Oscar Hijuelos was born in New York in 1951, the son of Cuban immigrants. He grew up with Spanish as his mother tongue and learnt English during a year in hospital when he was pre-school age. English was to become the active language for his work. He studied English language and literature and creative writing at City College in New York. Among his teachers were Donald Barthelme, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Encouraged by both Barthelme and Susan Sontag, Hijuelos began writing short stories, some of which were published in the anthology »The Best of Pushcart Press III« (1978). He was praised as an »outstanding writer« by the publishing house for his story »Columbus Discovering America«. Hijuelos worked at an advertising agency until 1984 before finally devoting himself full-time to writing. He has written seven novels, admired for their lyrical and passionate narration, which mainly deal with the fate of Cuban immigrants to the USA before Castro’s rule.
Hijuelos was the first Latino writer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. »I consider myself a New York writer of Cuban parentage, with different influences. My background is an important element, the most important, but not the only one.« His first novel, »Our House in the Last World« (1983), is a coming-of-age novel, which depicts the life of a family of Cuban immigrants in the forties and makes use of many autobiographical experiences. Hijuelos received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for his novel as well as the Rome Prize of the American Academy. His second novel, »The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love« (1989), finally turned Hijuelos into an established literary great. It tells the story of Cuban brothers César and Néstor Castillo, who emigrate to New York in the early fifties and start a succesful mambo band with whom they come to perform regularly on a well-known television show. In 1992 the novel was made into a movie starring Antonio Banderas and in 2005 was adapted into a Broadway Musical.
Most recently Hijuelos has published »A Simple Habana Melody« (2002), the life story of the eccentric Cuban musician Israel Levis, who emigrated to Paris and there found success. The Nazis, who considered him to be Jewish because of his name, shipped him to Buchenwald during World War II. He later returned to Cuba, a broken man.
Hijuelos, whose further distinctions include a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, lives in New York City with his wife, writer Lori Marie Carlson. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages.
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