Hijuelos, Oscar: 1951—: Novelist
Oscar Hijuelos: 1951—: Novelist
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 hopsital 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 mini-malist, 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.
At a Glance . . .
Born August 24, 1951, in New York City; son of Pascual (a hotel worker) and Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos); divorced. Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1975; City University of New York, M.A. in creative writing, 1976. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Transportation Display, Inc., New York, advertising media traffic manager, 1977-84; published debut novel, Our House in the Last World, 1983; appointed professor of English, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, 1989; international acclaim for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published by Farrar, Straus, 1989; signed publishing contract with HarperCollins, 1995; published novel Empress of the Splended Season, 1999.
Memberships: PEN international writers' organization.
Selected awards: Creative writing fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1985; Pulitzer Prize for fiction and numerous other prizes and nominations for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, 1990.
Addresses: Home— 211 W. 106th St., New York, NY 10025; Office— Department of English, Hofstra University, 1000 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY 11550.
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 adapation (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 orchestra.
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 predominatly female off-spring 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.
Our House in the Last World, Persea Books, 1983.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Farrar, Straus, 1989.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, Farrar, Straus, 1993.
Mr Ives' Christmas, HarperCollins, 1995.
Empress of the Splendid Season, HarperCollins, 1999.
Library Journal, April 15, 1999, p. 163.
National Review, February 22, 1999, p. 50.
New Republic, March 22, 1993, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1991, p. 17.
Time, November 27, 1995, p. 98.
Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group. 2001. (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
—James M. Manheim
Nationality: American. Born: New York, New York, 24 August 1951. Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.A. 1975, M.A. 1976. Family: Divorced. Career: Advertising media traffic manager, Transportation Display, Inc., Winston Network, New York, 1977-84; writer, 1984—; professor of English, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1989—. Awards: "Outstanding writer" citation (Pushcart Press), 1978; Fellowship for Creative Writers award (National Endowment for the Arts), 1985; American Academy in Rome fellowship in Literature (American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters), 1985; Pulitzer prize for fiction, 1990. Address: Hofstra University, English Department, 1000 Fulton Avenue, Hempstead, New York 11550, U.S.A.
Our House in the Last World. New York, Persea Books, 1983.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1989.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1993.
Mr. Ives' Christmas. New York, HarperCollins, 1995.
Empress of the Splendid Season. New York, HarperCollins, 1999.
Preface, Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction, edited by Delia Poey and Virgil Suarez. New York, HarperPerennial, 1992.
Introduction, Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the United States, edited by Lori M. Carlson. New York, Holt, 1994.
Introduction, The Cuban American Family Album by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Contributor, Best of Pushcart Press III. Pushcart, 1978.
Contributor, You're On!: Seven Plans in English and Spanish, edited by Lori M. Carlson. New York, Morrow Junior Books, 1999.*
Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994; Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean Literature Written in the United States by William Luis, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 1997; U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers edited by Harold Augenbraum and Margarite Fernández Olmos, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000.* * *
Oscar Hijuelos is the only Latino to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, which he won in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a bittersweet exploration of the lives of two Cuban-born musicians and their families in the 1950s. His work is characterized by a beautiful literary style through which he captures and explores individual character.
Hijuelos was born in New York City and spent a very small part of his early years in Cuba. He graduated from the City College of New York, and has acknowledged an early debt to Henry Roth and his ultimate novel of Jewish adaptation, Call It Sleep. At the age of three, during a trip to the island, Hijuelos fell ill and subsequently lived for a period of time in a Connecticut children's sanitorium, which he chronicled in his first novel, the Bildungsroman Our House in the Last World.
Our House sets out many of the themes with which Hijuelos has grappled during his career: a search for spiritual meaning, memory and loss, the difficulty of maintaining a stable family life, poverty in immigrant communities, the implausibility of certainty in self-definition—especially among men, an extraordinary appreciation of both the physical and emotional presence of women, and the plasticity of national culture. An autobiographical novel, Our House is the story of the Santinios, father Alejo, mother Mercedes, brothers Horacio and Hector, who is the writer's Kunstlerroman alter ego. Alejo is an ineffectual husband and father—a theme to which Hijeulos returned in subsequent works. He is a womanizer and heavy drinker whose inability to pull the family out of its dire poverty in Spanish Harlem, lack of intimacy with his sons, and emotional abuse of his wife angers and embarrasses his family. Hector, the younger son, fair and sickly, develops a conflicted relationship with his own culture. Battered by what his mother calls Cuban microbios, one of the few Spanish words in the book that is not set in italics, and American culture's rejection of his "Cuban-ness," Hector cannot separate the personal and the political ("But he continued to pack up his junk … he was thinking about sex with that blond girl [sic] … He thought he would leave all the bad feelings behind … he wouldn't … think about microbios …). Our House is a solid entry in the tradition of the American immigrant Bildungsroman, highly focused on the ideas of loss versus gain, adaptation versus assimilation.
In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love Hijuelos took a significant step forward in his career. He spent a great deal of time researching the Cuban music culture of 1950s America, setting the opening of the novel in the quintessential situation comedy of the period, I Love Lucy, which featured the only Hispanic professional on television, Desi Arnaz, who has since become a cultural icon. The eponymous brothers César and Nestor Castillo, man of action and man of contemplation, develop their musical careers to the point that they appear on television. César is a charming womanizer, lover of the American goddess, the large-breasted blonde Vanna Vane. Nestor settles into family life, though he is haunted by memories of María, who had rejected him back in Cuba. With the backdrop of the fast-moving, bygone world of mambo, in Mambo Kings Hijuelos explores the world of sex, music, and fame, creating a highly charged world of carpe diem sensuality, sensational and forbidding, contraposing it to anchors of the past, neither of which are fulfilling. Mambo Kings was made into a film starring Armand Assante.
The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien, Hijuelos's third novel, represents his most successful stylistic achievement, though it has serious structural problems. Gustavo Pérez Firmat has noted that The Fourteen Sisters continues Hijuelos's movement in his fiction away from a direct relationship with Cuba, but this evaluation was written before Hijuelos's most recent book, Empress of the Splendid Season and omits Hijuelos's preoccupation with memory as an important factor in the search for meaning. The latter is especially important in The Fourteen Sisters. The main characters, an Irish husband and Cuban wife, live a seemingly idyllic existence in rural Pennsylvania in the early part of the twentieth century. As one would imagine by the book's title, family dynamics are dominated by femininity, and the maternal and sexual presence of femaleness overwhelms the household. Various views of memory and their effects on the present and the future dominate the work, often in a gauzy pastorality and through discussions of the father's photography. Though The Fourteen Sisters contains Hijuelos's most beautiful prose, the sylvan world removes him from the urban landscape Hijuelos knows best, and the novel's structure suffers. With seventeen important fictional persons, his character explorations make the cast into a landscape in itself. There is too much there, and the lack of focus becomes detrimental to Hijuelos's seeming desire to home in on one character. In the end, he loses control and the ending falls apart, an admirable, ambitious, ultimately flawed effort.
In his fourth novel, Hijuelos returns to New York, and the fictional backdrop that allows him to focus on the search for meaning. Mr. Ives' Christmas is Hijuelos most spiritual work to date. The title character was adopted as a young child and has few cultural roots, though Hijuelos implies that Ives is Hispanic, as he is drawn time and again to New York's Hispanic community. Ives's successful marriage and professional life are thrown into disarray when his son is killed in a random act of violence. The book focuses on Ives's coming to terms with this death, re-learning identity and transforming himself as a man.
In his most recent work, Empress of the Splendid Season, Hijuelos returns to Spanish Harlem through the intimate portrait of a cleaning lady, cultural adaptation and assimilation ("Rico, with all his studies and for the way he was striving to become something in the English-speaking world … felt as if he were on the outside looking in … at the very source of his own emotionality …"), ephemerality, male ineffectuality, and the search for meaning in an individual life ("After so much work and effort, what on earth am I doing here?"), especially among those who have suffered loss or rejection. As so often happens in Hijuelos's work, courtship and nuptials represent the high point of relationships between men and women (though the marriage in Mr. Ives' Christmas is an exception).
Because he won the Pulitzer Prize and is the most prolific Cuban-American author, Hijuelos has drawn a great deal of critical interest. His books are reviewed in all major newspapers and magazines, and have received discussion in several critical studies. Hijuelos has also been interviewed for various publications, including Ilan Stavans's "Habla Oscar Hijuelos" (Linden Lane, 1989).