Oscar Hijuelos: 1951—: Novelist - Worked In Advertising Firm
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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.
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.