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Oscar Hijuelos

August 24 is the birthday of novelist Oscar Hijuelos.  Born in New York in 1951, he is the son of José Hijuelos, a hotel worker, and Magdalena Torrens, a homemaker.  Both of his parents had immigrated to the United States from Cuba.  Hijuelos attended public schools in New York before entering City College.  He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1975 and a masters degree in English and writing in 1976 from City College.  One of his instructors in the creative writing program was lauded short-story writer, Donald Barthelme.

After leaving the university, Hijuelos secured a position as an advertising media traffic manager at Transportation Display, Inc., where he worked from 1977 to 1984.  During that time, he spent much of his free time writing short stories.  Some of the stories were eventually published in the Best of Pushcart Press III anthology in 1978. 

One of his first professional works, Columbus Discovering America, received an outstanding writer citation from Pushcart Press in 1978.  The exposure from this award led to an Oscar Cintas fiction writing grant and, in 1980, a Breadloaf Writers Conference scholarship.  Hijuelos also received grants from the Creative Artists Programs Service in 1982 and the Ingram Merrill Foundation in 1983.

His  first novel explores the life of a Cuban immigrant family in America during the 1940s.  Published in 1983, Our House in the Last World provided Hijuelos with an outlet to examine his feelings about his Cuban heritage.  Critics praised the novel as a warm and vibrant depiction of the family's experiences in America and noted that the work reflected a departure from other Cuban writers who often focused on the political struggles in Cuba or life in exile.  In 1985, Hijuelos received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, largely on the strength of the acclaim for Our House in the Last World.

In 1989, Hijuelos published his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.  Described by Thomas Mallon in The New York Times as "a propulsive ballad of Cuban-American fraternal machismo," this novel centered on the lives of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who moved from Havana to New York at the beginning of the 1950s.  The two men formed an orchestra, wrote the music that brought them the title of the Mambo Kings, and appeared with Desi Arnaz on the popular I Love Lucy television show.  The New York Times remarked that "the novel paints a portrait of the brothers, their families, their fellow musicians, and lovers," while it brought to life the sights and sounds of an era in music previously unsung.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love received considerable praise from reviewers. Bob Shacochis of The Washington Post Book World described the novel as "exhilarating and exuberant and passion-rocked," while Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times found it to be "street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective."  The novel was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989, as well as the National Book Award from the National Book Foundation.  One year later, the work earned Hijuelos the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

While critics lauded the novel, Hijuelos's depiction of several real people in his narrative resulted in a highly publicized lawsuit.  Gloria Parker, who was the leader of Glorious Gloria Parker and Her All-Girl Rumba Orchestra, brought a $15 million libel suit against Hijuelos and his publisher, alleging that her reputation had been ruined by the novel.  The lawsuit was regarded as an important test case because it involved a work of fiction rather than nonfiction.  In 1991, a federal district court in New York dismissed the case, arguing that it was unlikely that the average reader would think the novel defamed Parker.

In 1993, Hijuelos published his third novel, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien.  Mallon described the book as "the author's paean to femininity, an exuberant history of a Pennsylvania household so vital with food and music and decoration as to be, literally, magnetic."  While all fourteen daughters alluded to in the title are characterized, Emilio, the youngest of the children and the lone boy, is the central character.  In an interview with The New York Times, Hijuelos said that he wanted The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien "to portray a world in which women were very powerful.  I took the idea of machismo and pushed it, getting inside the skin of the characters.... I wanted to look behind the basic images of women."

The reviews of Hijuelos's book were mixed.  Mallon suggested that by stuffing the novel with so many characters, "Mr. Hijuelos is inevitably reduced to overly vivid shorthand characterizations.  He usually relies on a single trait to keep each sister distinct."  Yet the reviewer concedes that as a whole, the book was "not only satisfying but brave" and remarked that the author "gets it all right and he serves it up with surpassing joy."  In addition, Kakutani stated that "Mr. Hijuelos moves confidently from one character's story to the next, leaping ahead in time to foreshadow the future, then jumping backward in time to show us the seeds of hope and despair.... Indeed, one finishes [it] reluctantly, the way one finishes a long letter from a beloved family member, eager for all the news not to end."

In October 1998, Hijuelos appeared on a double-CD collection of 32 songs titled Stranger Than Fiction by Don't Quit Your Day Job Records.  Hijuelos performed lead vocal and guitar on the track named "I Want To Eat," with harmony vocal by Lori Marie Carlson and Ed Baker on keyboards.  A portion of the proceeds from sales of this recording, which features other authors, including Dave Barry, Matt Groening, Ken Follett, Molly Ivins, and Stephen King, continues to be donated to the PEN Writers Special Fund and other charities chosen by the authors. 

A review of Stranger Than Fiction in Book Passage in News & Reviews said, "You'd better hope that the authors who record for Don't Quit Your Day Job Records don't quit because we might run out of things to read . . . all in all, a group that you would be delighted to have sing at your house party even if they haven't all graduated from Juilliard."

In 1999, Hijuelos published his fourth novel, Empress of the Splendid Season in which he portrays the joys and frustrations of Lydia España, a Cuban émigré who works as a cleaning woman in Manhattan, while exploring stories of the secret lives she uncovers in her clients' apartments. 

Among the many reviews of Empress of the Splendid Season, Terry Gross of National Public Radio's Fresh Air wrote, "Finely detailed, funny, sweet ... a deliberately simple story graced with the power of the ordinary."  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times referred to the novel as "...a chronicle of familial love that unfurls in New York over the last five decades...an altogether smaller, more modest book [that his previous novels] — less fecund in its peopling of a fictional world....the novel is not without its rewards...." 

While writing is obviously a large part of his life, Oscar Hijuelos has a wide range of other interests.  He is a collector of old maps, turn-of-the-century books, and graphics. He also draws pen-and-ink style sketches and enjoys jazz music.

Hijuelos' most recent novel is A Simple Habana Melody (2002).

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