Professor Rolando Hinojosa-Smith wins the 2013 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle
Posted: February 12, 2014
Congratulations to Professor Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, who has won the 2013 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. Professor Hinojosa-Smith, who has been teaching life and literature of the Southwest at UT Austin for nearly three decades, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about his career as both a prolific writer and a dedicated teacher.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer and when did you know you wanted to be an academic? Could you tell us the story of how you got into both fields?
I come from a family of readers and teachers. My parents read to each other in both languages; my two sisters and my two brothers were also avid readers. Luckily, little Mercedes, at that time, with a population of 6,800, had a first rate public library as well as a great high school library; our superintendent (Ernest H. Poteet) later was named President of Texas A&M in Kingsville; his successor, Leon R Graham was selected as the Associate Director of the Texas Education Agency.
We had two English teachers, Mrs. Merle Blankenship and Miss Amy Cornish. Ms. Cornish established Creative Bits, a creative writing program at Mercedes High. One became eligible to submit material in one’s junior year. I was told that there are five pieces of mine bound in the library. The first piece I wrote took place in Arteaga, Coahuila; a village of 1,800 at an altitude of 5,450 feet above sea level. You can imagine the lovely summers. I wrote of two laborers who are killed by army troops when the two try to evade being impressed into the army. I wrote it in Spanish.
As early as my sophomore year, I wanted to become a reporter. As for teaching, my mother taught for three years and stopped when she married my father, however, she continued teaching us at home. Of the five of us, four of us went into teaching. My maternal grandmother, Martha Phillips Smith, also taught school. With that background, I was bound to be a writer. What helped the most was my love for reading; I didn’t need to be encouraged to read.
When I volunteered for the Army at age 17, army posts were loaded with fine libraries, and I took advantage of this and made the time to read there. After the service, I took advantage of the Veteran’s Entitlement Act, popularly known as the G.I. Bill, and received my baccalaureate degree at UT.
What has been your motivation to continue with your Klail City Death Trip Series? What do you enjoy most or find most fulfilling about continuing to flesh out this universe?
The motivation comes from within, the wanting to tell a story. I, as most writers, chose to write about what and who I knew best. Luckily, for me, I was born in a small town and had free rein to go anywhere. There was a curfew for kids (9 p.m.), and that was fine too because my parents had many friends who’d visit us frequently and at night; I listened and enjoyed what I heard.
The Klail City Death Trip Series started with a three-part first person narration of a knifing in a local cantina; in reality, a gun was used, but I changed that. Since this took place during the Great Depression, drinking was at an all time high. Sent the manuscript off and received a $35 dollar check. Well, that did it.
The first book, The Valley, was told via vignettes including the knifing I mentioned. What I did was to introduce the reader to the place and its people; over 100 characters and events in a small town in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The second novel drew characters from The Valley, and I added some. The third book, Korean Love Songs, told of some Mexican American youngsters in peacetime Japan and wartime Korea. And the series went on. By that time, I’d been published in East Berlin and later in West Berlin and other parts of Europe as well as having given readings in many universities and working for American programs in Europe.
Are you working on any projects currently?
My next work, the 16th and final entry into the Klail City Death Trip Series, concerns the increased violence on both sides of the Rio Grande in the Valley. I plan to finish it by Thanksgiving; if not, during the Christmas holidays.
I’ll continue to write and publish essays, articles, short stories, and so on!
The College of Liberal Arts has more details on the award and Dr. Hinojosa-Smith here.
You can also find out more about the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and past recipients here.