The scam of fake Cuban writer ‘H. G. Carrillo’ makes New Yorker magazine

I decided to revisit this story from 2020, which was covered here in multiple posts. It was also covered in the Washington Post and Rolling Stone, even in Germany and Australia, although the main Miami papers, which hardly deserve to be named, never touched it–as if nobody in Miami could possibly be interested in such a topic. To my surprise, the New Yorker ran a lengthy piece on it a few weeks ago.

Its author adds new details to the story of Herman Glenn Carroll, an African American gay man from Detroit who was neither Cuban nor Hispanic, lived in the Midwest and Northeast all his life, yet assumed the persona of an Afro-Cuban exile writer and maintained it for over 20 years (even his husband didn’t know the truth till after he died with COVID). Those new details confirm what was already known–that Carroll, at least since his teens, showed a pronounced bent for making up things about himself of a self-aggrandizing or flattering nature. A former boyfriend said that “Herman walked the planet lying, and he might occasionally tell the truth. It wasn’t malicious–it was a compulsion.”

For reasons still unclear, he adopted a Cuban identity and based his literary and teaching career on being a Latino writer. His chief work and only novel was Loosing My Espanish (2004), purportedly about Cuban exiles in Chicago. It employed elements of magical realism (Carroll was a fan of García Márquez), but its chief conceit was the persistent use of Carroll’s idea of Spanglish, which was contrived and labored but managed to impress certain readers. I read the book and found it rife with false touches, gimmicky and clunky. My response could be summed up as What the hell is this tedious, fake-ass BS? It didn’t help that the promotional blurb on the book’s back cover called the novel a “dazzling reinterpretation of the Cuban-American experience,” when it should have said fabrication. Still, he managed to pull off the con. The novel was hardly a best-seller (5600 copies), but it was well received by the people he needed to impress–not Cubans, but Latino writers and academics, and it made his career.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe nobody noticed the business was fishy. The book was reviewed in the Miami Herald by a journalist of Cuban extraction, who did not rave over it but did not question its authenticity. It turns out Carroll (he legally changed his name to Carrillo in 2003), whose Spanish was not fluent, was gutsy enough to appear at the 2004 Miami Book Fair, where he (like many others with a book to sell) read from his novel. He had no track record and was certainly not a “name,” so I doubt he attracted much notice (there was no article on him in the Miami press), but the experience may have taught him that it was unwise to get too close to the real thing, and apparently he never “did” Miami again. At the time he died, days before turning 60, he was practically unknown in the Cuban community.

However, he played the Cuban exile/Latino writer role to the end. He taught at George Washington University in DC, but left in 2013 after failing to get tenure due to lack of publications. He then went to the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, an organization promoting contemporary American fiction, where he worked until his passing. For years, he worked fitfully at a second “Cuban” novel awkwardly titled The Twilight of the Small Havanas, set in Miami and revolving around the rumored death of Fidel Castro, but he only wrote a few chapters. It sounds like the project was far too ambitious and too much of a stretch, not to mention it would have meant pushing his luck and asking for trouble.

When Carroll died, the Washington Post ran an obituary reflecting his Carrillo persona, which his grieving partner believed. His family in Detroit, however, knew the truth, and a niece informed WaPo, which then issued a dramatically revised obit, in effect exposing him. However, the new obit was a masterpiece of soft lighting, exquisitely tactful and non-judgmental, and never used the now-dreaded term cultural appropriation, apt as it was. In other words, kid-glove treatment. Like WaPo, subsequent press coverage and statements by people who knew “Carrillo” treated his deception as something between him and those personally connected to him. Everyone, the New Yorker included, seems oblivious to the elephant in the room: a fraudulent appropriation of a specifically Cuban identity without basis or justification. The issue is simply not addressed, or “overlooked,” as if it neither mattered nor even registered.

So what about those he impersonated in his writing and life? What about their reaction to his fraud, including the ersatz Cuban characters he concocted for his work? Nobody seems to care about how the real Cuban exiles Carroll supposedly represented feel about what he did, as if it didn’t concern them, despite his false witness. Are Cubans irrelevant non-persons who just happened to serve his motives? Maybe that’s why Miami papers ignored the story, because they thought it wasn’t really Cubans’ business and there was no point getting them riled up and yapping like Chihuahuas (again). Would the response to this story have been the same if a white heterosexual had successfully passed as a non-Cuban Latino writer or academic? Certainly not, going by other such cases. Even Jeanine Cummins, who’s one-fourth Puerto Rican but wrote a novel about Mexican migrants, got lots of grief for “writing Mexican.”

What’s really offensive here is not that Carroll pretended to be Cuban–Fidel Castro did that all his life. The problem is his imposture was treated with a double standard with which Cubans are excruciatingly familiar and to which they’re very sensitive. They’ve been getting that one way or another for over 60 years, and they resent it. They are also sick and tired of being misrepresented by outsiders. Cuba and Cuban Americans have been distorted and falsified far too much and much too long, and whether out of ignorance, malice or opportunism, the effects are always adverse.

The real issue, then, is not Carroll. He certainly appears to have had a disorder, and maybe he couldn’t help himself. It has been suggested he may have hated being African American, but even though he had a strong preference for white men, it seems more likely he wanted to appear more exotic and interesting. But, he didn’t just write about a people and culture not his own, like Ernest Hemingway did to great acclaim. Carroll pretended to be one of those people and to belong to that culture, as if what he said and wrote came straight from the horse’s mouth. Nearly three years after he was exposed, the arbiters and promoters of “correctness” have yet to declare that Cubans were wrongfully and inexcusably used by Carroll and that he was not entitled to do it. Of course, the fact Cubans are considered not just incorrect but an aberrant or improper minority could have something to do with that.

P.S. It is curious that Hispanic writers who praised Carroll’s novel upon its release were all non-Cubans. One of them ventured to call it a “novel that breathes Cuba” (uh, no) and another one said admiringly that its author “wrote like no other Latinx,” which is now comical. Whether Carroll just stayed off the Cuban radar or Cuban writers found his book a tiresome and heavy ladrillo (brick), like I did, is uncertain. Maybe they were being polite or kind to a presumably fellow Cuban, but it is also curious that there has apparently been little to no response from Cuban exile writers since Carroll was outed. Perhaps it is a case of pragmatism based on PC considerations, given that the literary field, like the cultural arena in general, is dominated by the left–but again, the Carroll fraud gets a pass relative to cases of white fraudsters who pretended to be of a different ethnicity and background (see prior posts for details).

6 thoughts on “The scam of fake Cuban writer ‘H. G. Carrillo’ makes New Yorker magazine”

  1. Asombra,

    People have no respect for Cuban exiles. We’re taken for granted, dismissed, devalued and slandered. Of course, this started with Fidel Castro, who told the world that we were all racist batistianos, exploiters, Platt Amendment supporters, intolerant rightwingers and mafiosos, etc…: the old villainize-the-victims game, and with all of the resources at his hands [embassies all over the world, Prensa Latina, ICAIC, a seat at the UN, state-run book publishers, interviews with Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, etc…, conferences and symposia like there’s no tomorrow, etc…] he could easily spread the slanderous propaganda. In the eyes of the left, we, therefore, deserve no respect. Of course, it works against us that as a community we have no anti-defamation league, no B’nai Brith, no LULAC or MALDEF, no Gay National Task Force or NOW type of organization to stop something like this from happening. This opens the door for frauds like this “Carrillo” to say whatever he wants. I suspect that he stayed clear of politics though. If he had bashed the “revolution” and defended Cuban exiles, even his black skin wouldn’t have saved his ass.

    But I digress, it is okay for anyone to culturally appropriate “those people” and to speak for us. Look at that POS John Leguizamo and the hissy fit he had when Desi Arnaz was played by Javier Bardem and James Franco was cast as Fidel Castro. That Colombian thinks he can tell Cubans who should portray us in the movies, how we should be portrayed, he denies Desi Arnaz’s Spanish heritage even though Arnaz was very proud of his Spanish ancestors. How do you say chutzpah? Is that insulting or what? It’s the same concept. Both Carrillo and Leguizamo pretend that they can speak for us. And as a community, we don’t seem to care. Cubans have a fault, we take everything like a grain of salt. We don’t give importance to things like this that collectively hurt us.

    • Yes, Carroll/Carrillo appears to have stayed vague or ambiguous in terms of Cuba-related politics, which was obviously the smart thing to do. He didn’t need to attract the attention of real Cubans or look like a right-winger to his colleagues (and I’m fairly certain he was no right-winger).

    • As for Leguizamo (and others like him), he puts all Hispanics in the same basket, like saying the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are all the same because they’re Asians, which is at best ignorant, if not worse. But, being a professional Latino can pay dividends, and so can playing PC watchdog. Needless to say, Cubans don’t need his input any more than they needed that of his countrymen Juanes or Ernesto Londoño, but as you know, shit happens.

  2. Yes, I forgot about Juanes and Ernesto Londoño, Leguizamo’s countrymen! See how this shit happens. You let one get away with the BS and it spirals out of control, until you stop them flat [y te das a respetar], but we’re not going to do that. Too many of us have internalized the self-hatred, others are scared of being labeled “intolerant,” still others don’t give a shit because there is no collective sense of responsibility among Cubans.

    • It’s not so much self-hatred as weakness. Lots of people, of all nationalities, are willing to sell out, not to say prostitute themselves, in order to be part of the “in” crowd and also avoid “problems.” But yes, many Cubans have seriousness and dignity issues, and also lack depth and weight.

  3. I’m still trying to figure out how this story could get serious coverage in national publications not aimed at Hispanics, let alone Cubans, and it was never covered in either Herald paper in Miami, not even the one in Spanish. It makes no sense, which of course makes it questionable, but then again, it is the Herald.

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