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'Hotel Cuba' tells an immigrant's story of everyday courage

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Immigration stories are inspiration for countless novels. The author Aaron Hamburger thought his grandmother's immigration journey was worthy of a book, too, especially when he found an old photo of her that didn't quite fit with the woman he knew.

AARON HAMBURGER: She was very loving. She was kind of the idea of what you would imagine a Yiddish Bubbie to be.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

HAMBURGER: She would sing me lullabies. She would make these quote-unquote "rock cookies" that were warm and soft out of the oven and an hour later were hard as rocks.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

HAMBURGER: She was really kind of a wonderful presence, but I didn't really know her as a person that well, aside from, you know, the way a little boy would know his grandmother. And that's why I was so surprised to find this image of her from 1922, which is in the book, of her dressed in full male drag.

PFEIFFER: That picture and the tale behind it are the impetus for his latest novel, "Hotel Cuba." It's about a young woman named Pearl who, in the 1920s, leaves Eastern Europe's poverty and antisemitism for the United States. But she's diverted to Cuba, and that changes how she views the world. I asked Aaron Hamburger why both women - his grandmother and the character based on her - ended up in the Caribbean on their way to the U.S.

HAMBURGER: There was a kind of hysteria going on in the United States and in many other places - a fear that what happened in Russia with the communist revolution would happen in other places. And so there were these new laws enacted, first in 1921 and then in 1924 - which actually became the basis for immigration laws, you know, going forward for many years - that limited immigration from Eastern Europe. And the vast majority of immigrants who were coming from Eastern Europe were Jewish. And so there was a loophole in this law which said that you couldn't come to America from Eastern Europe. But if you could get to Cuba or Argentina or Mexico, you could establish residency there for a year, and then you weren't coming in from Eastern Europe. You were coming in from whatever that country was. And the steamboat companies that were missing out on a lot of this income that they'd been making from ferrying immigrants over to the United States were actively promoting this as an alternate destination. They were saying, hey, just go to Cuba for a year, and then you can get into the United States. So my grandmother decided to go with her sister to Cuba - a place she had never been. She had no idea what it was like. And I love how she summed up the decision to go in the recorded interviews - three little words - (imitating his grandmother) so I vent (ph).

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

HAMBURGER: Just like that. And so she went.

PFEIFFER: There's a point in the novel where someone makes an observation, and they say, when Americans come here to live - meaning Cuba - it's generally because they've failed at something back home. That was really interesting. Tell me more about that. And was it just that anyone who leaves their native country is leaving something they've failed at, or is it specific to people who leave the U.S.?

HAMBURGER: I've actually been an expatriate a few times in my life, and it's interesting. Sometimes you do meet those people who - they thrive in other places. And for some reason they sort of don't fit in at home, and they end up becoming expatriates and living in other countries. And so that was my thought behind that remark. And just thinking about the varied cast of characters that the main character, Pearl, in the story, based on my grandmother, comes into contact with. You can see a number of people who find Havana to be this kind of liminal space where more things are possible than they would be in the more sort of straight-laced American society that they came from.

PFEIFFER: I want to go back to that photo you mentioned of your grandmother wearing pants in the early 1900s - so surprising. There are several times in your novel that you mention clothing. There's a line where you say, before the Great War, when people cared about what they looked like, and then there's a line where they talk about clothes teaching the world to treat people with dignity. And your grandmother felt transformed by wearing those pants. Why that clothing theme?

HAMBURGER: I relate to my grandmother as a creative artist - as somebody who expressed herself through design. And I just loved imagining how she might look at different materials and try to design them and put together and what her design aesthetic might be in the same way that I, as a writer, think very carefully about the kind of language that I use, the kind of sentences that I create, the kind of characterization and setting that I try to create with my words. And so a lot of my grandmother's thoughts about creation are mine in some sense, thinking about the act of creativity and creating with intentionality.

PFEIFFER: I don't want to give too much away. But in your novel and in real life, your grandmother eventually did get to the United States. And as with many immigrants, it was not the paradise she may have hoped for. Her life was rough, at least at the beginning. Did they also find it difficult in a way they didn't expect?

HAMBURGER: So my grandmother says that when she finally arrived to New York to be reunited with her sisters, she said, when I saw how my sisters were living in New York, I wanted to go back to Russia. I mean, she was definitely shocked by the poverty that they lived in. And as I did research into other immigrant narratives, that was a common theme. You know, America had been built up as the Golden Land - literally the Golden and Medina. And there was all this mythology about how wonderful and how great it was. It would be hard, I think, for almost any country to sort of live up to that mythology.

But then when you sort of look into what it was like to live in the Lower East Side or in these immigrant enclaves in New York, I mean, they were packing them in and living in really tough conditions and working in sweatshops, long hours, difficult jobs. And, you know, in some sense, that hasn't changed today in a lot of immigrant communities. And that was one of the things that really motivated me to tell this story, where - how many links I found between the stories of immigrants in the past and immigrants of today.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. You know, on that note, I didn't consider this a political book. But at the end of the novel, you wrote, that in poring over primary and secondary sources - and your words are, I encountered quite a bit of harsh language, often eerily reminiscent of the most bitter rhetoric of our contemporary politics.

HAMBURGER: Yes.

PFEIFFER: Did you come away thinking that the political, societal problems and divisions we have now are the same as then, different than then, better, worse?

HAMBURGER: Well, it's fascinating 'cause I went to the National Archives, and I handled, you know, actual documents of the people who were in charge of immigration at the time and also read letters from everyday people who were writing in to say, I'm reporting on this problem of undocumented immigration - although they didn't call it that at the time - to protect the purity of our blood pool. And you would just - also, in these letters, these - they were just so beautifully worded, in this kind of flowery, old-fashioned language. And then in the middle of it, they would drop the most vile, racist terms that you've ever heard in your life. So perhaps the style and the flair with which this rhetoric is deployed has changed. It's probably coarser now, but the vitriol of it I don't think has changed.

PFEIFFER: Your novel is set more than a century ago. What do you think it has to teach us about today?

HAMBURGER: I think the profound kindness that's shown to strangers. It's amazing how often my grandmother was helped by people that she never saw again, but they really went out of their way to ease her path - sometimes in small ways, sometimes in larger ways. And if we can all perform more of those kindnesses to each other, what a better world we'll have.

PFEIFFER: That's Aaron Hamburger. He's the author of the novel "Hotel Cuba." Aaron, thank you very much. Your book is great.

HAMBURGER: Oh, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Tinbete Ermyas
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.