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The Secret Life of H.G. Carrillo

A celebrated writer and professor, he challenged his students to take hold of their own narrative. But the truth came out — his life story, like his books, was a work of fiction

Writer H.G. Carrillo, 2004.

Marion Ettlinger/Corbis via Getty Images

On the first day of the fall 2009 semester at George Washington University in Washington D.C., professor H.G. “Hache” Carrillo marched into his own creative writing class 10 minutes late, clutching a copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature in one hand. “He pulls it above his head and we all look at him, thinking this is going to be a required book,” says former student Tarek al-Hariri. “And he slams it so hard on the table, and we all jump three feet. And he says, ‘Now that I have your attention… ’ ”

Carrillo then reached into his bag, pulled out an orange, and placed it on the table alongside the book. “ ‘Now, I want all of you to take out paper and I want you to write the orange,’ ” al-Hariri remembers Carrillo saying. “And I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ ” Bewildered, the students picked up their pens. “It was the most boring, torturous exercise ever, and I was really pissed at him.” Later, the lesson became clear. “ ‘The point is you cannot write the orange: You can’t just simply say, ‘It was citrusy, it was orange.’ You have to write sensation,’ ” al-Hariri remembers Carrillo explaining. Elizabeth Acevedo, the Afro-Dominican American author of novels including The Poet X and Clap When You Land, remembers Carrillo employing a similar writing exercise in her creative writing class when she was a student there. “I could see the pedagogy of, ‘Oh, he’s someone who’s trying to make writing accessible,’ ” she says. “As opposed to ‘We’re just going to read, and hope that literature maps onto you.’”

Carrillo — or Hache, as students and colleagues called him — maintained a reputation that bordered on mythological during his eight years teaching creative writing and Latin American literature courses at GW. In between lessons on the mechanics of fiction writing, Hache told fantastical stories about his extraordinary life: He often recounted how he and his family fled from Cuba in the 1960s, and that his parents had named him Hermán Gernán Carrillo. Another anecdote revealed how, as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth, he’d eloped with his T.A.; they lived in Morocco together before she left him for a woman. In another tale, he described how his own creative process involved writing the likes of an entire short story from start to finish, then hitting delete, and writing it over and over again until it met his standards.

A charismatic professor whose demanding courses were spoken about as a rite of passage, Hache challenged students to consider how grammatical choices told as much of a story as the plot itself did. In class, he routinely posed a daring question: What does it do? “His whole thing was: How is the text assembled? What does a paragraph break mean in a story?” says Greg T. Nanni, a past student and mentee of Carrillo’s. “When you’re 19 or 20 and you never think about literature that way, it’s almost like you’re learning how to read again.” So long as his writing students could make a case for how a character or a comma moved their story’s narrative forward, anything was fair game. “One of the pillars of American literature is that you are to ‘write what you know,’ and Hache made it a point to ask: ‘Why is that the case?’ ” says Eliana Reyes, who graduated from GW in 2012. “He was like, ‘You don’t have to write what you know. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t.’ ” Carrillo also didn’t hide his disdain for mediocrity, and he wouldn’t hesitate to either fail or chew students out in front of class when he felt they had delivered less than their best.

As exacting as he was, Carrillo went out of his way to help students succeed. Hache gave out his cellphone number on the first day of class, saying: “Call me for anything, even if you’re tripping on acid at 3 a.m. and want to talk,” remembers his former mentee and GW graduate Melissa Mogollon. When Mogollon went on to attend the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a graduate student, a decision Carrillo encouraged her to pursue, he sent her a leather-bound notebook with a handwritten card reading, “Oh Mel, it’s time to own that brilliance.”

A few days shy of his 60th birthday, in late April 2020, Carrillo died suddenly from coronavirus complications. Institutions including Lambda Literary and The Kenyon Review published tributes to his memory, and peers shared their grief. “Mourning the loss of Hache Carrillo, one of the smartest, kindest, most elegant men I ever had the privilege to meet,” wrote author Alexander Chee on Twitter. “He had a phenomenal mind and heart, and his death, due to Covid, is a tragedy.” Friends, colleagues, and students penned dozens of tender posts remembering how brilliant and fun Carrillo was, and how he’d gone beyond merely shaping their lives; he’d been a major architect in them.

The Washington Post wrote an obituary about Carrillo’s life and work roughly a month after his passing. Flecked with memories from his widower, the entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the paper detailed the late author’s striking body of work, which included a 2004 novel, Loosing My Espanish, that centered his Afro-Cuban roots and queer identity. But a day after they’d posted their original obituary, the Post published a revised story along with an editor’s note. It appears many stories Carrillo had told were not true. His name was not Hache Carrillo, but Herman G. Carroll, as his sister and niece revealed to the Post. He had been born and raised in Detroit. He was not Cuban; neither he nor anyone in the family had Latinx heritage. And the “G” didn’t stand for Gernán; it stood for “Glenn,” the name his family called him. “Glenn always kept his family and social life separate,” his niece, Jessica Webley, told the Post — noting that once he started writing, in the 1990s, they seldom saw him.

The Carrolls were surprised to learn about Herman’s fabricated Cuban identity following the publication of Loosing My Espanish. Carroll’s mother was especially taken aback by the veneer he’d created. “She was really, really hurt by the whole facade, and I confronted him about it,” his sister, Susan Carroll, said. “Our mother was thinking: ‘What did we do wrong? Did he have such a horrible childhood?’ But he said nothing much back to me. He said he loved me and always would.” (Carroll and Webley didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) VanEngelsdorp, who’d been married to Carrillo since 2015 and was his partner long before then, didn’t know about the fictitious identity, either. VanEngelsdorp told the Post that he’d felt “downcast” by the discovery, and that it explained why he’d never been formally introduced to his husband’s family. Still, he’d come to terms with what he’d learned following Carrillo’s death. “I think that in any other century, there were storytellers, like jesters, and in African culture, and in First Nations cultures; and when they told stories, people never expected the truth to be the reality, you know?” he said. “There was another truth there. And I think that speaks to Hache.”

For those close to Carrillo, this sudden revelation — which few, if anyone, had known until the Post broke the story — compounded the heartache they’d been working through. “Part of what I’m grieving is not just my grief for him, but my identity. Because a great deal of what I learned about myself, I learned in those conversations with him,” says Gina Franco, a good friend of Carrillo’s and a professor of English at Knox College. “I feel sick saying it, but he never told me the truth, you know?” says Dr. Richard McCann, a close friend and professor emeritus at American University. “I have no idea what’s real and what’s not real.” Others, particularly several of his past students, were less shocked by the news. Mogollon wonders if this might be a reason why Carrillo never finished the second novel he’d been working on for nearly two decades: He was writing his “own novel every single day, living this life that [he]’d constructed.’ ”

Nearly a decade ago,
Hache, as I knew him, altered the trajectory of my own life. Early in the fall semester of my junior year at GW, while taking his Intermediate Fiction Writing course, Hache pulled me aside after class. “You are a writer,” he said. “And if you want to go as far as I think you can, here’s what you need to do.” That conversation evolved into his insistence that I apply for the creative writing double major, a competitive track within the English department that selected students to work one-on-one with professors on a senior thesis. I’d regularly drop by his office hours, and we’d talk about crafting effective dialogue in short stories; he told me that to be a great writer you needed to be a good reader and insisted that I should be reading two to three books weekly on top of my schoolwork. I emailed him panicky questions about assignments in the same Spanglish we spoke in person, one that also closely resembles how I think. Like many children of immigrants, and as someone only allowed to speak Spanish in my Colombian American household growing up, I struggled to straddle footholds in various, disparate cultures. To learn from Hache — someone who also seemed caught between worlds — was to be in the presence of someone who understood what I was trying to say.

His lessons have since informed every step I’ve taken in my career. After graduation I’d followed the gorgeous, cryptic images of artwork he posted prolifically on Facebook, themselves micro-lessons on art history. Even though I hadn’t seen Hache in years, I spent the weeks following his death in a grief-stricken haze — an experience, as with many cruelties of the Covid-19 era, that I processed in solitude, without the comfort of shared rituals to assuage the loss.

But when the Post story broke, my grief transformed into something more opaque. Everything he’d ever said was called into question overnight, and his lessons took on confounding new layers. He’s now a focal point in a thorny debate about appropriation, passing, opportunity — and the forces that lead people to embody false racial and ethnic identities. “How does he get to represent Afro Latinidad while so many Afro Latinos do not get to represent themselves?” asks Lorgia García-Peña, an associate professor of romance languages and literature at Harvard University, who did not know Carrillo personally. “I’m curious of his level of privilege as someone who is able to opt into Latinx … who actually carries an American passport, who speaks English perfectly, who has access to many things that are not accessible to, say, an undocumented Latinx person.”

Over the past few months, I’ve grappled both with grieving Hache’s death and the alternate identity that emerged following his absence. So I picked up the phone. Sharing stories with strangers who’d been similarly impacted by him felt cathartic, but also led to more questions. Nearly everyone had a memory or a conversation with Hache that now registered as prophetic, or an insight that shed a light into why he might have willingly chosen to leave behind his life as Herman Carroll and construct a new identity as the Cuban author H.G. Carrillo. Detangling the fact from fiction is not unlike unsnarling a tangle of necklaces; some strands have become permanently fused together. But held up against the Hache people knew and adored, do these fabrications invalidate his influence?

The cover of "Loosing My Espanish," by H.G. Carrillo

‘Loosing My Espanish,’ by H.G. Carrillo

By his own account, Hermán Carrillo fled Santiago de Cuba with his family at the age of seven. As with many Cuban émigrés who left during this decade, they had gone on to Spain first, establishing residency there for a couple of years, before landing in Miami’s Little Havana. The characters in his novel and short stories frequently called back to this experience and spoke achingly of the island they’d left behind.

Carrillo once broke from his usual medium, when he contributed an essay for the 2007 nonfiction anthology How I Learned English. In it, he wrote about picking up the language through T.V. shows like Family Affair, as well as the “Cuban Relief Program” that helped exiles with job placement as they adjusted to their new lives in the United States. The essay is a remarkable display of Hache’s deft storytelling. His mentions of “a Hi-Fi system that had a broken-tone arm,” and how “each brassiere” belonging to his mother and aunts “was a bank account that enabled us to get through the week as well as have an occasional ice cream” are evocative to a point of nearly overshadowing the fact that this piece is a fable.

They are also not unlike the yarns he spun for those who knew him as a young man back in the late 1970s. Phillip Brian Harper often spent time at his best friend Herman Carroll’s house as a teenager. The two had both grown up in black middle-class neighborhoods: Harper in the University District, a subdivision on Detroit’s west side known for its Tudor-style homes. Sherwood Forest, the picturesque neighborhood where Carroll and his family lived, was known for its winding streets and stately houses. “They weren’t gated communities, but they were very close to being that,” Harper says. As historian Thomas J. Sugrue notes in his book Sweet Land of Liberty, Michigan’s black middle class expanded significantly on the heels of the civil-rights movement. “I grew up surrounded by black excellence,” says Beth Godley, a classmate of Harper and Carroll, of Detroit at the time. “Lawyers, professors, teachers, judges, doctors, engineers. You had many, many, many examples of people who excelled in their fields, and you were expected to excel too.”

Around that same time, Detroit found itself in the throes of immense transformation. The city’s white residents had begun moving further out into the suburbs after World War II, and following the 1967 uprising, changes accelerated at an even faster clip. “With every passing year, the more conscious I became that the city was diminishing in terms of its population, it was diminishing in terms of the robustness of its city services, things were shutting down,” Harper says. “You certainly couldn’t grow up here as an African American person and not realize that the divisions were becoming starker and starker. There were many of us in my generation who were real Detroit boosters because we felt that this city that we were born into, and loved, was declining in a really rapid way that we didn’t like.”

Godley, Carroll, and Harper met as students at Cass Technical High School, a downtown magnet institution known as the jewel in the crown of the Detroit public school system. Alice Coltrane, Diana Ross, and Jack White are alumni of Cass’ esteemed music program — as was Herman Carroll, who played the flute. Carroll and his friends paid close attention to goings-on in the worlds of literature and theater and arts; they would go see Jean-Luc Godard film screenings at the Detroit Institute of Art and read Richard Brautigan novels together, often at his behest. “He was charismatic and made you feel like you were the only person in the world,” says Dana, a friend and classmate who asked to go by a pseudonym to protect their privacy. “And that you were so important, and that you were so interesting.”

Harper and Carroll grew especially close during their junior year. “I just thought he was the most fascinating person I had ever met,” says Harper, “And I couldn’t wait to introduce him to my parents.” Harper’s father didn’t feel the same way. After Carroll came over for dinner one night, Harper’s father turned to his son and said, “That boy obviously has homosexual tendencies. And I don’t like you being around him.’ ” Harper didn’t know what to do, so he told his friend. “I said, ‘My father doesn’t want me to spend time with you because he thinks you’re gay,’ ” Harper says. “And [Herman] said: ‘Well, he’s right.’ ”

Until that moment, Harper had never heard anybody say that they were gay. From the age of four years old, Harper knew that he was attracted to men. But as a young man coming of age in 1970s Detroit, Harper “had a very strong sense that it would be hard to live in Detroit as a gay person,” he says. “I loved it and I felt very connected and very committed to it, and at the same time it wasn’t going to allow me to be my full self.” Phillip Repasky, another classmate, says that while the three men had been a part of a “burgeoning gay group” at Cass, no one had officially come out. “For a long time nobody really knew who was gay,” says Ralph Smith, a Cass alum and friend. “We were all wandering basically blind — afraid, in fact, to have anyone know. Because your life could be ruined.” As a result, “all of us learned how to live double lives,” Smith says. “If you had a double life, in your ‘gay life’ you could be more out, as opposed to trying to bridge the two,” Repasky says. Carroll seemed to be a notable exception. “He wasn’t just out. He was out, standing on tiptoe at the end of the flagpole,” says Smith. He says that Carroll saw something in him and, as Smith tells it, gave him a “nudge to come to terms with myself” that changed his life.

Carroll’s high school classmates say that he also had a penchant for embellishment. “I do remember at a certain point just becoming disenchanted with Herman because he would say things that sounded kind of strange, and it made me want to check his facts,” Godley says. “We were living mundane lives, and he was living in some spectacular Broadway revue.” In the stories he told, Carroll gave little in the way of biographical information, favoring eyebrow-raising contextual details instead. “It wasn’t like Herman sat you down and said, ‘Let me tell you about my family,’ ” Harper says. “In the normal course of conversation, he would make reference to this thing or that thing, and then tell you a little bit of information about it. Nothing was outlandish; it’s completely possible that Herman would have had a sister that was a musical prodigy who would have studied at Interlochen [Center for the Arts],” as Carroll once told Harper when he inquired where Carroll’s sister was. “Why not? Because Herman was very talented.” Though he regularly spent time at Carroll’s house after school, Harper had no idea how many siblings Herman had; hanging out there “always felt like one of those cartoon specials where no adults were around.”

One day, Carroll was in the middle of telling a story to a group of people at school. Then Carroll said something that didn’t square up with a detail he’d told Harper earlier. “I just suddenly had this realization — it just washed over me — that everything he’s been saying about this situation is not true,” Harper says. “I felt physically sick. All I could think was: ‘If Herman is lying about this thing, which is not even something worth lying about, then he could be lying about anything.’ And not only that, anybody can be lying about anything. I can’t really convey how absolutely un-anchoring it was.”

The two had a falling out and drifted apart. “Once I realized he was making up stories, I was so baffled,” Harper says. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why would you need to make up stories about yourself — about who you are? Because who you are is already just so fascinating.’ ”

Most of Carroll’s other high school classmates didn’t keep in touch with him after graduation either — and had no idea that he had reinvented himself as H.G. Carrillo until I contacted them. “He just disappeared, as far as I knew,” says Elissa Firestone, a friend from Cass. “Every once in a while I would Google him to find out what happened to him, and I could never find anything because, of course, I was Googling “Herman Carroll,” says Harper. “And every once in a while I thought, ‘Well, maybe Herman died.’ ”

Dana, who did remain close with Carroll after graduation, says Carroll left Cass midway through senior year. “He had told us it was because he was so far ahead, he was such a genius,” Dana says. But Dana, who was a teacher’s aide at the time, says they learned that one teacher had flunked Carroll earlier in the year. Dana says they confronted Carroll, who cried and apologized. By that point, Dana took most of what Carroll said with several grains of salt. Once, Carroll invited Dana to Cranbrook, a fine-arts and science institution in Michigan, where he said he’d been taking a class. “I went with him, and we’re in there, walking down a hall, and he stops by a room and looks in and says, ‘Oh there’s a sub today, let’s just keep on going,’ ” Dana recalls. Carroll also took Dana to the Detroit Symphony on another occasion, intent on making an introduction to the concert flutist he claimed he’d been studying under. Carroll waved to a musician in the orchestra pit, then announced that they shouldn’t bother him.

From about 1979 to 1981, Dana and Carroll shared an apartment together in Palmer Park, an area of Detroit then known for its robust queer nightlife. They both worked at restaurants and would go out for dinner and dancing together. During these outings, Carroll would sometimes flirt with alter egos, or suggest that the two take on different identities, Dana says. “It was a complete game to him to try on these personas and pretend he was somebody else,” Dana says. When the two dined out, for instance, Carroll would say something to the effect of, “Let’s pretend that we own our own restaurant, and let’s check out the menu and talk to the people there as if we have our own restaurant,’ ” Dana remembers. “And I was like ‘OK! Sounds like fun.’ Didn’t hurt anybody. It just made for an interesting little chat with people. But I don’t think I realized how far that was gonna go.”

The phone rang at Carroll and Dana’s apartment one afternoon. Dana picked up. A childhood friend of Carroll’s called for him, but he wasn’t home yet. “I’m really sorry that you missed his graduation party, we had such a blast!’ ” Dana recalls the friend gushing. “And I said, ‘Graduation party? Graduation for what?’ And [the friend] said, ‘Youngest person ever to graduate from dental school!’ And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, he doesn’t have an undergrad. What are you talking about?’ ” After Dana told the friend that Carroll couldn’t have possibly been a dental-school graduate, Carroll became distant. “I’d see him and say ‘Can we talk?’ ” Dana remembers. “He would just blow on by me, storm off, slam a door or something.”

Dana arrived home not long afterward and found that Carroll had moved out — presumably into an apartment with his new boyfriend, Dana thought. Strangely, he hadn’t just gathered up his belongings. Carroll also left with some of Dana’s possessions. “He took everything he’d ever given me,” Dana says. “I have no pictures, no books, no nothing from that time because he meticulously went through my stuff and took it. I was crushed. I called a friend and just cried and cried.” Looking for answers, Dana rang Money Tree, a restaurant in downtown Detroit where Carroll worked. “Is Herman working tonight?’ ” Dana asked. “And they said, ‘No, Herman doesn’t work here anymore. He moved to Chicago.’ ”

One of Herman Carroll’s first assignments as a creative writing student involved designing a timeline of his life. “I swear to God, it was a five-foot-long folded thing, in sections, covered with photos,” says Anne Calcagno, a former professor at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I just remembered thinking, ‘Boy this person really took this on, and made it a part of something to look at when they might look at their own lifeline.’ ”

When Herman Carroll started his undergraduate studies at DePaul in the late 1990s, he was in his mid-thirties — around the same age as some of his instructors, including Calcagno and Todd Parker, a former professor who taught Carroll in his Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies course. At DePaul, Calcagno says, Carroll worked 50 times harder than anyone else — and while he connected deeply with his teachers and fellow students on writing, he also kept people at bay. “There were so many mysterious things about Hache when I knew him, and things that were unspoken,” says Gerard Wozek, a DePaul classmate who dated Carroll for a time. “And you knew better than to ask.”

In 1988, Carroll’s partner David Herzfeldt had died at the age of 27 from AIDS. His sister, Donna Herzfeldt-Kamprath, remembers that Carroll had been ever-present in her brother’s final days. “Herman encouraged David to accept the help my mom and dad provided when they were coming to take David to appointments and bringing food,” she says. “Herman recognized that they felt isolated and helpless in the situation, and this was their contribution and it was OK for David to accept that.” His death both devastated and seemed to mark a turning point for Carroll. “He spoke of David as being somehow almost perfect,” says his friend Richard McCann. “And it seemed like it was an experience that had marred and scarred him.”

In the years following Herzfeldt’s passing, Carroll, who had then been working in human resources at HBO, left his career and, at some point, set out to become a writer. At DePaul, where he took some of the first steps into his new life in fiction, Carroll flourished. Parker says that as his student, Carroll felt especially pulled towards Hispanic, Caribbean, and African American stories in literature. He believes Carroll found “both the freedom and the tools to address whatever the issues of identity that were propelling him” during his undergraduate years. “So what he was really taking away from that was — and I don’t want to oversimplify this too much — since all identity is constructed, he could feel free to construct the hell out of his own identity,” Parker says.

Carroll gradually started to elaborate more about his notional Cuban identity as he progressed at DePaul. “When he came to my class, he was Herman Carroll,” Calcagno says. “I remember right before he was graduating and he was starting to look into graduate schools, he said to me: ‘You know, my name was taken from me. My heritage. And I’m changing it back to Hermán Carrillo. And my name’s Hache.” Over a meal, Wozek says Carrillo briefly told him about his family’s refusal to speak Spanish at home and that he’d had to relearn the language on his own — along with reclaiming his last name. “It almost was like the name had been a shipwreck, and he was dredging out the name,” says Wozek, who now teaches at Roosevelt University. “ ‘Although my family wanted to be known as Carroll, I resurrected [it].’ ”

None of these stories are outside the realm of possibility. People have renamed themselves, both willingly and not, when they emigrate, are exiled, or seek refuge elsewhere. “He had to change his name because it had been taken away? I get that: They changed my parents’ names,” says Calcagno, whose family had immigrated from Italy. “That he was refinding something that he’d kept hidden from himself because it maybe wasn’t fascinating culturally? Why should I not believe that?” It didn’t seem odd to Achy Obejas, a Cuban author and professor who formerly taught at DePaul, that when she once spoke to Carrillo in Spanish, he responded in English. “I considered that I had made a mistake, because so many kids who are Latino don’t speak Spanish,” she says.

It did strike Obejas as peculiar that two weeks into the semester, Carrillo — the sole Cuban American–identifying student who’d been sitting in on her Cuban American literature seminar — abruptly dropped the class. “He later told me he had a schedule conflict,” says Obejas. “But it was one of those excuses that when you hear it, it’s complete bullshit.” He seemed at odds with himself, and Obejas couldn’t understand why. “I really thought [the class] would interest him because he seemed to be somewhat at a loss in terms of anchoring for ethnicity,” she says. “It baffled me a little bit that he seemed so unable to get a grip on the fact that there were opportunities for connection.” Still, Obejas never doubted his Cuban background. 

It’s not tough to draw a connection between Carroll distancing himself from Obejas and the fear that he might get caught in a lie — and how, at DePaul, he started crafting early versions of the stories he’d come to refine in his work and beyond it. “He was training for this persona, but he wasn’t just training for this persona,” says Gina Franco, who was close with Carroll when the two were pursuing their graduate degrees at Cornell. “He was training for the writing of the novel and the stories and the scholarship, because he wrote a great deal. In that sense, he truly is an expert in the field. And it’s not a defense. It’s just one of those points where you have to test the mettle of the fiction against the reality.”

The author chuckled
as he took his place at the wooden podium, which was flanked by red curtains, as the audience before him applauded rapturously. He bore the placid disposition of someone used to the spotlight. “Buenas noches, y gracias,” he said when the clapping died down. “Soy Hermán Carrillo.” That night at Bread Loaf, a selective writers’ conference tucked away in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, Carrillo read two passages from his book Loosing My Espanish, which had been published the year before. The 2004 novel is narrated by a Cuban high school teacher recently fired from his job, whose mother, Amá, moves in with him after her house burns down.

Carrillo, who had recently received a glowing review from The Washington Post, drew the audience into the labyrinthine world he’d engineered where contemporary Chicago and “an imagined notion of Cuba” converged. “As much as this novel is about family and immigration and love and betrayal and loss and longing and all of those things I guess Cuban American novels are about, it’s also a novel about history,” he said. “And because my character is a history teacher, one of the things he begins to discover is that history isn’t that linear.” Before delving into the second passage, Carrillo primed the crowd for a term they might not have heard before. “The ‘yambú’ is a dance that comes from Yoruba, and as it comes into Cuba it becomes ‘mambo,’ ” he says. “Which … MTV Latino calls salsa.” The crowd erupted in laughter. “It’s cute, no?” he quipped.

Hache had previously attended the conference in 2002, as the Alan Collins Tuition Scholar, an award given to rising writers who haven’t yet published full novels. Author and Rhodes College professor Marshall Boswell, who bunked with him at the conference, says that Carrillo — then a few years into his MFA studies at Cornell, and who had just won first place in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open contest that same spring — “had a buzz around him. It was clear he wasn’t a novice, he was someone on the edge of breaking through.” By then, Carrillo “had already established a Rolodex of famous people who were on his team,” Boswell says, including authors Helena María Viramontes, who was Carrillo’s mentor at Cornell, and Junot Díaz. “He saw a literary tradition, and that was where he was going to slot himself in.” Carroll’s friend and Cornell classmate, Gina Franco, says that Hache knew then he was going to be a major figure. “He wanted to redefine the great American novelist away from its rather generic white, male, straight definition and identity,” says Franco.

When Carrillo started publishing work, around the late 1990s and early 2000s, a spate of high-profile literary hoaxes had put notions of authorship and identity in flux. In 1991, the American poetry establishment came across an astonishing collection from Araki Yasusada, a deceased Japanese poet said to have survived Hiroshima. Yasusada’s son had discovered his late father’s notebooks, which contained a disarming trove of poems that literary journals, including Conjunctions, published to widespread acclaim. But Araki Yasusada never existed. By 1996, both the persona and the writing were both thought to be the handiwork of Kent Johnson, a professor at Illinois’s Highland Community College who had managed all correspondence regarding Yasusada, claimed to be his editor, and had a history of publishing poetry in the voice of a Hiroshima survivor.

A few years later, the celebrity author JT Leroy — whose dark, frank prose informed by a hardscrabble upbringing in West Virginia earned him comparisons to William S. Burroughs — was famously exposed as the “avatar” of Brooklyn writer Laura Albert. Savannah Knoop, the sibling of Albert’s boyfriend, had played the fictitious persona of Leroy in real life, walking red carpets as the supposed writer and hobnobbing with Courtney Love and Gus Van Sant.

While they were both at Cornell, Gabriel Gudding, now a professor of English studies at Illinois State University, recalls that he and Hache debated the Yasusada hoax on a drive to the Auburn Correctional Facility, in upstate New York, where the two taught as a part of the university’s Prison Education Program. Franco and Carrillo also spoke at length about the fictitious poet’s collection, Doubled Flowering, published in 1997. “When these stories would come up, these questions about who has the authority to be that person, I think it was a really vexed question for him,” she says. “As if the value of the biographical and the value of the cultural would transcend the merits of the work itself.”

Aspiring authors had long reinvented themselves before Araki Yasusada, JT Leroy, and Hache Carrillo, through pseudonyms and alternate personas. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa had an estimated 80 personas, dubbed by him as “heteronyms,” that he wrote under before his death in 1935. In the 19th century, Louisa May Alcott released gothic thrillers under the name A.M. Barnard. Countless writers have also published literature under false ethnic identities. Still, it’s another thing entirely for someone to live their lives under another identity that not even their partner knows about. “That makes him a real outlier in the hoaxing community: Most hoaxers go home at the end of the day as themselves; an inner circle may know about the hoax, but the real person/author keeps his/her real name and identity,” says Christopher L. Miller, a professor of French and African American Studies at Yale University and author of Imposters: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity. “So what Hache did was truly extraordinary and bizarre.”

gw hatchet hache hg carrillo

A clipping from the George Washington University <em>Hatchet,</em> showing Carrillo teaching in 2010.

Francis Rivera/Courtesy of the GW Hatchet

The way that Carrillo spoke about his identity with those close to him suggests that he struggled with feeling seen. Lisa Page, the director of creative writing at GW and a friend of Carrillo’s, remembers that Hache once came back livid from a trip to Texas. “He said, ‘I hate Tejanos. I hate them, Lisa.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ” Page recalls. “He said, ‘When they look at me, they don’t see me as Latino. They see one thing.’ ” At the time, Page registered Carrillo’s comment as a striking example of the invisibilities that many Latinos of African descent perpetually navigate. “He was constantly confronted by the fact that no one expected a Cuban man to be black,” says Franco. “And that this also complicated things for his identity in the United States because it meant — he said this — ‘I do not identify as an African American man in the way that you would expect me to be.’ And ironically, he is, right?”

The Afro Latinx characters in Carrillo’s stories often wrestle with the acknowledgment of their Latinx identities and embracing their blackness alike. In his novel Loosing My Espanish, protagonist Óscar Delossantos tells a tale of a woman who “chose to forget that she had a black mamá once her own American children came out pale with eyes color de tiempo.” And the piece Hache contributed to the How I Learned English anthology mentions how “10 years ago, when my dentist, wanting to ‘get things clear,’ asked if I was Cuban or black, I would have had a readied response. Had he not nearly all of his fingers in my mouth I would have asked him if he was white or born in the United States.” Through his work, Carrillo came to be known as an “emblem of black Latinidad,” says Lorgia García-Peña. “A lot of what he expressed, both in his writing and, I guess, in his invented persona is rooted in truth that is central to black or black Latinx experiences,” she says.

In 2014, Carrillo wrote a searing story entitled “Splaining Yourself” for the “Exile” issue of the literary journal Conjunctions, about the abhorrent racism Afro Cuban men face in the United States. That same year, he read the piece aloud at a New York University bookstore with aplomb. “You will find that when you use the term ‘Latino,’ particularly in statements like, ‘Our department is very diverse… ” he recited, pausing so audience members have an opportunity to react. “We have a number of African Americans, Asians, and Latinos. Although they have no idea they’ve conflated cultural backgrounds with notions of race.” He takes a breath. “You will be told, ‘You don’t look Latino. Cuban is more difficult.” Carrillo then trailed off the page and began laughing. Before catching himself and turning to the text again, he softly added, under his breath: “Well, it is.”

On September 3rd, 2020, Jessica Krug, a historian and professor of African Studies at George Washington University, published a Medium post stating that she’d long “eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African blackness, then U.S.-rooted blackness, then Caribbean-rooted Bronx blackness.” Krug had also gone by the name “Jess La Bombalera” and had published scholarly work about 17th-century communities of West Africans who had fled the slave trade; just a week before the post, she’d published a piece in Essence entitled “On Puerto Rico, Blackness, and Being When Nations Aren’t Enough.” As the story of her transgression quickly went viral, Krug drew parallels to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman and former NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Washington, outed in 2015 for passing as black.

Carrillo and Krug’s time teaching at GW overlapped, albeit in different departments; Krug was a tenured professor, while Carrillo left GW in 2015, after eight years, when he wasn’t granted tenure. The week after Krug’s post made the rounds, M. Brian Blake, GW’s provost, and Paul Wahlbeck, dean of Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement that Krug had resigned her position, effective immediately, and her classes would be taught by other faculty members for the rest of the semester. (The university had no comment on Carrillo, who hadn’t taught at GW in several years.) “The news of what she herself termed her ‘audaciously deceptive’ appropriation of an Afro Caribbean identity stunned and enraged her students and colleagues,” wrote Daniel Schwartz, the chair of GW’s history department, in a statement. “While her resignation thankfully spared the department a drawn-out struggle, it did not bring the feelings unleashed by the revelation to an end.” Krug’s students were appalled by their former professor’s dishonesty. “From her, I got a sense of authority,” Sally Kim, who studied world history with Krug, told Washingtonian earlier this year. “If she’d taught it as a white woman, I think I would’ve taken it with a grain of salt.”

While Carrillo’s controversy had, in part, sparked the discussion that brought on Krug’s downfall, his offense didn’t seem to have as much of an impact on the public consciousness. This distinguishes him from both Krug and Rachel Dolezal, white women whose cases of racial passing are considered more egregious given the inherent privilege and clout they hold. “I think with Hache, being a black American man, the identity of an Afro Cuban created a kind of mythology,” says Yomaira Figueroa, an associate professor of Global Diaspora Studies at Michigan State University. “It definitely does not engage with the same kind of abuse of power.” To successfully flesh out his role as a Cuban author, Carrillo also played on stereotypes, says Laura Browder, professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond and the author of Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. “It’s uncomfortable, but without the stereotype, there is no impersonation.”

As a black man claiming a manufactured cultural experience and ethnicity, Carrillo is a complicated figure. Black Americans have long passed as a means of survival; a 2015 Yale study estimates that more than 19 percent of black males from 1880 to 1940 passed for white at one point throughout their lives. In an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post last summer, Page — whose white mother hid the fact that she had black children and a black ex-husband the last 20 years of her life — wondered whether internalized racism or self-loathing might have fueled Carrillo’s desire to adopt a Latinx persona. “Culture drives black people to hate themselves,” adds Fernando Perez, a first-generation Cuban American writer and TV host. “Many Black people, they do it with the best of them when it comes to the way that we talk about hair, our features, all sorts of things.”

But passing is only possible if there is an audience that accepts that person’s performance as believable. “Passing usually requires acknowledgment from the group one wants to pass into — for instance, light-skinned African Americans successfully pass as white only when white gatekeepers mistake them for white,” writes Brando Skyhorse in We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, an anthology he and Page co-edited. Christopher L. Miller notes in Imposters that the success of ethnic literary hoaxes hinges on a dynamic where “the targeted culture is relatively unfamiliar — and usually less powerful than — the culture of the presumed readership.” It’s these same gatekeepers who have a hand in the formation of these false identities, says Natalie Belisle, a Belizean American scholar of Caribbean and Afro Latino Studies at the University of Southern California. “Within a white capitalist framework, there’s not enough positions for all of us,” she says. “So it creates the perfect conditions where you have to engage in this kind of dissimulation.”

In his “nonfiction” essay, Hache made a point to include a salient statistic: Black Cubans only made up three percent of Cuban émigrés during the 1960s. “In America, black Cubans are unicorns,” says Perez. “It’s rare that black Cubans came here because black Cubans, by and large, weren’t dispossessed of anything [during the revolution],” a fact which Perez says might have helped Hache fly under the radar for so many years. “Black Latin people are struggling with recognition both in Latin America and in the United States,” says Belisle. “Afro Latinidad is so unrecognized that when people identify themselves as such, it creates an aura of mystique. And so that mystification is weaponized.” That’s especially true of Cuba, a place so inaccessible for many that it’s often romanticized and reduced to an island full of cigars, rum, and gumball-hued Chevys manufactured in the 1950s.

Carrillo may have settled on his post-revolution Cuban identity in a more subconscious way. “Taking on these new identities is often a way of working through really complicated psychological issues,” says Browder. “Because we do see a lot of fake Vietnam vets. Fake Holocaust survivors. People who feel like their suffering — while real — isn’t really visible or understood. And by attaching themselves to an identity that everyone understands involves trauma, they’re able to be really seen for who they are, paradoxically.” In adopting a new identity, as Gina Franco notes, Carroll erased his own story, which came with its own historical narratives of enslavement particular to the United States — a place where inherited black generational trauma is rarely acknowledged. “I think that you always have to ask, ‘What are people trying to escape, and what are they running towards?” Browder adds.

Accepting that Hache Carrillo is gone, both in the bodily sense and by name, is a knotty thing — as is what we decide to consciously remember about him. “I do love this man Herman, Herman Carroll. But I don’t know who he is,” says Franco. “If I didn’t believe in the soul, if I didn’t believe that there was something particularly essential about a person that didn’t have to do with their memories and their stories and their actions, I would lose him completely. Because I would lose him to the fact that there’s nothing coherent really left except for our conversations.”

Those conversations had a lasting impact on his students. “I don’t know that I realized how much I had gleaned from him, even as I’ve been writing books for the last few years,” says former student Acevedo. “ ‘What is it doing?’ is a question I ask myself when I’m stuck with a character.” When Tariq al Haydar, who is from Saudi Arabia, enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at GW, Hache gave him a crash course on the U.S. literary establishment, explained the difference between literary journals, and helped him attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2014. “I had absolutely no business being at that conference. I hadn’t published anything at that point,” al Haydar writes over email. “The only reason they accepted me was that Hache believed in me.” Eliana Reyes once met with Hache for a coffee at GW’s student center to go over several of her short stories. Reyes says she rarely wrote characters of Filipino descent in her fiction to avoid being pigeonholed as a Filipina American writer. Talk quickly turned to agency, and in that moment, Hache advised her that “the world is going to come and place their narrative on your body and who you are, unless you seize it and define your own narrative,” she recalls. “A lot of that is very true. But at the same time, it takes on a different angle when you think about it in the context of his life.”

When I met Hache, I wasn’t sure about anything, least of all myself. But his guidance set me on a course that led me to becoming a writer. Though I fail frequently with the pace he recommended, I still aim to read several novels a week. (And whenever people ask me for advice, I tell them to do the same thing.) I think of how he both pushed me and put me at ease, and the way he addressed his emails to me as “Querida Paula.” In a situation where it’s difficult to know what’s fiction and what’s not, Hache’s generosity still feels as real to me now as it did back then — even though along the way, he hurt people close to him.

During a recent move, I came across an old notebook that I toted around everywhere as a college junior. I opened it up to find a note I’d scribbled during a creative workshop critique, one no doubt uttered by Hache himself, in reference to thinking about what format best suits a story: “Why does it need to be fiction?” That question doesn’t exactly mean what I thought it did back then. It resonates regardless. Herman Carroll told stories throughout his entire life, perhaps so that he could exist outside of himself. Now that he’s gone, they endure beyond him, within us.

Correction: Details of Lisa Page’s family history have been updated for accuracy. 

Paula Mejía is a Senior Editor at Texas Monthly whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, NPR Music, the New York Times, and other publications. 

From Rolling Stone US