To the world, Oscar Hijuelos left behind a storied writing career, but at Duke he was known first and foremost as a mentor and a friend.
This weekend, Hijuelos collapsed while playing tennis and died at age 62. The first Latino winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990 for his novel "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," Hijuelos brought his talent for writing to Duke in 2008.
Hijuelos had no plans to teach until he was approached by Michael Malone, professor of the practice of theater studies, at a literary festival in 2007. At the time, the English department had been searching for a distinguished writer to join the creative writing program. Beginning in 2008, Hijuelos taught several creative writing courses, including ones focusing on crafting autobiographies and short stories.
Senior Cody Harker took three classes with Hijuelos and came to see him as a friend and mentor.
“Through lighthearted banter, he made us feel at ease,” Harker wrote in an email Thursday. “His biggest strength, in my opinion, was his innate ability to understand his students and provide specific, meaningful advice to each one.”
Harker added that Hijuelos' teaching style matched his expectations of how a writer would teach, adding that in class he was funny, thoughtful and occasionally moody.
“My husband had no airs about him,” said Hijuelos' wife Lori Carlson, also an English professor at Duke. “His sole interest was making certain that the kids who were in his classes would leave as better writers.”
Hijuelos's colleagues in the English department also appreciated his sense of humor.
"He always called me Mike and I was always asking him not to, telling him that no one had ever called me Mike, that I preferred Michael," Malone said. "But he kept calling me Mike."
Malone said he once asked Hijuelos why he continued to call him Mike. Hijuelos thought it over and explained that he had had a childhood friend named Mike who he admired, and who he was reminded of whenever he saw Malone.
"Maybe that story was true and maybe it was fiction," Malone said. "Either way it was a good story. And Oscar Hijuelos, in addition to writing beautiful prose, was a very good storyteller."
While at Duke, Hijuelos continued to pursue his writing career, publishing his memoir “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” in 2011. It drew on his early experiences growing up in New York as the son of Cuban immigrants.
One reason for his success was his uniquely multilayered writing style, Carlson said.
“The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” is the rare novel in which stylistic beauty complements the subject matter, said Thomas Ferraro, Frances Hill Fox Professor of English. In the novel, Hijuelos writes in a musical, repetitive way that is meant to evoke the repeating themes of mambo. A passage about Cuban drumming is written in a way that is almost drum-like, Ferraro said.
“He has left us a corpus of novels with an incisive lyricism and a knowingness of the past and its relationship to the present,” Ferraro said. “These are novels that you can live in—that can become equipment for understanding the larger world around you.”
Characters in his novels are vivid and real, said English lecturer Christina Askounis. Hijuelos treated his characters with the same warm compassion he had toward other people. Two such characters, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, were the central brothers featured in “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”
“His work never shied away from being rich with heart,” Carlson said. “Often that meant taking you to deeper and deeper levels of the soul. It was not a pristine, clean, clipped narrative style. It was about taking the reader to zones of the heart and soul and spirit that one might not have known existed in oneself.”
Ferraro encouraged students unfamiliar with Hijuelos to explore his body of work.
“My question is not, ‘Have you read a novel by Oscar Hijuelos?’” Ferraro said. “It’s ‘How in the world can you get through a liberal arts education at a place like Duke and not have read a novel by Oscar Hijuelos?’—never mind that he happened to teach here.”
Outside of writing and teaching, Hijuelos enjoyed music and traveling.
“He loved challenging himself,” Carlson said. “Oscar fondly remembered his treks in the Himalayas and when he was in Tibet. He was an adventurous soul.”