Pulitzer Prize Winner Oscar Hijuelos Dies At 62

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Novelist Oscar Hijuelos was the first Latino writer to win the prize for fiction, for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. He died over the weekend at age 62. David Greene talks to author Gustavo Perez Firmat, who is a Columbia University professor and was a friend of Hijuelos.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this Columbus Day, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Cuban-American writer Oscar Hijuelos died over the weekend. He was 62 years old. Hijuelos was the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 1980 novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." The book told the story of two Cuban-American brothers, musicians in New York City in the 1950s. It was later made into a movie.

Oscar Hijuelos wrote several novels and a memoir, exploring the immigrant experience in America. And for more on his life and work, we're joined by Gustavo Perez Firmat, the professor of Humanities at Columbia University. He's also a friend of the author. Professor, good morning to you.

GUSTAVO PEREZ FIRMAT: Good morning.

GREENE: And I should say, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

FIRMAT: Oh, yes. It was a shock.

GREENE: How did you two know each other?

FIRMAT: Well, we actually - we met, I guess it was over 20 years ago at a conference on Latino writing. At the time, "Mambo Kings" had recently been published. In "Mambo Kings," the two brothers that you mentioned had achieved their similar moment of fame when they do a cameo on the "I Love Lucy" show.

And at the time I was writing a book called "Life on the Hyphen" about two in American culture, where I also talk about "I Love Lucy." And so, I - the novel resonated with me. And, you know, since then we saw each other occasionally throughout the years. And last time I saw his was, I guess, a couple years ago. He came over for dinner.

GREENE: Well, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" resonated - that novel resonated with a lot of people. What made it resonate so strongly with people, do you think?

FIRMAT: Well, I think a couple of different reasons. For one, it's sort of justifies to Americans' longstanding and ongoing fascination with things Cuban. The novel had a great deal to do with Cuban music, and Cuban music has been an item of Americana since at least since the 1930s. And on the hand, it had a lot to do with "I Love Lucy," which was, as you know, has been one of the most, has been one of the most, you know, popular sitcoms in the history of American television.

GREENE: Sure.

FIRMAT: But it also - in all this - specifically about Cubans, but it's really about the American experience, and it's something that non-Cubans, non-Latinos go through when they come to this country. And so I think at that level, it also resonates.

GREENE: Well, Oscar Hijuelos was the first Latino novelist to win the Pulitzer. As you reflect on that, what do you think of it in terms of its significance?

FIRMAT: Well, I think, I think perhaps the most significant thing about it, other than the fact that Oscar won it and it was good for him, is that it made Americans aware that there was this, you know, rich and diverse body of writing being done by young Latinos in this country. And that helped to open doors with both publishers and readers to other Latino writers, with, you know, to whom Oscar, by the way, was always very generous and very helpful.

GREENE: Oh, well, Professor, thanks so much for talking to us. We appreciate the time this morning.

FIRMAT: OK.

GREENE: We were talking to Gustavo Perez Firmat. He's a professor of Humanities at Columbia University and also a friend of writer Oscar Hijuelos, who died over the weekend. He was 62. He was the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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