Latin Flair

October 1, 2008
Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos. Credit: Megan Morr

For two decades, Oscar Hijuelos has been, in his own words, "gainfully unemployed" as a fiction writer. But then Hijuelos, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, bumped into Michael Malone at a writers' conference. Malone, a visiting professor of the practice of theater studies at Duke, suggested that Hijuelos look into teaching at Duke as well.

It was perfect timing: The university had recently focused attention on reinvigorating its Latino/a studies program, and the English department was conducting a national search for a distinguished writer to teach in the creative-writing program.

Hijuelos was hired and arrived in January with his wife, Lori Marie Carlson, a writer, editor, and translator who also is teaching in the English department. Hijuelos and Carlson will each teach for two semesters over the next two years. This past spring, he taught one creative writing class focusing on autobiography and one on the short story.

In the writing class, he says he encouraged students to think about ways to draw on their own experiences. "What I'm trying to do is get them to be self-aware." He says he also likes to get student writers thinking about different approaches in writing. In one assignment in the short-story class, for example, he had the students add two pages to the end of "The Man Who Died," a story by D.H. Lawrence.

"It's sort of like a music school that brings in a jazz player to bring in some different methods," he says.

His own method is based on his experiences as an American born to Cuban parents in New York. The Mambo Kings tells the story of Cesar Castillo, an aging musician who recalls the mambo craze of the 1950s. It was an international best seller, and, in 1990, Hijuelos became the first Hispanic writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book was made into a movie in 1992 starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.