Oscar Hijuelos

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What, if anything, is there distinctively Latino about the stories that Oscar Hijuelos tells?

“Men don’t have a clue about women, for the most part,” Hijuelos told an interviewer. How does his portrayal of female characters compare with his portrayal of male characters?

Cesar Castillo and Israel Levis are professional musicians, and particular pieces of music are crucial in the lives of other Hijuelos characters. How does the novelist use music to develop themes and portray character?

Famous historical figures, including Nikita Khrushchev, Desi Arnez, George Gershwin, and James Mason appear alongside fictional characters in Hijuelos’s novels. What is the effect?

In Empress of the Splendid Season, Lydia España keeps two small flags—one American and one Cuban— mounted atop her television set. What is the image and role of Cuba in Hijuelos’s novels?

“I’m a fairly melancholic person,” Hijuelos told an interviewer. How do his novels convey melancholy?

The Secrets of a Poor Man’s Life was Hijuelos’s working title for what became The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. How might that be an accurate description not only of that work but of other Hijuelos novels as well?

Other literary forms

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Although he has produced several short stories and poems, Oscar Hijuelos (ee-HWAY-lohs) gained wide readership for long fiction after publication of his first novel, Our House in the Last World, which he developed from a story line written on scraps of paper as he worked as a clerk for an advertising agency.


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Oscar Hijuelos attained a large audience after he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Although Latino authors are often neglected by mainstream publishers and other media, Hijuelos broke through ethnic barriers with his persistence, his style, and his Pulitzer Prize. On the strength of his first novel, Hijuelos received several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize provided him with a stipend that allowed him to live in Italy for a year of composition and reflection.

Through Hijuelos’s observations, dark memories, and radiant storytelling, readers can appreciate Cuban immigrant culture. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love demonstrates the acceptance of Hispanic literature beyond the previous limited scope of small Latino presses. Critics labeled the book a breakthrough for Latino writers. A motion-picture adaptation of the novel, titled The Mambo Kings, was released in 1992. The work was also adapted as a stage musical and was slated to open on Broadway in the summer of 2005, but plans for the Broadway opening were dropped after a lackluster response to the show in San Francisco. In 2008, Hijuelos expanded his audience to include young adults with Dark Dude, a novel about an adolescent.


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Barbato, Joseph. “Latino Writers in the American Market.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 6 (February, 1991): 17-21. An accurate impression of Latino writers in the American market. Multiple interviews with thoughtful questions and answers.

Chávez, Lydia. “Cuban Riffs: Songs of Love.” Los Angeles Times Magazine 112 (April, 1993): 22-28. An in-depth look at Hijuelos as a man and as a writer. Conversational style with serious revelations by this thought-provoking author.

Patteson, Richard F. “Oscar Hijuelos: ‘Eternal Homesickness’ and the Music of Memory.” Critique 44, no. 1 (2002): 38-48. Analyzes the themes of music and memory in The Mambo Kings.

Pérez-Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. A scholarly study of Hijuelos and other Cuban American writers and performers who have become cultural figures.

Shirley, Paula W. “Reading Desi Arnaz in The Mambo...

(This entire section contains 289 words.)

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Kings Play Songs of Love.” Melus 20 (September, 1995): 69-78. An intriguing look at a fictional Desi Arnaz, relating his Cuban roots to the Castillo brothers in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The relationship offers some interesting comparisons between the real Arnaz and Hijuelos’s fictional Cuban immigrants.

Shorris, Earl. Latinos: A Biography of the People. 1992. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Focuses on the commercial and critical success of Hijuelos and his literary themes.

Silber, Joan. “Fiction in Review.” The Yale Review 84, no. 4 (October, 1996): 151-157. Scholarly comparison of Hijuelos’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love to John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996).

Socolovsky, Maya. “The Homelessness of Immigrant American Ghosts: Hauntings and Photographic Narrative in Oscar Hijuelos’s The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 117, no. 2 (2002): 252-264. Uses theories of photography to analyze Hijuelos’s depiction of photography and immigrant experience in his novel.


Critical Essays