At 84 years old, one of America’s most prolific and accomplished authors is just as in love with storytelling as he was when he started writing more than seven decades ago.
Rolando Hinojosa is the winner of the 2014 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the National Book Critics Circle. Hinojosa says he was “overwhelmed” when he heard about the award. “Who wouldn’t be?” he asks. “To be recognized nationally and by the NBCC? That says it all. There’s no higher honor or recognition in my estimation.”
A long-time professor at the University of Texas-Austin, where he teaches in both the English and Spanish departments, Hinojosa is well known in his native south Texas and among fans and scholars of Mexican-American fiction. Hopefully, this award will bring Hinojosa’s iconoclastic writing style and vivid settings to a wider audience.
Hinojosa is best known for his epic “Klail City Death Trip” series of novels, which are all set in fictional Belken County in the lower Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. With more than 15 entries in the Death Trip series, Hinojosa has created an expansive fictional universe that includes more than 1,000 characters—many of whom appear in multiple novels. By exploring the lives, mysteries and tragedies of Anglos and Mexican-Americans along the border, Hinojosa has created a rich tapestry of works that is most often compared to Faulkner in its scope and unflinching exploration of racism and violence in America.
Yet despite the conflict that runs below the surface of most of Hinojosa’s novels, the most distinguishing characteristic of the Death Trip series might be the overall playfulness of the work. Not only are most of the books quite funny, but Hinojosa also explores different forms and genres across the series and even within the same book.
This controlled playfulness comes across when talking with Hinojosa. He simply loves words and all the possibilities of storytelling. “That’s the beauty of the novel,” Hinojosa says. “ ‘Novel’ means ‘something new,’ and I’ve taken advantage of that. For Korean Love Songs I used narrative verse. Dear Rafe is an epistolary novel, and in Becky and Her Friends there is no narrator—the characters are the ones who tell the story. The Useless Servants is a log or diary and there are the two detective novels,” Ask a Policeman and Partners in Crime.
The first book in the series, The Valley/Estampas del Valle, recently published in a bilingual edition for the first time by Hinojosa’s long-time publisher Arte Público Press, is a series of short sketches, some only a paragraph long. “The writer is free to choose,” Hinojosa says. “And my purpose was to show young writers they didn’t have to follow or write 19th century novels.”
Hinojosa remembers his first experiments with writing and, perhaps more importantly, the teachers who encouraged him. “The first pieces I wrote appeared in a two-sided one sheet during the eighth grade. I wrote most of the newspaper, and Miss Alma P. Whatley encouraged me to write, as did Miss Merle Blankenship and Miss Amy Cornish later in high school.” Some of this earliest writing is still in the high school library in the town of Mercedes, where Hinojosa grew up.
Born into a family of readers and teachers, Hinojosa did what came naturally to his family. Still, even into adulthood and teaching, he kept writing. However, unlike many writers, Hinojosa doesn’t have many stories of struggling to break through and gain readers. When asked about obstacles to writing, he quickly replies, “There were none, since I didn’t submit stories to anyone. I didn’t know the process.”
Thankfully, a friend introduced Hinojosa to Tomás Rivera, the author of the classic novel about migrant farmers …and the Earth Did Not Devour Him and later chancellor at The University of California-Riverside. “Rivera and I started to walk and went all over the university. We missed lunch and we didn’t attend any of the lectures. I mentioned I had a story I’d finished, he asked to read it, then he sent it to Quinto Sol at Berkeley. Then I received a check for $35,” Hinojosa laughs. The next year he submitted The Valley to the Quinto del Sol prize and won.
Hinojosa pauses and says, with characteristic modesty, “The rest of the novels in the series followed soon afterward.”
The Klail City Death Trip series is perhaps America’s greatest collection of novels about life along the U.S./Mexico border, yet Hinojosa feels uncomfortable with labels like “border writer.”
“I was born on the border, so for those who like labels I’m a border writer,” Hinojosa says. “But I consider myself a writer who was born on the border and who, as many writers do, choose to write about the place they were born. Faulkner serves as a model in that regard, as did the young Hemingway when he wrote about the Midwest. As for being a Texas writer, I’m a Texan and glad to have been born where I was born, in the Valley.”
Thankfully, there are more books to come. “I’m working on a novel, which I hope to finish by Christmas. If my health holds out and my mind doesn’t go AWOL,” Hinojosa says with a laugh. “I’ll do what I do now: teach and write.”
Richard Santos is a teacher and writer living in Austin. His work has appeared in the Rumpus, the Texas Observer, the San Antonio Express News, Nimrod, and many others. He’s working on his first novel.