Nonfiction

Remembering Oscar Hijuelos

Frederic Tuten recalls the artist as a young man

 


 

In the early 1970s, Oscar came to my graduate fiction writing class at City College, equipped only with himself; no airs literary or personal. He had confidence, in a nervous way, and addressed the writing of his fellow students with kindness and directness, without intellectual bullshit. Oscar had come from an immigrant family; he may have been the first to go to college. My other students came from high-toned private colleges and felt they belonged. He had come from City College’s under-graduate program, which, in its grand days, had been called the Proletarian Harvard.

 

I, too, had gone to City College as an undergraduate; I, too, had come from one half of an immigrant family. I recognized him and his hunger, which, too close to home, made me uncomfortable. But I admired his honesty, his passionate drive to be a writer. I admired that he wrote all the time. Once, I saw him, oblivious to the students rushing by, leaning against a hallway wall furiously writing in a little notebook. He caught my eye and called out, “Professor Tuten, Professor Tuten, can I read you something.”       

 

I was partial at that time to the more experimental, the more “advanced” fiction written in the class, thinking that Oscar was a throwback to Realism, which had strode its day and was now left behind on the road. Post Modernism was the moment then, and while Oscar had also studied with Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag at City College, he remained indifferent to the current fashion. His writing was sincere, unselfconscious—uncool. Didn’t Oscar know that the novel was dead?    

 

One day, I gave the class an assignment to pull a moment in the life of anyone found in the Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition and create a scene of that moment.  I asked that it be brief, tight, no more than five pages. I have no memory of what others in the class wrote. Oscar turned in thirty pages. He described an executed French revolutionary, his severed head sitting on a table by an open window, curtains gently fluttering in the summer breeze.  Blood oozed from the neck; the eyes were open, amazed, shocked, flies picked at them. The curtains were a caress from the living.

 

I had nothing to teach him. None of us had. Oscar went, by himself, to the heart of the brutality and beauty of life. Nothing stood between him and his naked, honest vision. Oscar was not cool. Oscar was an artist.      


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Oscar Hijuelos (August 24, 1951- October 12, 2013) was the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published in 1989. The author of eight novels, Hijuelos most recently wrote a memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes. He served as a judge a judge for the Center for Fiction's Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize in 2010.

 

 

Frederic Tuten is the author of five novels, among them, Tintin in the New World, and a book of inter-related short stories, Self Portraits: Fictions.