By: Vanessa Garcia / Fall, 2017
by Vanessa Garcia
This past February, I attended the Havana International Book Fair, which took place at the eighteenth century fortress of La Cabaña, sitting on a hill overlooking Havana’s harbor and the cerulean blue waves of El Malecón. Here at La Cabaña, the Spanish installed their military before freedom fighters claimed independence from colonial rule, and Ché Guevara executed Fulgencio Batista’s men after the Revolution took hold. La Cabaña is also one of the prisons where my grandfather was held and tortured during his fifteen years as a political prisoner for anti-Castro activity.
Thirty-nine years after my grandfather’s release from prison, I found La Cabaña redressed and reinvented for the festival. It seemed that all of Havana had come out for the book fair. The ambiance was upbeat and jovial. There were people munching on peanuts and soda, couples embracing, teenagers making out as they leaned against stone walls, and families huddling over books. As a writer, it was exciting to see so many people gathered in one place for love of the written word, but once inside the fair stalls, it was hard not to notice the excess of revolutionary propaganda. One-sided accounts of Cuban history—Ché as hero and Fidel, the dead king—opposite outdated astrology booklets and children’s books that looked more like pamphlets.
Still, there were treasures to be found, books it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of here in the States, such as Ahmel Echevarría’s Caballo Con Arzones (Pommel Horse), winner of the 2017 Alejo Carpentier National Prize for the Novel, and Insomnio –The Fight Club. Echevarría is a well-respected writer in Cuba, but very few people know him outside the island, despite his work being anthologized abroad. One of the reasons for this is that Cuban publishing houses are all State-owned, only printing about 1,000 copies of a book, and typically a one-time print run. The number of copies diminishes to around 500-800 if the publisher is smaller, and increases if the novelist is someone like Leonardo Padura, Havana’s literary hero, who might get a run of about 3,000. But unless an international publisher takes on a Cuban writer’s book, as is the case with Wendy Guerra or Padura, who’s even got a show based on his work on Netflix called Four Seasons in Havana, Cuban literature rarely sees the light of other shores.
In the days before attending the book fair, I had the opportunity to visit the homes and studios of Cuban writers, painters, and photographers, as well as places like Casa de las Americas, an organization that connects Cuba culturally to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. I was with a group of other female Cuban-American writers that had traveled to the island for the principal purpose of connecting to the literary community in Havana, and, as a result, we talked a great deal about how we could extend the excitement we felt for the brilliant minds we were encountering inside the island, beyond its borders. Could there be partnerships between Cuban and American publishers? Some of the Cuban writers we talked to were hopeful of such a possibility, while others balked at the thought of the Cuban State letting American publishers have a real presence on the island.
When I returned home to Miami, I learned that, as we were holding these discussions, Cuba and the United States were already trying to join forces in the name of literature.
In 2016, Publisher’s Weekly and Combined Book Exhibit led the first ever Publishing Mission to Cuba, and signed a memorandum with the Cuban Book Institute dictating that the United States could and would have a presence at the Havana Book Fair, while Cuban publishers would enjoy the same inclusion at BookExpo America. In addition, there would be a push to organize panels and educational programs between the two countries.
But just as I was walking up the hill to La Cabaña for the book fair, the mission was also suffering its first hiccup. Cuba was already in the process of banning one of the books the Americans were trying to bring in: Armando Lucas Correa’s The German Girl, a novel which connects the story of a young woman named Hannah as she escapes Nazi Germany in 1939 on the MS St. Louis, to that of another young woman named Anna, as she comes to terms with the loss of her father, who “disappeared” on 9/11.
Correa is Cuban-American, having left Cuba in 1991, and is the Editor-in-Chief of People En Español, a publication that has showcased the likes of Cuba’s most visible exiles, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, whose music has also been banned on the island. Correa, like his character, Hannah, is a refugee. In conversation, he told me he believes his complicated history with the island may be a reason his book was flagged.
According to Correa and Cevin Byerman, executive vice president and publisher of Publisher’s Weekly, the Cuban government may have also taken issue with the book’s content. The story of Hannah and Anna is a charged one, considering the novel is centered on Hannah’s journey aboard the St. Louis, which set sail from Germany to Cuba in 1939. The ship carried 937 passengers, the majority of which were German-Jewish refugees who were denied entry by Cuba despite the landing permits in their possession. The ship was also later refused entry by the United States and Canada, forcing a return to Europe where passengers staked their last hopes on countries like France and Belgium, which eventually welcomed them, though without securing their safety. Only 22 refugees were allowed to disembark in Cuba. More than 250 of the passengers Cuba sent away eventually met their death in concentration camps.
In Correa’s novel, Hannah and her mother are among the lucky few who are able to disembark in Cuba and make a home there. Hanna’s father and Leo, the love of her life, are sent back to Europe, never to be seen again.
Speaking with the Jewish community on the island in 2016, the first year of the U.S. Publishing mission to Cuba, which he participated in, Correa felt there was an important gap in the archives of the national conversation surrounding the St. Louis. He explained that Cuba does not take open accountability for refusing the passengers of the ship. There has been no formal apology to the Jews as other countries have done, and no full account exists in schoolbooks. For this reason, Correa promised he would bring some of his extensive research material to The Sephardic Hebrew Center the following year, a promise he fulfilled.
In addition to pointing to Cuba’s rejection of the St. Louis’ passengers, Correa’s novel draws clear parallels between the way the Cuban Revolution dealt with the Cuban people and Hitler’s power tactics throughout WWII. While Castro and Hitler are never mentioned by name, the novel suggests both men used words like “worm” and “escoria,” or “scum,” to describe defectors and Jews.
At one point in the novel, when Hannah and her family are in a car on their way to Hamburg to board the St. Louis, they listen to a speech on the radio about the fleeing Jewish people: “We have permitted those poisoning our people, the garbage, thieves, worms, and delinquents, to leave Germany.” This is almost exactly how Fidel Castro described those fleeing Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
“It was interesting and terrifying to come across these similarities in my research,” says Correa, citing Cuba’s gay reeducation camps in the ‘60s, which upheld the slogan: El Trabajo Os Hará Hombres. “‘Work Shall Make You Men,’ ‘Work Shall Set You Free.’ That’s the same language,” says Correa.
The Cuban Book Institute, the organization that presents and promotes books by Cuban authors, and organizes the book fair, not only deemed The German Girl threatening enough to ban, but “they also told everyone involved at the fair that they couldn’t mention my name,” says Correa.
Judith Curr, publisher and founder of Atria books, attests to this fact. “I was supposed to give a talk at the Meliá Habana Hotel, and Johanna [Castillo, Correa’s editor] had to help me remove Armando from the presentation,” she says, explaining that this was not easy, given that Correa was at the proud center of her presentation. “But, if I had mentioned anything [about Correa] they would have shut down the whole operation,” she continues, “and I thought, we are in someone else’s country and we must follow their rules.”
“There are a lot of bumps,” says Byerman, “the Cubans work differently than we work. They have their rules and restrictions as we expected.” But Byerman, one of the signers of the memorandum between Cuba and the US, sees this as part of the process. “Anything you do that’s new and different is going to come across these hurdles.”
He also cites the United States’ embargo as one of the impediments to the mission’s goals. Byerman and other members of the mission’s delegation to Cuba sent a petition to Congress and President Obama to lift the economic embargo against Cuba as it pertains to books and educational materials. “Books,” the petition proclaims, “are catalysts for greater cross-cultural understanding, economic development, free expression, and positive social change…The American book publishing community stands ready to help Cuba’s writers and publishers gain access to the global book market, and to help the Cuban people gain greater access to the amazing diversity of books published by American publishers.” The goal of all of this, says Byerman, is “to raise awareness between the two cultures, literacy between the two cultures.”
I wanted to know what the official line regarding the ban on Correa’s book was, so I reached out to Juan Rodriguez Cabrera, President of the Cuban Book Institute in Cuba. He told me he would answer my questions “with pleasure.” Encouraged, I asked about the progress of the US-Cuba Publishing Mission, about how books are published in Cuba, and whether the prohibition of American publishers selling or giving books directly to Cubans (one of the caveats of the agreement) is due to the embargo or for other reasons. I also asked about Correa, why they didn’t let his book in to the country, and what caused them to confiscate it.
Cabrera never responded. I followed up, and again, silence.
I’m still waiting for his response.
When talking to people around this story, the notion of intimidation came up often. “I felt fear,” Correa himself told me. Both Curr and Castillo agreed that they felt great tension during their time at the Havana Book Fair. “We weren’t going to leave without Armando,” said both Curr and Castillo, suggesting the editor and publisher had no idea what could happen. Cuba’s penal code is, after all, notoriously vague, citing “social dangerousness” as a crime. Article 72 of the code says that “the proclivity to commit crimes… demonstrated by behavior observed to be in contradiction with socialist norms of morality” can warrant arrest. In the past, these “forms of provocation” included performance art, visual art, and even literature.
Annie Philbrick, a member of the Publishing Mission’s delegation and co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Rhode Island, likens Cuba to the Soviet Union of the 80s, teetering on the brink; one foot in the past, another in the possibility of a freer future. Philbrick, a student in Moscow in 1980, remembers having to cover her books in public. “And it didn’t have to be War & Peace you were hiding, it could’ve been David Cooperfield,” she says. For Philbrick, traveling to Cuba now is a reminder of that history. “There are so many layers, but you only see some of them.”
Such layers are also what make Correa’s novel such a compelling one. Toward the end of the book, seventy-five years after the St. Louis delivered Hannah and her mother to safety in Cuba, Anna travels to the island with her own mother. What we know about Anna is that she is around twelve years old, the same age Hannah was when she boarded the St. Louis. We know that Hannah’s father died during 9/11, and that Hannah is Anna’s great-aunt. Here, in these Cuban scenes, the novel’s narrative thread tightens and brings its mysteries into focus. It’s also where Anna meets a young Cuban boy named Diego, who lives with his mother in the abandoned home of a family who fled during the Mariel boatlift. At lunch one day, Diego’s mother remembers how the defecting family was treated when they left, spit upon by neighbors in an “act of repudiation.” Toward the end of her recollection, Diego’s mother notes, with a kind of resigned irony, “Nowadays those ‘worms’ have suddenly turned into butterflies, and we receive them with open arms…everything changes with the years. Or with our needs.”
In nature, some butterflies make migratory journeys that last a lifetime, unable to return to their point of origin. Others fly out, and, generations later, manage to make their way back home. Having returned to Cuba, as the granddaughter of Cubans who fled the island, I understand Anna’s journey as a grandniece, searching for her roots. As the daughter of so-called gusanos, I also understand Correa’s painfully truncated journey home. Learning about Correa’s struggle to get The German Girl into Havana, deepened my experience of reading about all the German girls who had tried to make their way into the Havana of 1939, only to be turned away.
On the same shelf as Correa’s The German Girl, sits my ticket to the Havana Book Fair, printed with its logo of a winged book taking flight. The symbolism offers up a beautiful proposal. That to open a book is to travel, to cross a border, to learn to read the world beyond our purview. As we watch President Trump attempt to turn away refugees and stonewall the media, Correa’s book holds as many lessons for Americans today as it does for Cubans.
*The German Girl will be published in paperback in August.
Vanessa Garcia is the author of the novel White Light, one of NPRs Best Books of 2015 and an International Latino Book Award winner. She’s also a playwright, essayist, and journalist.
About Vanessa Garcia
Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist