3 minute read

Oscar Hijuelos: 1951—: Novelist

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.

Selected writings

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

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: James Heneghan (1930-) Biography - Personal to Rick Jacobson Biography - PersonalOscar Hijuelos: 1951—: Novelist Biography - Worked In Advertising Firm, Novel Featured Desi Arnaz As Character