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Oscar Hijuelos Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New York, New York, 1951. Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.A. 1975, M.A. 1976. 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.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

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.

Other

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.

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Critical Studies:

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.

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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).

—Harold Augenbraum

Oscar Hijuelos: 1951—: Novelist Biography - Worked In Advertising Firm, Novel Featured Desi Arnaz As Character [next] [back] Tomson Highway Biography

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