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Oscar Hijuelos Writes Songs of Love

Novelist finds a teaching career at Duke

Novelist Oscar Hijuelos will teach two semesters at Duke over the next two years.

For two decades, Oscar Hijuelos has been "gainfully unemployed" as a fiction writer.

But when Hijuelos, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, bumped into friend and Duke faculty member Michael Malone at a writing conference, Malone suggested that he consider teaching at Duke.

It was perfect timing: The English department was conducting a national search for a distinguished writer in the creative writing program, and the university has reinvigorated its Latino/a Studies program.

Ian Baucom, chair of the English department, says Hijuelos is a fit for both.

"He's a writer in whom students can see a future life for themselves. He's a writer who seems genuinely interested in opening this world to them. He's a very open, engaging, generous person," Baucom says.

Hijuelos arrived in January from his hometown of New York with his wife, Lori Marie Carlson, a writer, editor and translator who also is teaching in the English department.

"I had been gainfully unemployed for 20 years," Hijuelos says, joking. But he had considered teaching some day and thought Duke would provide an intellectually nurturing environment in contrast to the distractions and chaos of New York.

He says he and Carlson have enjoyed what they have encountered so far -- the suburban lifestyle, the Southern friendliness and, most of all, the students.

"I have to say, I love the kids. They're super alive and alert," he says, though he does hope to wean them from over-reliance on the internet. "It's a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you."

The plan now is for Hijuelos and Carlson to teach at Duke for two semesters over the next two years. This semester he's teaching one creative writing class focusing on autobiography and one on the short story.

In the writing class, he says he encourages students to think about how to draw on their own experiences.

Oscar Hijuelos leads a writing class. Photo by Megan Morr

"What I'm trying to do is get them to be self-aware," he says. "I just want to let them know that they're very important and interesting, if they want to be."

Hijuelos says he 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 draws from his experience as an American born to Cuban parents in New York. The Mambo Kings, for example, tells the story of Cesar Castillo, an aging musician who recalls his experiences during the mambo craze of the 1950s. It was an international bestseller, and Hijuelos was the first Hispanic writer to win the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded in 1990. It was made into a movie in 1992 starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.

Hijuelos also has written a number of other novels, including Empress of the Splendid Season and A Simple Habana Melody.

Junior Doug Clark, who is taking the short story course, says he enjoys Hijuelos' informal style, his humor and most of all his incisive criticism.

"It's really quite amazing," Clark said. "It would be like a high school basketball player playing with an NBA player -- someone at a much higher level than you are. You just learn from being around him."

Clark, an English major, says he likes learning both about creative writing and analyzing texts.

"[Hijuelos] talks about daily life and his own experiences, and it helps illustrate the points that he makes in class," Clark says.

Carlson also brings unusual experience in the publishing world to the department, Baucom says.

"In addition to their great strengths as writers and teachers, Oscar and Lori are people who can play important roles in [Latino/a studies], this exciting area of scholarship, research and teaching at the university," Baucom says.

Carlson's career has focused on literature for the children of Latino immigrants, and she is the editor of Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States and a companion volume, Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States, among other works.

She and Hijuelos have combined their talents with Hijuelos' new novel, Dark Dude, which will come out this fall. It's his first young adult novel, and the first novel in a new line of young adult Latino novels that Carlson conceived as a publishing venture within Simon & Schuster.

This semester, Carlson is teaching a workshop on literary translation and a class on the Latino novel. She said she also is enjoying the change of pace from her New York life.

"I'm around wonderful, fresh minds. It's stimulating and nurturing -- I love it," she said.

Living in the Durham subdivision of American Village is quite different from living on the West Side of Manhattan, but he says Hijuelos and Carlson both are enjoying the adjustment.

"I said, ‘What is that strange thing out there? And it was silence," he says.

Hijuelos continues to do his own writing, and is connecting with a new community of writers living here.

But, despite the obvious differences, he says Duke reminds him of City College in New York, where he went to school in the 1970s.

"This is the future of America. I've met a lot of first-generation kids who are really brilliant and working hard," he says. "I'm very impressed by the mix and the ethnicity of the school."