OSCAR HIJUELOS Biography - Writers


Biography » writers » oscar hijuelos


Birth: August 24, 1951 in New York, New York, United States                           
Occupation: novelist, college teacher, manager                                         
The novel of immigrant life is a durable and extremely significant tradition in       
American literature, and Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos has emerged as one       
of its top recent practitioners. His 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of         
Love was both a prizewinner and a bestseller; in that work and in several other       
substantial novels Hijuelos has explored the worlds of Cuban-born and Cuban-descended 
characters who live in the major cities of the U.S. eastern seaboard. "Oscar           
Hijuelos," noted the National Review, "forces the Hispanic immigrant experience       
close to the center of our cultural consciousness, where it very much deserves         
to be."                                                                               
Born in New York on August 24, 1951, Hijuelos was the son of a Cuban-born hotel       
worker. In the years before the takeover by Communist strongman Fidel Castro the       
family occasionally returned to Cuba. On one of those trips Hijuelos became           
seriously ill and had to spend several months in a Connecticut children's             
hospital upon his return. Hijuelos was a product of New York's public education       
system through the Master's degree level, graduating from the City University of       
New York in 1975 and gaining his M.A. in creative writing a year later. Among         
his early influences as a writer were the novelist Henry Roth, who had                 
chronicled the experiences of Jewish immigrants, and the minimalist short-story       
craftsman Donald Barthelme.                                                           
Worked in Advertising Firm                                                             
Hijuelos, however, evolved into a writer who was no minimalist, but rather has         
been noted for his rich, detailed descriptions of Cuban-American life. He honed       
his craft over a period seven years, from 1977 to 1984, during which he worked         
in an advertising office and wrote fiction by night. Working in the short story       
genre at first, Hijuelos found gradually increasing recognition for his works.         
He landed a group of stories in the 1978 anthology Best of Pushcart Press III.         
That led to a series of small grants that gave him more and more free time to         
write; one of them, in 1980, was a scholarship to the prestigious Breadloaf           
Writers Conference in Vermont.                                                         
The first fruit of Hijuelos's long apprenticeship was the novel Our House in the       
Last World, published in 1983. That book, which included an episode paralleling       
its author's own childhood hospitalization, depicts the lives of the members of       
a Cuban-American family in New York's Spanish Harlem neighborhood in the 1940s.       
Told through the eyes of the youngest son, the story reflects issues common to         
American immigrants: the pull of assimilation versus the barriers of                   
discrimination and separateness, and the ambivalent attitudes immigrants may           
have toward their home cultures. In Our House in the Last World (the "Last World"     
refers to Cuba), those ambivalent attitudes crystallize around the family's           
attitudes toward the alcoholic father, Alejo Santinio, whose errant ways leave         
them trapped in poverty.                                                               
Our House in the Last World brought Hijuelos few general readers but plenty of         
critical attention, and in 1985 he won a National Endowment for the Arts               
fellowship. The fellowship enabled him to devote full time to the research into       
1950s Cuban music that would underlie his sophomore release, The Mambo Kings           
Play Songs of Love. Published in 1989, that book remains his best known work.         
Tailor-made for cinematic adaptation (a film version starring Armand Assante           
brought the film's musical world to life in the early 1990s), The Mambo Kings         
Play Songs of Love tells the story of two Cuban brothers, Cesar and Nestor             
Castillo, who move to New York in the early 1950s and establish a mambo               
Novel Featured Desi Arnaz as Character                                                 
One technique Hijuelos used to add realism to his depiction of the heavily Latin-tinged
musical world of the 1950s was the inclusion of real-life individuals as               
characters--most significantly Latin star Desi Arnaz (the brothers make an             
appearance on the I Love Lucy television program). Such realistic touches, and a       
prose style that itself evoked Cuban rhythms, contributed to the book's success       
but ironically landed Hijuelos in court: Gloria Parker, leader of a group called       
Glorious Gloria Parker and Her All-Girl Rumba Orchestra alleged that an               
unflattering character in the book was based on her own, and sued Hijuelos for         
defamation of character. Closely watched as the first case of its kind to             
involve a work of fiction, the lawsuit was dismissed in 1991.                         
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of         
Love played in important part in kicking off the 1990s renaissance in Latin           
American fiction. "I remember being told, when the novel came out, 'Minority           
novels don't sell. Period.'" Hijuelos told Publishers Weekly. "That's what you         
hear if you're Hispanic. 'Punto. Forget it, baby.'" But The Mambo Kings Play           
Songs of Love enjoyed strong support from its publisher and by early 1991 had         
more than 200,000 copies in print. "The book is overcoming a very subtle kind of       
bias people have about what they'll find in a Latino book--more drudgery, death,       
and taxes." Hijuelos reflected in the same interview.                                 
After the long years he spent mastering the writing craft, Hijuelos was in no         
danger of suffering the kind of post-smash slump that has sometimes affected           
other young writers. His novels of the 1990s were a varied group in both subject       
matter and technique. The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993) was         
set in rural Pennsylvania in the early 20th century and depicted the large and         
predominately female offspring of an Irish-American father and a Cuban-American       
mother. Though some reviewers complained that the large cast of characters             
reduced some of the characterizations to shorthand, it was becoming increasingly       
clear that Hijuelos was claiming for his own large swaths of the American             
experience that earlier Hispanic writers had not dealt with.                           
The lyrical and spiritual novel Mr Ives' Christmas (1995) strengthened that           
impression with its presentation of a main character who finds redemption after       
his son is randomly murdered during the holiday season. A successful executive         
who grew up in poverty, Ives, the novel suggests, comes from a Hispanic               
background. But the novel was aimed at general audiences and was reviewed from         
that perspective. In 1999 Hijuelos struck a balance between his Cuban roots and       
his interest in American society in general with the novel Empress of the             
Splendid Season; the book told the story of a Cuban-American housecleaner and         
the varied American lives into which her work has given her a window. Perhaps         
just reaching his prime in the early 21st century, despite all the success he         
had already achieved, Hijuelos seemed ready to say much more to the nation of         
immigrants that his family had adopted as home.