Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Author Rolando Hinojosa-Smith: Writing about Life and Truth in Border Towns

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Author Rolando Hinojosa-Smith: Writing about Life and Truth in Border Towns

Article excerpt

Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith was serving as the chairman of the Mßm * department of modern languages at what is now known as Texas A & M-Kingsville when a student gave him an interview to read. It featured author Tomás Rivera who had won a prize for his novel, YNoSelo Tragó la Tierra.

A few weeks later, Hinojosa-Smith headed for a conference in San Marcos, Texas. "By sheer coincidence, a friend introduced me to Tomás Rivera, who was also attending," he said.

It was as if Hinojosa-Smith had found a kindred spirit, their bond strengthened by their passion for the written word and the telling of their stories. They formed a fast friendship of respect and inspiration that would last for years.

"Instantly he was someone I could trust without putting on a façade," Hinojosa-Smith says. "That day, we started walking around the campus and did not attend one session. We also skipped lunch and talked all afternoon about writing."

Hinojosa-Smith sent Rivera a short story he'd written for a contest. "Sometime later, he wrote and said the short story had been accepted. It was published and I received $35 for my effort. That was it. I decided I would get down to the business of writing."

And get to the business of writing he did.

Even as the Ellen Clayton Garwood Centennial Professor of Creative Writing in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, Austin, where he has taught for nearly three decades, Hinojosa-Smith has not been deterred in putting pen to paper. Stories, so many stories, emerged in that time. The setting for most of his novels was about life along the Texas-Mexico border - the Rio Grande Valley - a place he knew well, the very place where he grew up. "Most writers write about the place they know, but since the readers come from some other place, I try to write in a way they can identify with characters, the setting or the conflict presented."

After Estampas del valle and Klail City y sus alrededores were published, he decided to write a series. "I named it the Klail City Death Trip after the fictional town I'd created in The Valley."

The first book in the Klail City Death Trip series, Sketches of the VaUey, won the "Premio Quinto Sol," for the best fictional work by a Mexican-American author in 1973. The award was first given to Tomas Rivera, and HinojosaSmith was honored to be in his company yet again. The second book in the series, Klail City, won the most prestigious prize in Latin American fiction, "Premio Casa de las Américas," in 1976.

The series, all published by Arte Publico Press (APP), now has 15 novels in its lineup. In April, APP re-issued the series' opening novel in a first-ever bilingual volume: The Valley /Estampas del valle.

Hinojosa-Smith's work has suspense and relatable characters and plots, has social protest overtones, spotlights injustices and shows a balance of simple lives and complicated conflicts and all the while, he tries to preserve TexasMexican border culture, he says. "I write because I love it. It may be part of the creative drive, but I don't question it. An idea or two come across, I decide to see what'll happen next, the characters appear, and they are the ones who tell the story."

In addition, Hinojosa-Smith writes essays and poetry, articles and short stories. His prolific career has earned him literary prizes, awards, and accolades.

"It was luck. The timing was right for telling the Mexican-American experience," he said.

But luck is not what brings a writer anything like his most recent recognition -the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), which he was awarded in New York in March. Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a distinguished author, editor, publisher, or literary institution that has made significant contributions to book culture over time.

Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle also "honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature published in the United States in six categories -autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. …

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