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PASSAGES A tribute to H.G. Carrillo
by Gerard Wozek

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Afro-Cuban writer/professor Herman "H.G." Carrillo ( known for his 2004 novel Loosing My Espanish, which deals with the experience of a Cuban immigrant in Chicago wrestling with racial and queer identities ) passed away April 20 due to COVID-19.

Gerard Wozek—who was a graduate student alongside Carrillo at DePaul University—wrote the following tribute:

In memoriam: H.G. Carrillo, April 26, 1960-April 20, 2020

I've never been to Havana.

But being close to writer H.G. Carrillo in the late nineties, I had a visceral sense of the mythical atmosphere and architecture of that city by the ocean where he was born in the spring of 1960. Knowing him, I began to understand his proud Afro-Cuban identity, and how challenging it was for him to grow up here in the United States, wanting so fiercely to rewrite American culture and to be profoundly understood as a scholar, a teacher, a queer activist, and I think especially, as an acclaimed novelist who wanted to enlarge and expand upon the immigrant experience within his own creative body of work.

When I was told that Herman ( as I knew him back then in Chicago—though later he preferred the nickname "Hache" ) had succumbed to COVID-19, I went numb. In disbelief, I searched online for an obituary, a news article, an update to his Wikipedia page, something that would officially validate his passing and confirm for me that the unthinkable had really occurred.

What happens when a particularly gifted and talented writer is taken away in the prime of his life, when there is so much work left to be done? Herman fought hard to have a voice, to be heard. How can his legacy be maintained?

His death made me go back to our beginning. Herman and I began an intimate, though discreet, personal relationship during graduate school at DePaul University, where we were both enrolled in a masters of writing program in 1997. It was nearly impossible to resist the lure of someone so charming, so clever and—ultimately, as anyone who knew him will testify—intellectually charismatic. Our first date was at Chicago's Cafe 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, Nirvana; the enigmatic character of painter Andrew Wyeth; Henry James being an indispensable spirit mentor to him as an author; and how,more often than not, the heady influences of American film noir as well as Japanese cinema had influenced his elliptical writing style.

We shared a bed, but more so, we shared an unforgettable ongoing dialogue about art and philosophy, about how to carefully craft a short story to include a sense of surprise and urgency for the reader, and about how to cultivate 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 Herman was a perfectionist. He would leave my loft apartment in Chicago's Printer's Row and head to his own home to write—sometimes through the entire night—always 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 share 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. I couldn't help but notice some parallels between the writer I knew then and the portrait of this emerging fictional character, 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.

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 unloosed 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 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. Herman 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 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, unwieldy Loosing My Espanish, I trust that somewhere there's the unfinished manuscript of his second novel, and that it will surface as a posthumous work.

I vividly recall one night in my loft when, after a conversation held over too many glasses of champagne cocktails, Herman 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 Herman, crooning in the spotlight, backed by a full-suited orchestra, taking into his hand a Turkish Royal Camel cigarette and inhaling the smoke so elegantly, as though a delicate cloud was hovering over his open mouth.

"They will remember your voice," I recall saying after he invited me to softly sway in my apartment, now transformed into a tropical open-air nightclub.

Today, those words acquire a different resonance. It should be our mission to not let a great writer's work die with the writer. Herman's 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 and read him.

—Gerard Wozek, May 15, 2020

Gerard Wozek is the author of Dervish ( Gival Press ) and Postcards From Hearthrob Town ( Southern Tier Editions ). He currently teaches writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

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