Author Was First Latino To Win Pulitzer Prize For Fiction

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Oscar Hijuelos, the novelist who became the first Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, died this weekend at the age of 62.

Mr. Hijuelos died Saturday after collapsing on a tennis court in Manhattan and never regaining consciousness, according to his agent, Jennifer Lyons.

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Born in New York City to Cuban immigrant parents, Mr. Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990 for his novel, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”

The novel tells the story of two Cuban brothers who journey from Havana to New York to start an orchestra. At one point in the story, the brothers appear on the television sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which starred Lucille Ball and her Cuban bandleader husband, Desi Arnaz. The book was eventually turned into a movie starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.

In his 2011 memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” Mr. Hijuelos writes of how he struggled against being labeled an “ethnic” writer and notes that even today there are few other Latinos whose work, despite the considerable number of talented authors, has been awarded the same recognition.

Mr. Hijuelos spoke about the memoir with CBS News’ Jeff Glor in 2011. He said the title was inspired by getting frustrated by construction noise on Riverside Boulevard on the Upper West Side, to the point where he started smoking after having given it up.

“Somewhere along the line, I came to the brilliant conclusion that I tended, during periods of extended anxiety in my life, to take up smoking again; and since I’d had my first cigarettes as a kid growing up in Manhattan, and yet could remember quite calm periods in my life, when I never smoked at all, I began to write about them, the title ‘Thoughts Without Cigarettes’ coming into my head,” he told Glor.

Among those thoughts were “how I had come up in an immigrant working class household and, somehow, drifted into the very unpractical profession of writing fiction. Structure wise, the book is loosely organized around periods of anxiety (smoking) and of tranquility (not smoking) — at least those were my first notions,” Mr. Hijuelos told Glor.

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In the novel, he tells of becoming ill with kidney disease after a trip with his mother to Cuba as a young child. He was hospitalized for a year, during which he loses his Spanish-speaking ability, and never truly recovers it.

“For the longest time, all I would know was that I had gotten sick in Cuba, from Cuban microbios, that the illness had blossomed in the land of my forebears, the country where I had once been loved and whose language fell as music on my ears,” Mr. Hijuelos writes. “Of course, diseases happen anywhere, and children get sick under any circumstances, but what I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubaness’ into air.”

It was an experience of displacement and a never-ending inability to reach an identity he inherits that many Cubans of his generation can understand. It also defined much of his development as a writer, as he initially hesitated to embrace his story and that of his family as a source of inspiration for his fictional characters — too ashamed to put them on paper, believing the world was indifferent to his tale.

As a youth, Mr. Hijuelos was enrolled in local community colleges where an array of early writing teachers _ Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme, and Frederic Tuten _ encouraged him to continue to pursue his craft. He was also exposed to Cuban and Latin American writers including Jose Lezama Lima, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, whose work inspired him.

His other novels include “Our House in the Last World,” “Empress of the Splendid Season,” “Dark Dude,” “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” and “A Simple Habana Melody.” He was also received the Rome Prize and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

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