Interview'She works for a suffragist, visits a gay bar in Havana'

No ‘Fiddler’: Fun-loving bubbie goes from shtetl to Cuba to NYC in grandson’s novel

Aaron Hamburger paints an unconventional but true-to-life picture of Old Country Jewish immigrants discovering a new world in his new historical novel, ‘Hotel Cuba’

Author Aaron Hamburger's grandmother in Key West in 1922, on the local rabbi's balcony. (Courtesy)
Author Aaron Hamburger's grandmother in Key West in 1922, on the local rabbi's balcony. (Courtesy)

Close to 15 years ago when I was living in New York City, I scanned the online forum of the US city’s parks department in search of a tennis partner and came across the name Aaron Hamburger, whose first novel, “Faith for Beginners” — a story about a mother taking her collapsing family on a trip to Israel in hopes of “fixing” her recalcitrant, gay son, Jeremy — had recently ravaged me.

It’s a funny, heartrending, and incisive book, and I had to meet its author, even if it meant lying about my skill level. We spent most of the hour talking shop — writing and books — which was probably more entertaining to him than pushing a beginner player like me all over the court. Needless to say, we became fast friends.

Over the past two decades, Hamburger, the author of four books and countless stories, has become an indispensable and singular force in the world of Jewish-American writing, appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Forward, Tin House, Poets & Writers, Tablet, and O, the Oprah Magazine.

One marvels at how his work subtly and sublimely examines so many different facets of the Jewish-American experience. He has that rare and useful talent of taking us into the past to sharpen our view of the present. In an interview from several years ago, Hamburger recalled a quote from the writer James Baldwin — but it’s one that perfectly captures Hamburger’s own gift as a writer: “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

Hamburger’s latest novel, “Hotel Cuba,” released on May 2, opens with its protagonist, Pearl Kahn, and her younger sister, Frieda, fleeing from the chaos of World War I and the Soviet Revolution on a ship bound for New York City. However, changing immigration laws force the sisters to make a detour to Cuba, where they will experience new sights, sounds, pleasures, and freedoms as they struggle to survive while searching for a way to enter America. What follows is a unique and engrossing story of Jewish immigration inspired by Hamburger’s grandmother’s own immigrant experience.

In a recent essay in the Chicago Review of Books, Hamburger wrote that “as I dove into more research [for this book], I quickly realized how stories like Fiddler had distorted my vision of my grandparents and their fellow shtetl dwellers… I wrote my novel ‘Hotel Cuba’ as an un-Fiddler on the Roof. My protagonist Pearl makes and wears pants. She works for a suffragist, visits a gay bar in Havana, and falls in with a crowd of lesbians in New York.”

I had the pleasure of talking to Hamburger about his extraordinary novel, how he came to write it, how he now thinks of his grandmother’s life, and striking parallels between Pearl’s story and what is happening today.

The following interview has been edited.

The Times of Israel: Something that impresses me about your writing is your ability to completely change gears, adopting a fresh tone, atmosphere, and point of view with each book. Are you aware of these shifts? How much do you take from each book as you start work on the next one?

Aaron Hamburger: My process is more haphazard. I go with some question that haunts me, which I can never predict beforehand. Part of what impelled me to write this book was to try to fill in these tantalizing gaps in my grandmother’s story. Perhaps the biggest one for me: How would it have felt to come from a landlocked, sheltered, rural shtetl beset by war, violence, and famine and go to of all places a tropical Caribbean island? This is Havana, Cuba, during the licentious Prohibition era, flooded with alcohol tourism from America. Its music, food, history, and customs were all unfamiliar to her. What did she think of it all? How must this have impacted her life?

Author Aaron Hamburger. (Courtesy)

You were fascinated by the story of your grandmother and her journey, but when did you understand that there was a larger story to tell, fictionalize, and share? At what point did you know her story could be your next novel?

There were two key moments. First when I saw that photo of my grandmother in a man’s shirt and tie and pants, smoking a cigarette, staring into the camera with such a mysterious expression. The look on her face contained so many stories. Second when I joined a group of writers who went to Capitol Hill to advocate for progressive causes. I brought that picture with me to the office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and I showed it to her and said, my grandmother was an immigrant, here’s what happened to her, and I want you to stand for the immigrants of today. She said she would, and I asked how I could support her in that effort. She said, “You’re a writer, tell your grandmother’s story.” I didn’t think I could do that in fiction, but then as I realized how many gaps there were in the story, the only way I could do it justice was to tell it as fiction. Eventually, the book took on a life of its own.

So how did you start writing it? It must’ve taken an incredible amount of research. This story of Jews in Cuba is in many ways a lesser-known story.

I’m fascinated by setting, the nexus of where and when. It’s the first thing I have to know before I begin writing. Also, no matter what I’m writing, I’m always engaging with history. I did as much research for my last novel, “Nirvana is Here,” set in the 1990s, as I did with this one, set in the 1920s. For both books, I investigated the pop culture of the time, the fashions, what was going on in the news, all of which gave me this baseline so I could understand what was in the air that my characters might have been thinking about or reacting to.

Do you feel like you found answers to the questions you were asking about your grandmother? And was it ever difficult to follow where the fiction was leading you since the heroine Pearl Kahn had become a fictionalized version of your grandmother?

I had the broad outlines of my grandmother’s story, but writing the book and being forced to answer the kinds of detailed questions you need to answer as a fiction writer helped me imagine what she would have gone through. For example, my grandmother said that when she got to New York and saw how her sisters were living there she wanted to go back to Russia. Conditions for immigrants there at that time were awful!

However, there were so many questions that I’ll never be able to answer definitely because they are specific to my grandmother’s experience, and that’s okay. My job as a fiction writer is to tell the best story I can. The act of telling a story requires a certain bias because the second you put down words and details on the page you have to curate, you have to leave some things out, and that creates a picture that’s different from life, as it should be.

Author Aaron Hamburger’s grandmother and her three sisters in New York, circa 1923. (Courtesy)

You mention the necessity to curate the story. That must’ve led to some difficult decisions.

Two things were difficult for me to leave out, though to include them would have probably required doubling the length of this book. First, my grandfather’s story, which was so rich and incredible. I wish I could have told it as well. Second, the events that happened to my grandparents after the conclusion of this book. Their hometown was completely destroyed and all the inhabitants were killed in the Holocaust. The decision to risk everything to come to America saved their lives but it also severed their connections to family and home forever.

Your grandmother inspired the story, but it’s still not a record of her life, so do you now have a hard time divorcing fact from fiction? Do you find yourself wanting to give her the story you’ve created?

I knew that part of writing this novel was playing detective in an unsolved mystery that would have to remain unsolved. Then, as the story emerged, I took liberties to tell a better story and incorporate all these wonderful gems I uncovered during the research. When my editor bought the book, one of the first questions she had was: How willing was I to deviate from what actually happened to make this a better story? My answer was 100% because that’s my responsibility as a fiction writer to my audience: to tell the best story I can. Is Pearl my grandmother? It’s a version of her, let’s say, and an awfully beguiling one in my eyes. However, my family, who knew her better than I did because I only knew my grandmother when she was very old and I was very young, have told me that I captured her voice, which I take as a high compliment.

Part of writing this novel was playing detective in an unsolved mystery that would have to remain unsolved

There are striking parallels between Pearl’s story and what is happening today. Were you aware of those parallels when writing the story?

Very aware. The cruelty and callous disregard for human life, especially among the smugglers, was astounding. Would-be immigrants would pay smugglers to take them from Cuba to Florida, and instead, the smugglers would take them for a boat ride and drop them back off in Cuba. The Chinese immigrants got the worst treatment of all — many were thrown overboard to drown. Sadly, we hear similar stories about the trafficking of undocumented immigrants today. The language used in documents written by everyday citizens reporting on illegal immigrants or that of immigration officials of the time, which I read at the National Archive, often used pretty vile racist terms, embedded in this florid almost literary-sounding polite language around it. Today, we hear that same kind of fearful rhetoric, like “replacement theory.” I would say the harsh feelings and suspicion around the topic of immigration are the same, but the language is coarser.

What sets this book apart from most historical fiction, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t stray from the fundamental attitudes and mores of the period in which the story takes place. You don’t impose modern thoughts and ideas about sexuality on the characters and the story, to give just one example. The question of Pearl’s sexuality, and her lacking the language to express her desires even to herself, hangs heavy over the book in a sophisticatedly subtle way.

Pearl’s sexual identity was something I wanted to be as accurate as I could to how someone might have experienced it at the time, and I worked hard to tread a careful line. I’m a writer who’s fascinated by questions of identity and identity labels, and so I’m aware that the way those ideas loom in our culture today was not necessarily the way things were in an earlier age. For example, sexuality was something many people felt or did, not necessarily conceived as a category people belonged to. To capture the zeitgeist of the past I immersed myself in primary sources or things like advertising from the period — advertising was so helpful! — to get a sense of how people conceived of themselves and the world at that time.

‘Hotel Cuba’ by Aaron Hamburger. (Courtesy)

Henry James has this famous quote describing the dangers of historical fiction. In short, he says you can deploy all the details of another time period all you want, but the trick is to capture the way people thought of their world, which would be very different from ours. At the same time, I do think sometimes we are guilty of a term I came across called “presentism,” thinking we’re extremely enlightened and those poor people from the past aren’t up to our snuff. Not necessarily so. I believe that in every period, there’s a potent mix of every flavor of humanity.

As a reader, have you always gravitated toward historical fiction? Were there any specific books you looked at for inspiration or guidance as you worked to tell this story?

Historical fiction is a difficult category for me to define. How does it differ from literary fiction set in the past? However, some of the works I enjoy that might fall into this category include Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s “Wench,” Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day” and “Artist of the Floating World,” Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace,” Philip Roth’s “Nemesis,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and perhaps the greatest work of historical fiction of all time, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” To me what distinguishes a work of historical fiction is its ability to render its time and place in a performative rather than explanatory way.

I was in New York on 9/11. At the time, I didn’t know it was a historical event. I just knew it was my first day of work and I was going to be late

When I encounter expository passages of info-dump, I feel jarred out of the fictional dream and that it’s false to the experience of the characters. I was in New York on 9/11. At the time, I didn’t know it was a historical event. I just knew it was my first day of work and I was going to be late because the subways weren’t running, and I was supposed to meet a friend for coffee afterward, but now I wasn’t going to be able to meet her and I didn’t know how to get in touch with her. I remember seeing the Twin Towers on fire and thinking, wow, that’s going to take a long time to fix. And then slowly, the information came out bit by bit, and at a certain point, I realized that someday this would be considered historic and it would be distorted by memory and memorialization, never as raw and confusing and disorienting as the lived experience. That immediacy of experience is what I was attempting to convey in my book, how it might have felt to live through these events not knowing the outcome or how they would be perceived later.

When I look at your oeuvre, I’m kind of struck by how each book covers a different story about the American Jewish experience; “The View From Stalin’s Head” is a collection about a Jew returning to Europe; in “Faith for Beginners” a Jewish suburban family travels to Israel; the protagonist of “Nirvana is Here” reflects on a trauma he endured while growing up in a Detroit Jewish suburb in the 90s; and “Hotel Cuba” is a story about European immigration to America.

A career in writing is often quite happenstance like a frog hopping from lily pad to lily pad to cross a stream, but when you look back, you can find the trail. It does seem as though my books, lined up in chronological order, have something to say about the Jewish-American experience. The themes of faith, family, and identity have always been on my mind as a person and as a writer, so it makes sense that they connect my works. My very first book, “The View from Stalin’s Head,” is set in post-Cold War Prague, where I lived in the mid-90s, and when I went there, I was struck that I was doing a kind of reverse migration. My grandparents had struggled so hard to get away from Europe, and here I was going back! So maybe through my books, I’ve come full circle.

Hotel Cuba by Aaron Hamburger

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