Cuban-American author H.G. Carrillo, who explored themes of cultural alienation, dies at 59

Four years ago, Hermán G. Carrillo and his husband, Dennis vanEngelsdorp, bought a Victorian-style abode just outside the District — it had been a railroad ticket house in the 1920s — and Carrillo, a writer, thought a garden would be nice, a big one. VanEngelsdorp, a professor of entomology, said wonderful, yes, but it shouldn’t be ordinary. He dreaded some backyard palette out of a glossy magazine, conventionally pretty.

‘‘I told him it needed to be biodiverse and as attractive to insects and pollinators as possible,’’ vanEngelsdorp recalled by phone the other day.

He was strolling on the garden’s figure-eight path in the morning sun, alone since Mr. Carrillo, 59, died last month of complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. ‘‘I told him I wanted flowers every day of the year,’’ vanEngelsdorp said, but mainly what he insisted on were native plants: spiderwort, aster, bee balm.

In Berwyn Heights, Md., robins sang from pockets of the yard, as he walked in the splendid disorder, past the riotous flushes of colors Mr. Carrillo left him.


‘‘I studied gardening,’’ vanEngelsdorp, 50, said. ‘‘He broke all the rules,’’ delightfully eschewing any semblance of botanical choreography. Mr. Carrillo (“Hache’’ to his friends, and H.G. Carrillo to readers of his kaleidoscopic fiction, in which he plumbed the meaning of Cuban-American identity) created an oasis of asymmetry that vanEngelsdorp lately realized is a metaphor for his lost partner’s peripatetic life.

‘‘Now that I’m looking at it with the eyes of someone who has to take it over, it really is an artistic expression,’’ he said. ‘‘Somehow, it exemplifies him. At first, you’re confused by it. Then you look at it, you watch it, and you get to know it — I mean, Hache was always a hard guy to know — and when you take it all in, it’s beautiful chaos.’’


In Mr. Carrillo’s 2004 novel, ‘‘Loosing My Espanish,’’ a Chicago teacher, Óscar Delossantos, is being fired, and he tries in his final weeks to instill a love of cultural history in his middle-class, US-bred Cuban-American students. But the teenagers don’t care a whit about their ancestral homeland or the terrors of revolution and escape. Unlike their teacher, none ever dangled ‘‘from a little piece of twine over the Florida Straits,’’ with sharks circling below.

Nor are they moved by Delossantos’ familial memories of Miami detention, the ‘‘concertina wire, dogs with vicious teeth, and feet and yards and cubic miles of forms with thousands and thousands of blank spaces to be completed; English, and being made to feel stupid and like a hero and unwanted and saved all at the same time.’’

Mr. Carrillo was 7 when his father, a physician; his mother, an educator; and their four children fled Fidel Castro’s island in 1967, arriving in Michigan by way of Spain and Florida. Growing up, he was something of a prodigy as a classical pianist, and, by his late teens, was performing widely in the United States and abroad, vanEngelsdorp said. ‘‘He just didn’t enjoy it,’’ though, and around 1980, ‘‘he stopped very abruptly.’’

Living in Chicago in the ’80s, working in human resources for HBO, he fell in love with an architect, David Herzfeldt, to whom he would later dedicate ‘‘Loosing My Espanish.’’ On a September afternoon in 1988, Herzfeldt, 27, died of an AIDS-related illness. In his grief, Mr. Carrillo threw himself into AIDS activism while also taking time to travel the world, wandering in search of himself.


He found an aspiring novelist.

‘‘Hache was brilliant from the beginning,’’ said author Anne Calcagno, who was teaching creative writing at DePaul University in the mid-1990s when Mr. Carrillo, in his 30s, enrolled as an undergrad. Close in age, the two formed a friendship that lasted the rest of his life.

She recalled a dedicated student, much older than most, for whom ‘‘the stakes were high,’’ and ‘‘he knew it.’’ Mr. Carrillo was a starving artist-in-tutelage without a parental safety net, his drifting years of self-discovery behind him. His fiction pieces, which Calcagno described as ‘‘wildly experimental and deeply political,’’ were far more ambitious than his classmates’ work, and she read them with the special thrill a teacher feels.

‘‘He was an arrow pointed dead center,’’ Calcagno said. She loved him, and gave him a care package of Trader Joe’s groceries as he set off for Cornell University, where he would earn a master of fine arts degree.

His adviser there was novelist Helena María Viramontes, who, before meeting him, read some of ‘‘Loosing My Espanish,’’ a work-in-progress that Mr. Carrillo had submitted with his application to the MFA program. ‘‘I just about died,’’ she recalled. ‘‘I thought: ‘Whoa! This is an incredible storyteller!’ . . . I was astounded by the voice, by the challenging work he was committed to doing. No one here was writing like Hache was.’’


After Pantheon Books published ‘‘Loosing My Espanish’’ in 2004, to mixed reviews, Viramontes, who considered Mr. Carrillo ‘‘a son,’’ and others, including his agent, Stuart Bernstein, awaited a second novel. While Mr. Carrillo went on to produce an oeuvre of short fiction that appeared in such high-end literary journals as the Iowa Review, Conjunctions, and the Kenyon Review, his next book stayed in his laptop, percolating.

It’s still in there.

Bernstein sighed. ‘‘I can’t tell you much about it, because I don’t know,’’ except that initially its fulcrum was the death of Castro, who was alive when Mr. Carrillo began writing it. The old dictator’s actual death in 2016 apparently threw the story for a loop.

‘‘Hache was someone who held onto his work — he held onto a lot of things about himself — until I could find a way to get it from him,’’ the agent said. Devastated by the loss of his close friend, he added: ‘‘Honestly, I remember getting the first novel from him. I felt like an obstetrician using forceps. I practically had to do a C-section.’’