Even though it only spans two years in the life of immigrant Pearl, Aaron Hamburger’s third novel “Hotel Cuba” (Harper Perennial, 2023) has the feel and weight of an epic. Opening in 1922, as Pearl and her kid sister Frieda set sail for a better life in America from their home in Russia, only to be waylaid in Havana, Cuba, with their futures hanging indefinitely in the balance, Hamburger paints a vivid picture of time and place. While the novel is sure to appeal to a wide audience, gay writer Hamburger has made sure to feature significant queer characters in the storyline.
Gregg Shapiro: Aaron, your new novel “Hotel Cuba” is arriving at a moment when LGBTQ historical fiction is having a resurgence along with the novels “The New Life” by Tom Crewe and “In Memoriam” by Alice Winn. Why do you think this is occurring at this time?
Aaron Hamburger: I read somewhere about “presentism,” meaning this bias we have, thinking of ourselves as so modern and enlightened in comparison to people of the past. And yet, in the writing of this book, I was struck by the many links I found between life in the past and our present. Just as an example, I was inspired to write this story when I came across a picture of my grandmother in full male drag from 1922. As my good friend and LGBTQ literary legend, Leslea Newman said when I showed her the photo, “Your grandmother looks like a butch lesbian! I have such a crush on her!” As I delved into the research, I was surprised to read about a raucous gay bar in Havana from the late 1800s. And I was struck by the fact that the conversation about immigration one hundred years ago was almost exactly the same as that of our time, just with different immigrant populations.
GS: How much of your own family’s immigrant story is in the pages of “Hotel Cuba”?
AH: Quite a bit of it is in there in the broadest outlines. My grandmother was desperate to escape the chaos of Russia after the Russian Revolution and join a sister in America, but new and discriminatory immigration laws closed the borders to her, and she decided to go to Cuba instead. We have recorded interviews with my grandparents about their immigration stories, mostly focused on my grandfather’s story, and a small part about my grandmother, who appears as the protagonist, Pearl, in the book. She was a woman of few, but choice, words, and while she left a lot of hints about her time in Cuba, I was intensely curious to fill in the details. I wanted to know what it felt like to go from a war-torn wintry sheltered shtetl to sultry Havana with the music, the food, the language, all of it so unfamiliar to her. The novelist in me got the chance to flesh out that picture.
GS: Were you able to travel to Cuba for research?
AH: Yes, I went to Havana and immediately noticed the heat, the intensity of the sunlight, the atmosphere. Many people who were in my grandmother’s situation, European immigrants, came across the ocean in their best woolen clothes and struggled to adjust to the tropical weather, often getting awful heat rashes, for example. Also, when I was in Havana, I had a wonderful guide who told me stories about her grandmother strolling down Havana’s main street and looking at the fashions in the high-end department store windows, which made me imagine my fashion-loving main character Pearl, based on my grandmother, taking that same walk.
GS: How’s your Spanish?
AH: I’ve studied Spanish, but I actually speak much better Italian because I lived in Rome for a year thanks to a prize I received for my first book. So, when I was in Cuba, if I didn’t know a Spanish word I would reach for an Italian equivalent and give it a Spanish spin. Fortunately for me, the Cubans I met were uniformly generous and would meet me halfway!
GS: You mentioned your Havanan guide and the fashions in the department store windows. Pearl, the main character in “Hotel Cuba” is a milliner and seamstress, and you incorporate a lot of detail when writing about her work. Have you always had an interest in fashion or was it something you had to research for the book?
AH: Definitely something I had to research, which was a lot of fun. I never realized I would learn so much about women’s hats in the 1920s [laughs]. My grandmother and my mother both had a talent for sewing, so it was something I grew up with, but sad to say, I can’t even sew a button onto a shirt [laughs]. However, I identified with my grandmother’s sewing as a creative and expressive act. A lot of Pearl’s thoughts about sewing are actually mine about the artistic process.
GS: Antisemitism is at the heart of the novel. It’s the driving force behind Pearl and her sister Frieda’s departure from their homeland in Turya, and it’s something they continue to encounter in other places. Can you please say a few words about writing about antisemitism at a time when it’s on the rise?
AH: It is sad that we can’t quite seem to shake our addiction to all sorts of hatreds, and antisemitism is one of the most persistent and pernicious of those hatreds. More than anything, Pearl, as well as my grandmother, simply wanted to live her life in peace. However, then, as now, political figures have found that stoking fear of Jews, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and on and on is a convenient way to accrue power. Even more tragic is that they find a willing audience for their hate. That’s one thing we can do, resist vigorously any leader who might try to appeal to us through the language of division.
GS: Anti-immigrant sentiment is also woven throughout. In chapter eight, one character says “Republicans hate the immigrants.” Is this a way of saying that not much has changed since the early 1920s?
AH: It’s actually that character’s opinion of the politics of that time, as eerily familiar as that might sound to some contemporary readers. The Republicans in the 1920s were advocating for a tough stance on immigration. By the way, the immigration laws of the early 1920s laid the foundations for much of the debate we’re having now. Back then, many Americans worried that the people fleeing Communism (many of them Jewish) were actually Communist infiltrators coming to bring chaos and revolution to our shores. Compare that to the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS. I also read in the National Archives letters from everyday citizens demanding that the government do more to keep out immigrants in order to “protect the blood pool.” Disgusting.
GS: In chapter 11, Pearl pays a visit to a bar in Havana called the Gold Dollar where she encounters “inverts and hussies.” There she encounters butch dyke Señora Martin and Martin’s associate, the “Queen of England.” Later, in New York, she works for Safaya, who introduces Pearl to her lesbian social circle. Being a gay writer, why was it important to you to include queer characters in what is primarily a straight story?
AH: I would say it’s important not only for gay writers to do this but for any writer who wants to write accurately about human beings. I see Pearl as bisexual, though she would not have had the language to label her feelings or identity in that way. Because of that, I wanted Pearl to meet people who would have been more open about their same-sex attractions, which would show her a different way of life from what she might have known back home. It’s part of the theme of the book, this idea that coming to Cuba was an accidental stop on her journey to America, a “hotel,” as many Jewish immigrants called it. But that experience turned out to shape the rest of her life in ways she couldn’t have expected.
GS: After being in Cuba, Key West, and New York, Pearl finds herself in Detroit, where Frieda has relocated. Parts of chapter 18 read like a promotional brochure for Detroit (in a good way), where you grew up. Do you think that city can ever return to its former glory, the one you write about in the novel?
AH: I was amazed to learn that Detroit was considered the Paris of the West. Money was pouring in because of the new car industry that had sprouted up there, so the city attracted people from all walks of life who wanted to take advantage of those opportunities. I really don’t know if Detroit could return to the past, but maybe instead of that it could be something new and wonderful that hasn’t yet been invented. Right now, all kinds of exciting things are happening there. Go visit!
GS: “Hotel Cuba” is very cinematic. Do you think there might be a movie adaptation? If so, I kept picturing Murray Hill as Martin. Do you think that’s a good choice?
AH: Murray Hill as Martin is genius! Perfect. Will this book be a movie? There’s a word in Spanish, “Ojala” or in Yiddish you might say “From your lips to God’s ears.” I think it would be a terrific film, but I’ll leave the casting of it to others.
GS: The Key West setting made me wonder if there was any chance you would be heading there to read at Books and Books, which is co-owned by Judy Blume.
AH: Not as of yet, but Judy Blume was one of my first favorite authors. If you’re reading this, Judy Blume, I’d love to visit your store!