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Duke Faculty Member and Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author Oscar Hijuelos Dies

'Mambo Kings' author was first Latino to win Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Oscar Hijuelos teaching in a Duke classroom in 2008.  Photo by Duke University Photography
Oscar Hijuelos teaching in a Duke classroom in 2008. Photo by Duke University Photography

Oscar Hijuelos, a Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist who had taught in the Duke Department of English since 2008, died Saturday in Manhattan.  He was 62.

His death was announced by Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, his wife, who is also a lecturer in the Duke Department of English.

Hijuelos wrote eight books of fiction and one memoir.  Most of the fiction explored the lives of immigrants adapting to new cultures. His 1989 book, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making Hijuelos the first Latino to win the prize.

He and his wife joined the Duke faculty at the urging of friend and Duke faculty member Michael Malone. In a 2008 interview, Hijuelos said he had been "gainfully unemployed for 20 years," but thought Duke would "provide an intellectually nurturing environment in contrast to the distractions and chaos of New York."

He immediately took to teaching and enjoyed the interactions with students.

"I have to say, I love the kids. They're super alive and alert. It's a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you," Hijuelos said.

Colleagues in the Department of English praised Hijuelos' work at Duke.

"Oscar Hijuelos was a greatly admired and much loved writer who gave voice to the sorrows and the joys of the Latin American community throughout the hemisphere," said Michael Moses, associate professor of English. "His was a passionate and eloquent voice that celebrated literature, music, art, food and, above all, love.

"His passing is an immense blow to the literary culture of the United States and Latin America.  A warm and generous man, teacher and colleague, Oscar will be very dearly missed by his friends and students at Duke, as he will be his many readers, friends and fellow artists throughout the world."

In a tribute to Hijuelos given on the occasion of his last birthday, Professor Maureen Quilligan, a former chair of the Department of English who was on the search committee that hired Hijuelos, said as she watched his classes, she noticed subtle changes in the classroom: "In the beginning, Oscar's knowledgeable voice booming out elegant paragraphs.  Later, slowly, his students offering, cautiously at first, short replies to his questions.  And then, towards the end of term, long moments when students were proudly reading their finished work out loud to their colleagues.

"His office had two chairs facing his across a very narrow desk.  Student and Oscar talked there, elbow to elbow with the papers in front of them.  One on one -- this is the hardest kind of teaching but it is finally the only kind that works to develop the craft of writing.  And Oscar taught this way naturally, beautifully."

Visitation hours with the family will be held from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, at Riverside Memorial Chapel (Amsterdam Ave. and 75th St) in New York.  A public memorial service will be held later in mid-November at Corpus Christi Church in New York.

To read his obituary in The New York Times, click here.

Below, Oscar Hijuelos on DukeReads discusses Richard Holmes' "The Age of Wonder."