Novelist H.G. Carrillo died from covid-19 this past spring. I knew him at George Washington University, where we both taught creative writing, and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, where he chaired the board of directors. I thought of him as a sweet and complicated genius, devoted to his students and to the evolving literary world.

Hache, as he was known, emanated authority. He told you what to read, how to write and even how to live. His students lined up outside his office to sit at his knee and receive his advice. He held court at literary soirees, perfectly groomed, wearing black-frame glasses. Hache was the living, breathing embodiment of the international artist, exuding brilliance and warmth.

Then all hell broke loose. His sister corrected the obituary that ran in this newspaper, in April. Hache was not Afro Cuban, as he had long claimed, she told reporter Paul Duggan. He was African American. Born in Detroit, not on an island in the Caribbean. He was known as “Glenn” among family members. The family name was Carroll, not Carrillo. There were no Latinos in the family.

The news was a slap in the face for those of us who knew him. We mourned him, but we also reeled in shock. Hache passed for something he wasn’t, even at home with his husband in Berwyn Heights; he did the same with colleagues and students at George Washington University and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed. And so terribly sad.

I was triggered by his story. It sent me back to the subject of passing in America. The literary world has its own version, in which writers publish under pseudonyms. Think about John Le Carré, also known as David Cornwell: Did a French name give him special cachet? Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin knew publishing under a man’s name meant a different value system would be applied to her work, so she became George Sand. Did Herman Glenn Carroll think along similar lines as he started to publish? Did being Afro Cuban add flavor? Interest? Allure?

Racial performance is a special animal in America. It’s tied, historically, to status and opportunity in the white world. Hache chose to become a Latino writer, lacing his fiction with Spanish. His early short stories are titled “Leche” and “Abejas Rubias.” He wrote about cafecitos, about flan de guayaba and told friends “Carrillo” was his recovered family name. But reinvention has a price. He erased his African American heritage when he created his Cuban backstory.

The anxiety he must have felt maintaining the facade is hard to imagine. The duality of knowing he was two people, and the juggling act to keep those personas apart, boggles the mind. His decision to assume an artificial identity as he built his literary reputation is alarming and suggests self-loathing and even internalized racism. He made a strategic choice in terms of how he marketed himself.

But he did real things that mattered, simultaneously. Things that made an impact. Years after he left George Washington, he was still emailing me news of his students getting into MFA programs around the country with his help. He advocated for writers of color and founded the educational program Nuestras Voces, bringing Latinx stories and writers to D.C. public schools through the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. Those real things stand next to his fabrications in stark contrast.

A paragraph from his novel “Loosing My Espanish” has special resonance today.

“But I suppose it’s how we live our lives, señores, some of us calling ourselves exiliados, others of us asking each other where you are from, bringing entire countries with us while leaving the same country behind, all the while pretending it doesn’t hurt.”

Hache “left the same country behind.” He chose not to be from Detroit, eschewing his Midwestern roots. Crossing shark-infested waters in a boat bound for Miami was a better story than leaving Motown for the District of Columbia and beyond. His black life mattered even as he left pieces of it behind. He shed it, like a chrysalis, to fly off and become someone else. I would argue he never “pretended it didn’t hurt.” There was a sadness to him that showed up, occasionally, out of the blue. Did he mourn his previous life? Regret the exile he set up for himself? But I can’t ask him those questions. He’s gone, another victim of covid-19, a disease that wipes out people of color on an extraordinary scale. He brought “entire countries” with him. He will be missed.

Lisa Page is co-editor of “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.” She is assistant professor of English at George Washington University.