Creator of Fictional Texas County Wins Book Critics’ Lifetime Award

U. of Houston

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith
March 24, 2014

He has written some 20 novels and books of short stories and essays, but Rolando Hinojosa-Smith is a man of few words.

When the National Book Critics Circle honored him with its prestigious Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award in New York this month, he spent little time at the podium. "I’d written a three-minute speech and left it in the hotel," says Mr. Hinojosa-Smith, a longtime professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. So he delivered as much as he recalled.

Wry humor and a deceptively minimalist style are qualities that have brought high praise to Mr. Hinojosa-Smith, who is 85.

Among the critics who know his work well—most of them academics rather than print journalists—his Klail City Death Trip series, 15 books and counting, defines him.

In effect a continuing novel, it fleshes out relations among Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans in a fictional border town in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which is where Mr. Hinojosa-Smith was born and raised. Among awards that books in the series have won is one of the most prestigious prizes in Latin American fiction, Premio Casa de las Américas, in 1976.

To bring to life his fictional Belken County, Mr. Hinojosa-Smith has "invested it with centuries of complex history," says one literary-studies journal, yet "his message is never heavy-handed or didactic, but rather pointed and understated," says another.

Among striking characteristics of the series is the multitude of genres Mr. Hinojosa-Smith deploys: police procedurals, a novel of letters, a Korean War diary as a novel of narrative verse, and a tale of divorce told by some 30 characters, none with much narrative authority. And yet he writes in prose as crystalline as Hemingway’s, conjuring character, parsing social relations, and laying bare complex motives, using adverbs and adjectives only when he really must—"I just don’t like them—that’s the truth, right there," he says.

His lean prose is a sly literary device: complicating it, critics say, are mordant humor and pinpoint evocation of everyday speech.

Born in 1929 as one of five children of an Anglo Texan mother and a Mexican Texan father who fought in the Mexican Revolution, Mr. Hinojosa-Smith read avidly at the encouragement of several teachers in his family. His primary language was Spanish until junior high, when English took over. Even now he tends to write in Spanish first, sometimes translating his work into English himself, but he may start in English, depending on "what feels right" for each book.

He began writing professionally relatively late—in his mid 30s: "I was still in ways a small-town boy, didn’t know to whom to send things."

In a phone call at dawn—the time of day that he has long risen, ready to write—he recalls how his writing life began in high school in Mercedes, Tex., where one of the teachers ran a writing program called Creative Bits. During a few days of phone calls and email exchanges, he recalls more details of his early writing efforts.

In preparation for a month or more of interviews, haven’t he and his agent prepared sparkling responses? "I’ve never had an agent, and I don’t want one. I know nothing of the business end of things," he says.

From high school, he trod the many walks of life reflected in his novels: "Served in the military, attended a university, taught high school, worked in a chemical plant 8 to 5, 5 to 11, and 11 to 7."

He earned master’s and doctoral degrees, married, raised a family, taught at universities in Texas and Minnesota. "Met and lived with all manner or people, high and lower social classes, etc. Have traveled here, there, etc. Worked in the valley’s citrus fields, listened to old men talk of the Mexican Revolution, etc."

His target readership? "I really don’t know what that is," he says. "I leave that to the publisher. It’s their business."

All but one of Mr. Hinojosa-Smith’s books have been published by Arte Público Press, the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit publisher of contemporary and recovered U.S. Hispanic literature. Nicolás Kanellos, a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Houston since 1980, is founder and director of the press, which is also at the university.

He and Mr. Hinojosa-Smith profess great admiration for each other’s accomplishments: Writer extolls director for operating from a university at a time when university presses are having a tough time; director thanks writer for loyally sticking with Arte Público. A boon for Arte Público is that some Hinojosa titles have sold more than 100,000 copies; several have found their way into course curricula.

Mr. Kanellos also sings the writer’s praises for capturing so well the nuances of speech and for writing in ways that may appear to affirm, say, genre divisions, but in fact subvert them. He says it helps Mr. Hinojosa-Smith that he works in the borders between cultures, similar to the ones feminist theory has unpacked: "It’s the space that is marginalized that becomes a space of intense creativity, specifically because you’re marginalized," Mr. Kanellos says.

Mr. Hinojosa-Smith’s speaking voice rolls like low Texas hills, plain, the way his state likes it. Describing his approach to teaching, he sounds almost grandfatherly. Like his own early teachers of writing, he emphasizes the value of grammar and other writing skills; but he also takes care that his students get to know one another—Texas Mexicans, Texas Anglos, sometimes Texas black and Asian students.

At the same time, he does not spare his students the region’s indifferent social history—explaining that, for example, the university did not admit black students until the 1950s and 1960s, because "they have to know why there is a shortage/absence of black writers in Texas," even today.

He has no time for an ahistorical, romanticized Texas. In his long-running "Life and Literature of the Southwest" course, he says, "that’s the first thing that bites the dust."