Oscar Hijuelos’ “Beautiful Maria”

What’s Westport in 2010 got to do with Havana of the 1950s?

Plenty, says Oscar Hijuelos.

Oscar Hijuelos

The American novelist — the 1st Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction — says the connection between Cuba and the US goes so far back in history that “even ‘white suburban’ audiences feel familiar with the culture.”

For well over a century, he told “06880,” the island not far from Florida was a tourist destination, and source of tobacco and sugar.  Above all, “the Cuban psyche, via its music — of the rumba and the mambo — as well as its emotionality, have filtered into America’s consciousness in a way that few other Latin cultures have.”

Desi Arnaz had a big effect on Americans’ perceptions of Cuba too.

Lucy Arnaz Luckinbill — Desi and Lucille Ball’s daughter — now lives in Weston.  Hijuelos has known her since the early 1990s.  Two years ago, she helped arrange Hijuelos’ appearance at the Westport Public Library, where he received the Booked for the Evening award.

The riverside setting, the “elegance of the library” and the folks who attended all made a positive impression on the writer and his wife.

Now Hijuelos is set for a return appearance.  On Monday (July 26, 7:30 p.m.) he’ll talk about his new book, Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

A sequel of sorts to his famed The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, it’s an examination of the life of the muse of that novel as she moves from childhood to the fast lane in mid-20th century Cuba.  Her story involves fierce love, luscious sex and otherworldly beauty, as well as heartbreak and hardness.

It’s a story that should delight Westport readers — though most have never been to Cuba.  And anyone who heard Hijuelos 2 years ago knows how entertaining he can be.  Like any superb writer, he knows his audiences well.

“As exotic as my writing may seem in some ways, I always look for common cultural ground to draw my non-Cuban readers closer,” he says.  I try to create a world that both Cubans and Americans can relate to.”

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