this bus, and once the driver gets a good look at her he jams on the breaks and the bus comes screeching to a halt, the door opening even if it wasn’t a regular stop. I watched the driver actually helping her get in, his hand reaching out to her, and he didn’t charge her, just drove her a few blocks down to 125th Street, where she, with books in hand, went off to the library, the place I’d see her from time to time.
One afternoon, it’s pouring rain, and I’m in my sophomore year at this really bad-ass public school, which I hate; I’m in the library, mainly because I like to read and we have no books at home. And while I’m sitting there, she walks in, and even though there are a few empty reading tables around, she plops down next to me. She’s drenched, her long black hair clinging to her coat, and when she takes it off, I blush at the sight of how fly she is, even if she is wearing a Catholic high school girl’s blouse. Then she shocks me saying, “ Hey, Pinky, – I mean, Rico –what’s going on?” “Not much. Same old, same old.” “And what’s that?” It’s the first time I’d ever really talked to her. “Well, you know my pop got sick last year, and so I’ve been working a lot at the dry cleaners on 120th Street, and at a stationery store, you know ‘Jacks’ over on Amsterdam, just trying to earn some extra money to help my family out. Otherwise, I ain’t got much else happening.” “That’s too bad,“ she says. “You got to get out more. What are you a wall flower?” I turn red. “No, I just do my thing.” “Your thing? What’s that?” And she looks at me, all mischievously. “Well, I go out,” I told her, “but mostly just hang around my block. I’ve got me a guitar that I play, you know, like rock’n’roll and soul tunes on my stoop, and, uh, I’ve been writing stories.” “Oh, and what kind?” “Science fiction stuff, about other planets.” “But why?” “I just like to. That’s all.” “And are you still hanging out with the same goofy guys?” “Who do you mean?” “I mean your friends were always the straightest kids in school.” She was talking about the losers at my grammar school, who I always felt sorry for. “Nah, I don’t see them so much anymore.” “And you still hang out with that guy, Jimmy?” “Sometimes, but not as much as I used to.” “Everybody knows he’s a junkie.” “Yeah, I know, but he’s a good guy anyway.” “Uh-huh. And do you do any of that stuff?” “Nope.” “I mean, do you smoke?” “What, cigarettes?” “Noooo, weed.” “Yeah, I have. You?” “Oh yes, I certainly do.” In a way, what she says completely surprises me, but given the mischief in her eyes, it doesn’t. Anyway, I see that as an opportunity, even if I don’t really like getting high myself. “Well, then,” I say, “we should do some together one day.“ “Maybe,” she tells me. She looks me over: I’m wearing Hush Puppies, a pair of green checkered slacks, a plaid shirt – I’m no clothing horse, having always been condemned to shop in the cheapest of places: I don’t really usually care, but when she gets this look of pity, I kind of squirm – but then she changes the subject. “You know, Rico, I’m Cuban too,” she says. “I know.” “But I’m curious. How come I’ve never heard you speaking Spanish to anyone?” Even if it’s a long story, involving my stay in hospitals when I was little, I just tell her, “Well, I sort of do. With my moms mostly. She doesn‘t speak much English.” “Do you dance?” “Yeah, sort of.” “I mean ‘Latin’ style?” “Sort of.” That was an out -and-out lie – as my folks never taught me, and I was too shy to get out and learn the moves. “Sort of?” “Well, yeah.” “Really? You don’t look the type.” “There’s a lot of things that would surprise you about me, Alicia, if you got to know me better.” “Really?” “Yeah, really.” Just then the librarian comes over and tells us to quiet down, and so we turn to our books. Alicia’s taken a thick chemistry text out of her bag, as the library is where she gets away to study; later she tells me that she is in some advanced placement class at her school, but in the meantime I can barely concentrate on what I’m reading, as I keep looking over at her; I can’t help it. Just sitting next to her turns me into a bigger dummy than I already am. I’m trying to be cool, but I can’t begin to get into what I was reading – some of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass –and while she doesn’t seem to notice, she finally turns to me and says: “Oh, Rico, stop it!” And so, I’m thinking that it’s all over between us, even before anything has started, but when I manage to pretend that I’m reading and keep my eyes on the pages, I notice Alicia looking over to see if I’m still trying to peek at her. Then I catch her eye and she smiles anyway, and it makes me feel really happy. We’re there for another hour quietly reading, when she gets up to leave, but as she gathers up her books, she says, “You want to walk me home?” “Sure.” “Okay, let’s go. I‘m up on 123rdStreet and Broadway, near the elevated train.”
There was a lot more, but I’ll stop right here. You get the idea.
Q: What are you working on next? OH: A novel, related to the Mambo Kings, about a lady named Beautiful Maria. ( It’s called “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.”)