David Remnick: H.G. Carrillo known as Hache Carrillo was a writer's writer, not a household name, but esteemed in literary circles. Carrillo was in his mid-40s when his first novel was published, and it's called Loosing My Espanish. It was considered a triumph of Latino fiction. Junot Díaz, among others, praised it very highly. Carrillo died in April of 2020, an early casualty of the COVID pandemic.
Now, usually after a writer's death, the story is told in obituaries and remembrances, giving a sense of closure and evaluation, tying a bow for the historical record, but after his obituary was published, the story unspooled in quite a different direction, revealing secrets that he had worked for decades to conceal. For two years, staff writer D.T. Max has been trying to trace what happened and why. Here's Dan.
D.T. Max: About five months after Hache Carrillo died, I went to see his husband, Dennis vanEngelsdorp. Dennis was about 10 years younger, and he's from the Netherlands, and he was an entomologist. His expertise was bees. He was a bee guy. They had lived in this really, really pretty salmon-colored, clobbered house in this nice little neighborhood in suburban Washington.
All of this pottery and these wonderful items--
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Oh, these are things we just bought on eBay and different places. I wish I had it displayed better because--
D.T. Max: No, no, this is the way it should be.
Hache had been known for his vibrancy, for his exuberance, for his absolute lust for things and colors, and experiences. I saw that everywhere when Dennis took me on a tour of the house. For instance, the artwork, the walls were just covered. It was almost like a baroque cathedral. There were so many works of art on the walls, and they were mysterious and vaguely Caribbean in tone.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Very strong points of view. Art was very important to both of us.
D.T. Max: Then books, when we went into his office, the books were piled high, and you could tell they were books he'd read and loved, and that they'd been signed by his friends. This is his office.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: This is the office.
D.T. Max: Oh, with the piano. Wow. The office and most of the piano. There were scores piled high on the piano. He had been a passionate pianist. He played towards the end of his life, five to eight hours a day, according to Dennis.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: You want to go outside?
D.T. Max: Yes, I do. Then finally we went out into the garden. Dennis took me just to walk around the grounds, and I was surprised to see these flowers. Dennis explained to me that Hache had been a passionate gardener and that he'd wanted flowers to blossom year-round, just like in his native Cuba.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Now I have to move the whole path, but this starts to bloom in about a month. You can smell it on the street. It's so strong.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Meeting Hache was one of the best things that ever happened, but it also was my greatest sin, I think, because I was married at the time when I met Hache. He was at Cornell, he was a PhD student, and I had an affair with him.
D.T. Max: At first, their affair didn't last. They tried to put it in the past, but 10 years later, they found each other again. When you said you couldn't shake him, tell me what that was. I realize it's an emotional statement.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Well, it would be like sometimes he would just be making soup and you'd be wishing you were making soup for him. It's just in those moments. Hache wasn't an easy person, but he saw the world in this different way. He searched for beauty in everything, and it's very rare that you meet a mind as entangled and as entangling as his.
D.T. Max: Hache's reputation really rests on one novel. It's a book called Loosing My Espanish and it's a strange wonderful book, a tough one to characterize. It's essentially about a Cuban high school teacher who's in Chicago, and it's rumination about the past and language and what we lose when we go to a new country, and also to some extent what we gain. The reviews, they were exceptional, and especially the top names in Latino writing seem to recognize in it something remarkable. For example, Junot Díaz called Hache's talent formidable, and he said that his lyricism was pitch-perfect and his compassion limitless.
Hache started teaching at George Washington University in the late 2000s. His specialty was reasonably enough Latin American literature. When he is there, he's known most of all for his amazing teaching energy. The student love him. After some classes, he gets a standing ovation, and he even does extra work he's not required to do. According to his contract, he teaches a class on García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude simply because he wants to.
Now for Latino students, he showed them something important. He showed them how to cast off an identity that America has imposed on you and find out who you truly are, an incredibly important mission and one that he took very, very seriously. A mentor of his, a professor named Helena Maria Viramontes remembers how much they admired him.
Helena Maria Viramontes: When I went to George Washington, there was a group of students, I would say about eight of them, who dressed like he did. They all wore white shirts, ties, and black trousers. I forget if women had worn the skirts or maybe trousers as well. I thought it was the cutest thing. I thought it was the cutest thing. I told him, I said, "Is this a club or something? " He says, "No, we're just Hache's students."
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: How do you have your tea?
D.T. Max: Black is fine. A little bit of milk if you have it around?
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Okay.
D.T. Max: When I was talking to Dennis, Hache's husband, he told me that Hache had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in January 2020, and the treatment had not gone well and he had to be admitted to the hospital that spring. There, almost immediately, he tested positive for COVID. Soon after, he's in hospice, and Dennis is sitting with him, and the doctors had told Dennis that Hache couldn't really hear or notice anything anymore, but Dennis decides to play him an album anyway. The album he chooses is by the Cuban Valero star, La Lupe, who'd always been one of Hache's favorites.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: He actually, I think, said something. I don't know what he said, but there was obviously something that went on.
D.T. Max: After Hache's death, The Washington Post calls Dennis, and they want to do an obituary on Hache. They ask Dennis to tell them about his husband and Dennis gives the story as he knows it. Now, they'd been a couple for 10 years, but weirdly, and Dennis did find this a little bit strange, he'd never actually spoken to Hache's three siblings in all that time. When Hache had been in the hospital, though, he had found their numbers and he'd begun to text them updates, and now once the obituary runs, he sends Susan, Hache's older sister, a link to the piece.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: I got a text back that, "Oh, I see that Hache was as good a storyteller in his fiction as he was about his real life," or something to that effect.
Susan: What happened, Dennis sent us an article that was coming out in The Washington Post, and I shared it. I shared it with my daughter, [laughs] shared it with our sibling, and my siblings got it as well. We're like, "Oh, really? Are you kidding me?" They really think this is all true.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: I remember taking an hour trying to go, "What does that mean?" because I'm easily confused by things. I just thought, "Am I--" I just could not figure. Then I said, "Well, yes, I guess there were some things there."
D.T. Max: This is from the obituary. Carrillo was seven 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, he was performing widely in the United States and abroad. Now, none of that was true, except for two small points. Yes, there were four siblings and it's also true that his mom had been a teacher. Hache, H.G Carrillo, was in fact born Herman Glenn Carroll in Detroit to two African-American public school teachers. He was known as Glenn because his father was also Herman.
Susan: Here's him and here's me. We're not that much--
D.T. Max: I flew to Detroit, and when I got there, I met with Susan, Hache's sister, and she pulled out some of the old family photos. It's funny, It's hard not to think of him as looking Latino, even though obviously he doesn't, but it's like, a little bit or even more.
Susan: Here's when he and I were little. We loved Halloween and dressing up.
D.T. Max: Is he an angel?
Susan: He's an angel.
D.T. Max: You are?
Susan: A princess.
D.T. Max: Who knew he would grow up to be one of the foremost Latin writers of our time?
Susan: [laughs] I don't know what to say about that. [laughs]
D.T. Max: When the kids were little, the family lived in an area called Bagley. After the riots of 1967, the parents bought a house in a much nicer neighborhood called Sherwood Forest. Susan drove me over to have a look at it.
Susan: See, why it's called Sherwood Forest, all the trees.
D.T. Max: Oh yes. It's a handsome house. White brick, gray shutters. I want to move here. Cute little balconies running in front the windows. Which was your room? Can you--
Susan: My room was in the back. My room had [crosstalk]
- T. Max: From what I could tell, the kids had a pretty good childhood in there full of lessons and going to camp in the summer. There were responsibilities. Each kid had their chores, and in the winter they were skating at their neighborhood ice rink in Palmer Park. Do you remember the house as a happy place for you?
Susan: Yes. Absolutely.
- T. Max: And him?
- T. Max: It looks like a happy place. Susan remembers Hache as adventurous and talented. She emphasized for me what fun it was to have him as an older brother, but every so often, as she remembered, things would go a little bit far. Like there was the time that he came up with this fake name in school and he insisted that all the teachers and students call him by that name, and he even started signing artwork with it. Now, he could also be competitive and sometimes that would leave Susan more than a little bit frustrated.
Susan: Well, it was just, it was hard growing up with someone so talented, so smart because anything I did, he could do better. He used to play the piano. He was really into the piano. I decided, "Well, okay. He's playing the piano, so I'm going to play the flute." He had no interest in the flute, and I was working on trying to get this song and he said, "Let me see that." I thought, "Oh, let me show him how to do something." I show him how to hold the flute, and he goes, "Now, what are you trying to do?" I showed him what I was trying to do, and he played it perfectly. I was like, "Okay, I'm done with the flute." After that, he really enjoyed playing the flute.
- T. Max: One of the questions people have about Hache is, why leave your old identity behind? Does he ever talk about race with you, about being Black?
Susan: Well, in Black communities, it's a constant. We had a strong sense of our culture and our family. Both my parents were educators so we had a strong background as far as our history and where we came from especially in the '60s. My Parents and uncles and the aunts with the big afros talking about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis.
- T. Max: What do you think was his response to the Black culture in the house in the '60s?
Susan: He was right there with us. It was no different. He had no shame in being a Black man. Now, did he just want to be a Black man from Detroit? Apparently not. He wanted to be [laughs] a Black man from Cuba with an African-- Who knows.
- T. Max: We'll continue with the story of Hache Carrillo in just a moment. This Is The New Yorker Radio Hour.
David Remnick: This Is The New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. D. T. Max, Dan Max, has been reporting for the New Yorker on the life of the writer H. G. Carrillo known as Hache Carrillo. He was celebrated for a novel about the Cuban-American immigrant experience. Before the break, we heard that after Carrillo died, it came out that his very identity had been a creation, a fiction. Carrillo wasn't a Cuban immigrant, he wasn't Latino at all. Dan Max picks up the story here.
- T. Max: Here's where it gets a little bit weird. I've been looking into Hache's life for almost two years and I still don't entirely understand exactly when it happens, but at some point, the stories start to take over. He'd always been an amusing storyteller and I don't think his friends had always believed him, but there's really a change that goes on there. There are a lot of examples of how far he starts taking these lies. For instance, with one boyfriend, he says that he'd had a child with a French woman. That's a little bit odd, but he goes beyond that.
He actually shows the boyfriend greeting cards signed by the child. Then with his mother, his own mother. He tells his mother he's adopted a seven-year-old violin prodigy named Guillermo. He's so convincing that his poor mother sends Christmas gifts for the child from Detroit, Then all the lies begin coalesce around this single foundational story, and that story is, that he was in fact born in Cuba and he is Latino. This story really gets started when he goes to DePaul University in Chicago. He's an undergrad, but he's already almost 40 and he's had plenty of time to think about his life and to make up a new one.
It's around this time that he meets another student at DePaul, a young woman who's interested in exploring her Latin roots. Hache becomes friends with her and says, "Well, guess what. I'm exploring my Latin roots too." Together they take tango lessons at a local folk school and do things like that. Remember, this is the mid-90s. This is the Buena Vista Social Club era. It's at its absolute peak. This is an album of Afro-Cuban classics, extraordinary music. It's a revival of a period and of a culture that had almost been forgotten. Well, it's not forgotten in the mid-90s. In fact, it's just everywhere. All you needed to do is hear the first couple of bars and you go, "Oh no, that one again."
- T. Max: For Hache, I think this represents a moment where he can finally join something as large and passionate and charismatic as he is and also popular. Hache always wanted to be popular and suddenly he's in touch with the most popular cultural movement of the moment.
- T. Max: It's at this point that he applies for a joint MFA PhD program at Cornell. When he applies, he talks a lot about his Latin background. Everything about him now is, he speaks a certain Cubaness. The language that he interjects into his English, the cultural references he makes, he even puts on those loose shirts in the summer that are vaguely Cuban or Caribbean. Helena Maria Viramontes who was in the comparative literature department at Cornell, and she herself is Mexican-American. I asked her and she told me there was no doubt in her mind that he was Latino.
Helena Maria Viramontes: He told me that he had spent the summer with a crate of mangoes that slowly began to rot so that he could smell and feel like he was back in the tropics. I thought, "How ingenious is that?" That's how ingenious he is. When I read, and it was the chapter, I think it was at that time called The Santiago Boy, I just was blown away. I was just blown away that I don't even really think of the name Carroll or-- I didn't think about that because it was so beautifully written, so powerfully imagined, so playful but also so devastating.
- T. Max: While he's at Cornell, he writes much of his debut novel, Losing My Espanish. By 2003, which is just shortly before the book is published, he legally changed his name to H. G. Carrillo. H in Spanish is Hache.
Helena Maria Viramontes: Yes, there was a clumsiness of his Spanish, but I'm clumsy in my Spanish. There's generations of us that mix Spanish. Do you know what I mean? When Herman was saying Bato, when he saying Cabron, when he was saying these words that are Mexican-Spanish, it didn't bother me. [laughs] It didn't bother me one bit.
- T. Max: Helena did he-- I think I remember you were saying he made you a meal once. Is that-
HHelena Maria Viramontes: Oh yes. Several meals when he stayed with me a few days at our house. They were very involved meals, but he knew them by heart and he just kept these big pots, [laughs] and poured this, and poured that, into this, and saute this, but the one that we remember, my daughter and I is the flan that he made.
- T. Max: Did he say he learned it from his grandmother or was it all vague how he'd become a-
Helena Maria Viramontes: He always talked about how these were recipes coming from his family. Yes.
- T. Max: It's pretty obvious that when you have a tower of lies this tall, it's sooner or later going to collapse. Actually, I think it's amazing that Hache maintained this fiction successfully until his death. Eventually, yes, the lies are revealed. Now, for me, what's touching and wonderful is who's responsible. It's his niece. It's Susan's daughter, Jessica.
Jessica: One of my fondest memories is going to Chicago and he had a reception at his Eclectic apartment in Chicago full of stuff and he made the most amazing goat cheese pizza.
- T. Max: Jessica knew that Uncle Glenn called himself Hache. The thing is, for the family, it was a joke. He even asked some of his nieces and nephews to call him Tio Hache, and they did. It was just uncle Glenn being weird and fun and silly, this out-of-town, glamorous relative come for a visit. Loosing My Espanish comes out in 2004 and the family gets a copy. They open it up and they look at the acknowledgements and they're amused. Possibly amazed to find that Susan, Christopher, and Maria are now Susana, Cristóbal, and still Maria. They think, oh, that's just our brother making a name for himself in the literary world. He's always been a character.
Jessica: I never felt like we lost touch, but we even reconnected when grandma, his mom, was sick because he came more often. Once a month, Glenn was hanging out with me and my family at the house. My son even has funny stories of Glenn, which is awesome.
- T. Max: It's all fine with the family while Hache is alive. When Jessica reads The Obit, The Washington Post, it doesn't seem so funny to her anymore. Sorry. We should have brought some tissues.
Jessica: He's just an amazing person and he lived an amazing life. When I read the article and I'm like, this is complete lies, not even close. I was so shocked that, yes, there's always been drops of something going on in the Wikipedia page, Hache Carrillo. I always thought, me and mum were talking about it. We thought reporters would actually do their research.
Susan: They would dig a little more.
Jessica: Would dig, would ask for pictures.
- T. Max: To correct the record, she puts a short online comment under the post obituary. She says, "I'm Hache Carrillo's niece. He was born Herman Glenn Carroll and we called him Glenn." Then she goes on, "I cannot correct all the lies in this article and tags it with the hashtag fake news." She also sends an email to The Obit's author, and by the next day, The Washington Post has amended the article. Finally, Hache's double life lays exposed.
Jessica: I guess not that many people, or maybe they do know love like our family. People are like, didn't you ask? I don't know why. You accept someone for who they are. You know what I mean? You love them anyways.
Susan: You're not foolish about it.
Jessica: You were not foolish. We knew, that's why we're like, "You're married. Sure." Maybe he saved the honeybees. Wow. That's a catch. Sure. He's from Sweden. [laughter]
- T. Max: Again, it could be separate answers. Why do you think he did put on this whole second personality? What's your answer as a niece?
Jessica: Honestly, I don't know. I'm sorry. [laughs] I don't know because when we-- I almost wish he didn't because then we could have enjoyed him more, you know what I mean? Have more time with him.
- T. Max: I talked to a lot of people for this piece, maybe 50. Everyone made sense of this story in their own way. For example, the family. For the family, it was just Glenn living the way he had to live, the way he was almost destined to live from when he was a little kid playing dress up with his sister. To the extent they blamed anyone, I'd say they blamed journalists, they blamed the institutions. They really couldn't believe that no one had held him accountable. I mean, they knew the truth the whole time.
Now, for others, this is a darker tale. This is a story of a pathological liar or somebody with some undiagnosed or underdiagnosed mental condition who left an extraordinary trail of pain in his wake. There were plenty of ex-boyfriends I spoke to who are still trying to sort it out. Was he actually dating them and not dating someone else? Was his father really president of college? Was he from Cuba?
For students, I think students are a special group because I think the students felt they were being led by a Latino person into a truer understanding and a more powerful sense of themselves as Latinos in America. To find out that your teacher wasn't Latino at all, well, that's a really painful lie to experience when you're a student. I mean, it's also a different kind of lesson, but most of all, you feel tricked and you were tricked. Dennis though, Hache's husband, had probably the softest and most empathetic take that I heard.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: I think I got the best of him. I'm really proud to know him. I'm really sorry it caused some people the pain that it did. I don't know how to equate that, but that's also, not mine to figure out. For me, and I think anyone who ever met him as Hache, he was Hache, there was no sinister, there was nothing that was him being the best person he could be. I think that's a great thing. I'm proud of him for doing it, to be honest.
- T. Max: Dennis told me that there were always hints, things that didn't seem to add up. They were things that for whatever reason, he didn't press, he didn't cross-examine the way you can when you're full of doubt or concern. He put it this way, to me, he said, "I saw what I wanted to see." For him, Hache had truly become someone else. In a way, he'd become someone he was always entitled to be.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: He really would be very adamant about the fact that culture was performance. That's what he'd say. He'd watch those shows, those TV shows of, oh, I can't stand them, where people did crimes and then became other people in another state. There was one show I remember watching, and it wasn't like the person just did it for no apparent reason.
- T. Max: Changed right there.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: I'd say, "Wow, that's strange." He said, "Why is that strange? Maybe they just wanted to." It was just like--
- T. Max: Oh, my God.
- T. Max: He even brought up Rachel Dozo.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Who's the woman who pretended she was Black, but not a-- [crosstalk]
- T. Max: The one in Spokane.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp: Yes. He was like, no, I mean, if you want to be, there is no genetic difference, there's no such thing biologically as race, so it has to be a cultural construct. If it's cultural, then it's performance.
- T. Max: Obviously, it's one thing for Dennis, who's white, to say these things, but it should be pointed out that for many Cuban writers, the experience was very different. They told me that they felt Hache had distorted their history and culture and maybe even mocked it. Identity is such a fraught topic right now. There's really nothing that we have more trouble talking about.
At the same time, nothing we want to talk about more. It's not surprising that Hache's story got taken up in popular conversation with the usual lines being drawn. Conservatives, for instance, wanted to know, well, would a white professor have been so easily forgiven? I also spoke to Helena Maria Viramontes, Hache's friend, the Chicano writer, and Professor Parnell, and I asked her what she thought. I'm curious how it changes if it changes the way you read his work.
Helena Maria Viramontes: No, it doesn't. Not at all. Not at all. I mean, I still look at the lushness, the playfulness. I still marvel at it. I still marvel at its power to tell these incredible stories. I think he has captured a certain authenticity of, I don't say-- How could I even begin to say of the Cuban culture? I can't. I will not do that. There is something about the characters within these pages that speak a consciousness and a sensibility that is real.
- T. Max: If he had appropriated or embodied or infused himself with Mexican American culture, would you have a different response? Does that change, would that change it for you?
Helena Maria Viramontes: I don't think so. I don't think so. I think when you're talking about appropriation when you're talking about that, these are, I think, more questions that we need to examine in greater light. We need to spend more time really, really thinking these things through than just making these judgemental statements about if you're not that person, if you're not from that culture, because I, myself, right now, I have written about a Sikh man, I have written about a Filipino man. I have written about an indigenous woman. If I believed that I was appropriating, I wouldn't pick up another pen. I wouldn't write. I would refuse to write.
- T. Max: I mean, Helena, certainly the question about who has the right to write about whom is a complicated question. I do think that we have to think of Hache as a case apart. I mean, he, for instance, took a job at George Washington University. That was in effect, I mean, it was earmarked for a Latin American specialist, but it was, I mean, obviously, their expectation was a Latin American, Latin American specialist, somebody didn't get the job. I mean, in the broadest sense, what does it mean when someone becomes not just a writer, but a voice and a representative of a history or a community that isn't their own?
Helena Maria Viramontes: That's a good question, Daniel. I think that's what's been plaguing a number of us as it's frustrating, it's intriguing, why he did what he did.
- T. Max: I don't really know, and I don't think anyone really knows whether Glenn Carroll ultimately became H. G. Carrillo. When I spoke to Helena, who knew him pretty well, she was sure of this much. She told me, "If you want to know Hache, if you really want to know Hache, look for him in his writing." Even if the person was in many senses of fraud, the writing she says is real.
Helena Maria Viramontes: His story is not victimless. There are victims here involved, but at the same time, you have all these other stories of Hache's impact because of his love. Going back to the literature, going back to the work that he did, by and large, it was always about love, it was always about heart, it was always the exploration of the human heart and how we can exist. How we can exist and love each other in complicated and profoundly disturbing ways.
David Remnick: The Novelist whose Inventions Went too Far is the title of D. T. Max's story about H. G. Carrillo or Glenn Carroll. You can read the piece at newyorker.com.
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