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Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born on August 24, 1951 in New York City. The son of Cuban immigrants, he grew up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.
In 1955, after a trip to Cuba, young Hijuelos became seriously ill with a kidney infection. He spent a year in a Connecticut hospital separated from his family, a formative experience that he wrote about in a 2011 essay in The New York Times: "It was during that long separation from my family that I became estranged from the Spanish language and, therefore, my roots."
Hijuelos would later explore both his Cuban-American identity and memories of growing up in New York in his literary work. He went on to graduate from Louis D. Brandeis High School and enrolled in various community colleges. He eventually graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts from City College of New York where he studied writing with Susan Sontag and Donald Barthelme.
Hijuelos' first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983), follows the life of a Cuban family in the United States during the 1940s. While Hijuelos received much critical praise for this work, it was his second novel—The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love—that catapulted him onto the best-sellers list and earned him international acclaim.
The novel, published in 1989, takes readers into the lives of two Cuban brothers. Set in the 1950s, the story follows the brothers' journey from Havana to New York where they start an orchestra. Described as lyrical and exhilarating by critics, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990, making Hijuelos the first Hispanic author to receive this honor. The novel was later turned into a film starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas. In 2005, Hijuelos adapted the novel for the stage. The musical opened at the Shubert Theater in New York in July of that year.
In addition to his popular works of fiction, including Empress of the Splendid Season (2000) and Dark Dude (2008), Hijuelos published a memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, in 2011. In what was his first non-fiction work, Hijuelos revealed his struggle to merge his Cuban and American identities. His works have been translated into 25 languages.
In his personal life, Hijuelos' first marriage ended in divorce. He married his second wife, writer/editor Lori Marie Carlson in 1998. Hijuelos and Carlson both taught at Duke University.
On October 13, 2013, Hijuelos suffered a heart attack while playing tennis and never regained consciousness. He was 62 years old.
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