A tribute to H.G. 'Hache' Carillo
Writer/professor Herman "H.G." Carrillo (known for his 2004 novel Loosing My Espanish) passed away April 20 due to COVID-19.
After initially publishing a tribute to Carrillo online, Windy City Times discovered (in a piece The Washington Post ran) that Carrillo's real name was Herman Glenn Carroll, and that he had fabricated key elements of his life, including that he was a Cuban immigrant. In fact, he was born in Detroit to parents who were native Michiganders and teachers, according to sister Susan Carroll and her daughter, Jessica Webley; they added that no one in their family is Latino.
The Post article is at www.washingtonpost.com/local/cuban-american-author-hg-carrillo-who-explored-themes-of-cultural-alienation-died-after-contracting-covid-19/2020/05/21/35478894-97d8-11ea-91d7-cf4423d47683_story.html .
Gerard Wozekwho was a graduate student alongside Carrillo/Carroll at DePaul Universitywrote the following tribute:
"There is fiction in the space between / You and reality / You will do and say anything / To make your everyday life seem less mundane / There is fiction in the space between / You and me."Tracy Chapman, "Telling Stories"
I've never been to Havana.
But being close to writer H.G. Carrillo in the late '90s, I had a visceral sense of the mythical atmosphere and architecture of that city by the ocean because of the way he attempted to enlarge it so vividly in his writing. Knowing him then, I was of the belief that he was an artist who wanted so fiercely to rewrite American culture and to be profoundly acknowledged as a scholar, a teacher, a queer activist andI think, especiallyan acclaimed novelist who might expand upon an outsider's experience within his own creative body of work.
When I was told that Herman (as I knew him back then in Chicagothough later he preferred the nickname "Hache") had succumbed to COVID-19, I went numb. But it was the discovery shortly thereafter that he was not the man I believed him to be, that completely shifted my sense of reality. The Havana-inflected author with whom I spent time with more than 20 years ago was indeed not the person of Cuban heritage he claimed to be, but rather a carefully crafted character of fiction.
When the Washington Post originally published his obituary, it made mention that he had "fled Fidel Castro's island in 1967."cThis prompted members of his biological family (who until his death, for whatever reason, had decided to remain silent) to reach out and correct the mistaken public persona that he had so masterfully invented and which had eventually solidified H.G. Carrillo as a legitimately Cuban-born, Latinx-identified author in the heart and minds of readers, students, working associates and the husband he left behind.
One day later, the Post updated the obituary revealing new emerging details of the author's biography. Hache was not really a Cuban immigrant. He, in fact, was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, as Herman Glenn Carroll. I can't begin to know or understand what must have persuaded this man I had been intimate with to merge his African-American roots with the persona of a Latin-identified artist as well. And, moreover, knowing that Hache had fought so hard to have a voice, to be heard, I wonder how his legacy should be maintained and how we can think of it in light of what has now been uncovered.
His death and the subsequent revelations about his true identity made me go back to our beginning. Hache and I began an intimate, though discreet, personal relationship during graduate school at DePaul University, where we were both engaged in courses in a masters of writing program in 1997. It was nearly impossible to resist the lure of someone so charming, clever and ultimatelyas anyone who knew him will testifyintellectually charismatic. Our first date was at Chicago's CafÃï¿½© Iberico, a late-night tapas bar where we shyly held hands over a conversation that included his arcane references to the discography of his favorite rock band at the time, Nirvana; the enigmatic character of painter Andrew Wyeth; Henry James being an indispensable spirit mentor to him as an author; and the heady influences of U.S. film noir as well as Japanese cinema on his elliptical writing style.
We shared a bed, but more so, we engaged in an unforgettable ongoing dialogue about art and philosophy; carefully crafting a short story to include a sense of surprise and urgency for the reader; and cultivating self-inspiration as well as perseverance throughout the sometimes arduous process of sustained writing (which is ultimately about the absolute acceptance of continual rewrites). "It's never really finished," he would often quip. "The paint on the canvas is never really dry. I always go back, even when it's been published, and cross out, reorder and amend."
One might say that Hache was a perfectionist. He would leave my loft apartment in Chicago's Printer's Row and head to his own home to writesometimes through the entire nightalways looking for that right combination of words, often mixing the English language with Spanglish, to convey to the reader just exactly what he was after. He would sometimes read aloud early sketches of Oscar Delossantos, the protagonist who shape shifts through the complex narrative of what would later become his debut novel, Loosing My Espanish. Back then I was under the impression that the writer I was close to was very much aligned with the portrait of this emerging fictional character, the one who sought freedom from the Cuban Revolution and reconciliation with a past that left him unsteady with his sexuality and racial identity in the United States. Only in these last days have I begun to realize how dramatically pertinent this intuition was.
Our intimate relationship, which lasted just over two years, never included photographs taken together or shared sentimental reminiscences of the past. On occasion, I would inquire what growing up was like in his remembered Havana childhood, but he would abruptly change the subject. "You're better off reading about it through the lens of the novel," he would caution, then go on to rhapsodize about the persistent sound of conga drums that would play during Cuban carnival for example and how he believed that dancing to those rhythms would lift and release the ancient African soul of those individuals once chained and held in servitude.
His creative stamina eventually landed him in an MFA program at Cornell University and alignment with a literary agent who would bring his novel to world. While time and distance pulled us irreconcilably apart, I never completely loosened my connection to him. In 2003, on the verge of his literary debut, I published a short story titled "Goodbye Cuba" that attempted to negotiate the challenges of disentangling from our soured romance, hoping it would provide a coda to something that in the end was unnameable yet, I believe, utterly life-changing for both of us.
I continued my teaching position at a college in Chicago and followed him from a distance, through news stories, academic postings, conversations between mutual acquaintances at academic conferences. After he launched his novel to wide acclaim, he embraced remarkable accolades and professional success. Hache gave generously at numerous writer's retreats, took on the role of professor, advisor and beloved mentor to his students at George Washington University in D.C., and later rose to chair of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, where he contributed to education programs as well as grants and awards until his untimely death.
He penned numerous stories for a number of prestigious journals, though today, it might be challenging to locate them. Along with the magnificent, unwieldly Loosing My Espanish, I trust that somewhere there's the unfinished manuscript of his second novel, and that it might surface as a posthumous work.
I recall one night in my loft when, after a conversation held over too many glasses of champagne cocktails, Hache introduced me to the music of Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz. He played for me a song from the 1950's titled "Tu Voz" (Spanish for "Your Voice.") As he moved in rhythm to the mid-tempo bolero, lip syncing to the lyrics of and mimicking through an exaggeration of the vibrato in her husky contralto voice, everything seemed to fade and dim. The Chicago skyline blocking the lakefront had melted into sea sprayed palm trees lining some coastal road in Havana. And there was Hache crooning in the spotlight, backed by a full-suited orchestra, pausing to take into his hand a Turkish Royal Camel cigarette, inhaling the smoke so elegantly, as though a delicate cloud was hovering over his open mouth.
Was he passing as someone with a false heritage back then? I know now that he certainly was. Were those moments spent together in my loft real and genuine however? I believe so. Human nature, sometimes, bears a kind of complexity that is challenging to grasp.
"They will remember your voice," I recall saying after he invited me to softly sway in my apartment that had been transformed in my mind into a tropical open-air nightclub.
Today, those words acquire a different resonance. I knew that Hache was very protective with his privacy, but this last plot twist has left everyone perplexed, sifting through layers of gauzy veils held over an inscrutable portrait of a man and writer. What compels an artist to take on a different persona, as many authors in history have done before, altering gender and social background to accommodate a desire to explore ideas that might be more genuinely accepted by an audience if they believe the writer is truly bound to their biography? (George Sand and Colette come to mind instantly, although these examples are eons away from Hache's.)
Back in the late 1990s, I recall asking him why he chose the initial H. and G. as his pen name. He smiled wryly and said, "Well, it's the letters that make up the chemical composition of mercuryand that can also allude to the god of writing and communication." And as I try to understand this invention, I recognize how mercury (or, more specifically, quicksilver) can become a poisonous substance, if it's not carefully contained. I begin to wonder now how much pain was involved in his need to hide his original identity as Herman Glenn Carroll, while persisting in the false narrative he was spinning.
My creative partner, writer and scholar Isaias Fanlo, has observed: "He is a human being, at the end of the day, with a precarious identity concealed behind a silent Spanish letter. Hache has left us with a posthumous story that can be as complex and convoluted as a tale by Jorge Luis Borges. One that is, at the very least, utterly problematic in its ethical resonances. I can't help feeling for the husband he has left for all the doubts and uncertainties he needs to face regarding his own story with Hache. And yet, in this age of virtual immediacy, we tend to judge too easily. We don't know what compelled Hache to rewrite his personal timeline, but I believe in empathy as a healing force. And there is something that is indisputably real: his literary work."
I agree with this. It may be tempting to become distracted as to who the author really was, to be absorbed into the bewilderment and pain these deceptions may offer, however the man's writing talent should not be in dispute. He was a storyteller who created a work of fiction. It should be our mission to not let a great writer's work die with the writer. Hache's literary voice is one to be heard, one to be remembered. In the end, the only way to preserve a rare talent like H.G. Carrillo, is to publish him and to read him.
I witnessed first-hand how Hache crafted the character of Oscar Delossantos in Loosing My Espanish and saw how that protagonist's sentimental journey in his last and dramatic days of teaching evolved. And that talent is real: you can still grab that published piece of work off a library shelf with your own hands, touch and smell the pages and in the end, immerse yourself in the powerful story of the Cuban legacy he created, he invented. That's what the artist's imagination and art can offer. And that feels true.
Gerard Wozek, May 27, 2020
Gerard Wozek is the author of Dervish (Gival Press) and Postcards From Heartthrob Town (Southern Tier Editions). He currently teaches writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago.