Interview by J Brooke of Hotel Cuba’s author Aaron Hamburger

I first met Aaron Hamburger at a cocktail party during grad school. I was a writing student focusing on nonfiction and poetry and Hamburger was part of the fiction faculty (I don’t mean he was fictitious . . . he existed, but taught that kind of prose where one makes stuff up.) Hamburger had already published two books and had won awards for them. I knew when I saw him that I had to introduce myself for one extremely important and pressing reason: his shoes. Hamburger sported these amazing purple suede Adidas Gazelles, and my passion for beautiful kicks propelled me through the circle of fiction students surrounding him for reasons I imagine less sartorial. “Hi I’m J Brooke and I love your shoes.” Hamburger met my outstretched offer of a handshake and pulled me in close. Looking into my eyes with the severity of someone imparting lifesaving information, his words that night spoke volumes: “Urban Outfitters—but only online—they’re on sale!” This is how Aaron Hamburger’s books behave; informative, specific, economic. His prose, like his footwear, is simultaneously lush and accessible; from the moment a reader engages with his work, they become an immediate insider along for a great co-conspiratorial ride. Hotel Cuba is Hamburger’s fourth work of fiction. Inspired by a photo he found of his beloved grandmother; it captures the immigrant experience through one woman’s journey from Eastern Europe to the U.S. by way of Cuba. What compelled me to reach out to Hamburger for an interview was the unique way he portrayed the protagonist’s sexuality and gender. While our present tense offers so much language and education defining and understanding LGBTQIA people, it’s fascinating to travel a scant hundred years back in time and encounter those who predate those labels.

Picture of cover of Hotel Cuba

JB: Much has been explored in previous reviews and interviews regarding the immigrant experience which propelled you to write your award-winning 2023 novel, Hotel Cuba—a historical novel set largely in 1922 Cuba. The protagonist, Pearl, based on your grandmother and her actual experiences fleeing Eastern Europe during the Russian Revolution, attempts to enter the U.S., and due to shifting immigration laws, becomes way laid for a year in Havana. You have said your jumping off point for your creation of the character of Pearl, is a photo of your grandmother from that time in Cuba, where she is entirely dressed in men’s clothing. What about this photo did you initially find so compelling?
AH: Thanks for your question, J. I knew my grandmother when I was very very young and she was quite old. She struck me as being the typical Yiddish-speaking “bubbie” who would rock me in her lap singing lullabies, baking cookies, making her version of macaroni which had only three ingredients: butter, pasta, and sugar, which I loved! And she was always carefully and conservatively dressed in tweed skirts and silk blouses. So this image of her was completely different from everything I knew of her.

JB: You often refer to the photo being of your grandmother “in drag”. . . . What does “drag” specifically mean to you as you refer to your grandmother and the protagonist, Pearl?
AH: I’m so glad you asked this question. When I first saw the image, I thought maybe this was a kind of fashion trend from the time and that’s why she was dressed this way. However, I did research about fashions of the 1920s—a lot of research! And I found out that while androgyny was a trend at the time and women did wear pants, women’s pants would tend to be more flowing, more bell-bottom-like garments that from a distance might pass for skirts. The outfit my grandmother wears in this picture is definitely what would have been read at the time as male clothing. I also learned that undocumented women who wanted to get into the U.S. at this time would cross-dress as male sailors, whose papers were never checked at entry ports to the country. This detail fascinated me and inspired some of what happens in Hotel Cuba.

JB: Knowing the many layers now ascribed to drag as an art form, how do you imagine your character Pearl as part of the larger context? Meaning, is Pearl’s inclination towards and enjoyment of wearing historically male attire a signal that she is touching a more complicated tradition?
AH: Like my grandmother, the character of Pearl was not necessarily someone who was into theory or politics or anything of that nature. She was trying to survive, achieve her goals, and create a home for herself. At the same time, she was a strong and centered woman who wanted to live life on her terms. For Pearl, pants just make sense in ways that she can’t quite articulate. Maybe today we would have different language and different ways of thinking about this choice of garment, but for her, it’s about how she feels when she wears pants. They give her a confidence that she finds useful. Also, they flatter her figure, which is more solid and stocky than the waiflike image of women’s bodies that was a model of femininity at this time. She looks handsome in pants, and she likes looking handsome. Perhaps looking handsome comes as a relief after years of trying and failing to look “pretty.” It’s a way to look good on her own terms.

JB: Pearl is not the only character who wears drag in the book. Can you explain the character of Martin? Was there a historical reference for Martin?
AH: Yes, there was such a person, who as far as I know was female-identified. She was an American who ran a bar in a really tough part of town, and she put up with no nonsense. She was a line or two in a book I was reading about the history of Havana, and her story appealed to me, so she suggested the character of Martin.

JB: Your character Martin won’t answer to being called “Señora”—and tells Pearl to stop using that honorific towards her. Martin has pencil-drawn a mustache on themself (see even I’m struggling as I feel I’m misgendering them . . . ) . So the Martin you created is most likely not female-identified. As a queer author, were you at all conflicted as to how to refer to Martin? You chose “she/her” pronouns, I assume, because you’re writing a historical work, and you are speaking in the vernacular of the past—but did you debate this choice during the writing?
AH: With Martin, I was writing that character from Pearl’s perspective–even though the book is written in third person, it’s a close third, almost free indirect. So Pearl would see Martin as a woman who is wearing male clothes.

JB: I’m also fascinated how your character Martin, in the first brief meeting with Pearl, slaps her behind, compliments her nice legs, and makes another woman she refers to as her “old lady” jealous with her attention towards Pearl. Did you create this scene of overt cad-like behavior to lean in a pejorative direction about Martin, or to signal how much Pearl exudes a queer vibe to a discerning onlooker?
AH: I wanted Martin to be someone who is confident in their skin. I thought of Martin actually as someone like a Humphrey Bogart type, who’s completely unruffled by anything that comes their way, and is a bit of a ladies’ man actually!

JB: I love that—that you had a specific iconic type in mind when you wrote the character. . . . Ultimately Martin gifts Pearl a switchblade to protect herself as she sets out for America—I am wondering if a switchblade is something your grandmother had talked about having for her own safety, or if you created this transitional object for greater metaphoric meaning?
AH: Totally invented. I wanted Pearl to have an object that projects power and confidence.

JB: In addition to queerness being presented through drag, there are several other queer characters Pearl intersects with. I’m intentionally using the broader blanket term “queer” here to include both trans and gay/lesbian. Why do you choose to blur the lines within the book – to not more tightly define whether characters like Pearl and Martin are dealing with issues of gender or sexuality?
AH: Yes, the thing that struck me as I did my research was how often queerness kept coming up when I wasn’t looking for it. For example, there’s a character named Queen of England in the book who is based on a real person, an out gay guy in Havana who had the meanest left hook in town, and no one dared call him derogatory names for gay guy or they’d get punched out. My own understanding of queerness at the time and queer history is that the idea of gay or trans or lesbian etc. as an identity label, something to be is a more recent concept, and that in the past it was more like something to do.

JB: That distinction is fascinating.
AH: Just as a quick example, if you look at homophobic laws from the past, they tend to deal with behavior, not identity. And yet there are some stories from the time where it seems as though there are some people who “are” more prone to “do” queerness. All of this is swimming in the air during the 1920s, a time right after World War I (which is important to keep in mind), when people feel like the old models of the past have failed them–leading to the greatest catastrophe of all time: the Great War (as World War I was then known). So they’re letting loose, blurring boundaries, trying new things. Androgyny is a fashion trend. In Berlin, gay and lesbian clubs and cabarets are becoming popular, and indeed you have Magnus Hirschfeld with his Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin which was really ground-breaking and so important in LGBTQ history. Now imagine Pearl coming to freewheeling Prohibition-era Havana from an isolated Russian shtetl, a place where girls did not get a very extensive education, a place of violence and privation where every day was simply a struggle to stay alive, a place where perhaps she’d heard of people who were gay (there are even slang terms for gay in Yiddish and indeed one of the stars of Yiddish cinema, Molly Picon, wore male clothing), but she probably would not be conversant with the latest developments in queer theory, right? So it was important to me to be authentic to how Pearl might have understood all these things that would have been in the zeitgeist, but a bit remote to her. I imagine she would see any flicker of queerness more as a fleeting and curious feeling, or as an individual experience, and less as these feelings or experiences might fit into any existing identity labels or theories.

JB: It does feel like Pearl’s eyes are opened to an entirely new “freewheeling” world in Cuba, and queerness is one part of that. But Pearl repeatedly gets noticed as different to those in-the-know, those with “gaydar” before that term existed (“radar” wouldn’t be coined for twenty more years . . . ). Arguably Rabbi Singer, Martin, and an ex-pat Pearl encounters named Alexander, all either reference or notice Pearl’s otherness—or am I connecting dots you haven’t intended?
AH: Pearl is different, someone who has her own center, her own path. I wanted there to be an aura around the character of Pearl that I sensed from looking at that incredible picture of my grandmother in pants. I think what all these characters you mention see in her is a kind of magnetism and inner strength masked by a kind of guardedness that draws people in. Mrs. Steinberg sees that too, by the way.

JB: In the final chapters of the book, when Pearl is in New York, her boss Safaya invites Pearl to a party at her apartment where Pearl realizes Safaya and all the other party guests are lesbian (although you don’t use that word.) Late in the party a guest arrives who is again in drag, and arguably, as with Martin, trans by today’s nomenclature. Do you put all these characters in Pearl’s path so we can see her confront her complicated choices/decision-making in real time?
AH: In a word, yes! I researched lesbian culture at the time to write that party. I wanted to show that Pearl has an opportunity to live in a different way than the one she expects before coming to the U.S. I wanted to give her the opportunity to decide whether to pursue that path. I see Pearl as what we would today call bisexual, though she would not have used that language. You’ll see there’s a memory she has of looking at female and male bodies at the swimming place in the river where she grew up and finding them both beautiful.

JB: So in creating the character of Pearl, her masculine qualities are in support of a bisexuality rather than being potentially trans or nonbinary? I pose this in the contemporary context where a vast number of trans/nonbinary people initially identify as gay or lesbian. Of course one can be both—sexuality and gender are separate—and the progression of time, language, and understanding has allowed drawing the distinction. Because Pearl exists in a world before the current understanding and options surrounding those distinctions, the thinking couldn’t possibly be available to her. Yet throughout your book, I wondered repeatedly what a 2020 Pearl might have felt free to consider.
AH: In a way, that’s a hypothetical that we have no answer to. Pearl wouldn’t be Pearl if she had lived in our time. The story would have been a completely different one on a lot of levels. Also, I think it’s really important to think about her background, the suffering she witnessed and endured and how that shaped her.

JB: Absolutely—there’s a dichotomy to Pearl I love so much; she is simultaneously shaped by the suffering she has endured, and yet avoids becoming entrenched in various diminished circumstances. . . . She has success in Cuba and yet leaves for New York. When she finally gets to New York and gets her bearings, she realizes life there is only “OK” so she keeps her options open. . . . And while she repeatedly tells people she’s “not the marrying type” she also constantly wonders “Will I always live my life without any love?” Does Pearl’s queerness play a role in her searching, where someone else may have shown resignation? By this I mean, because she contains more options within her, is her sensibility concerning how much is possible heightened?
AH: Possibly so. I think when I was writing the book, my thinking was that Pearl felt her time to marry had passed because of the War and the Revolution, not to mention the rape, so that she had to carve out some alternative path for herself, make her own way. She feels the unfairness of this, though at the same time she develops an inner strength that makes her a formidable presence by the end of the book.

JB: Ultimately Pearl chooses a different pathway than she might have in another era—by choosing to leave New York, relocate to Michigan and marry a straight man, rather than further engage in the underground queer world welcoming her. While this is based on your grandmother’s real-life experiences, you made a conscious decision in a work of fiction—can you speak about that decision?
AH: I wanted Pearl’s story to mirror my grandmother’s as much as I could as I wrote the novel. I also thought about how Pearl might make the decision she does. Pearl was one of those characters who got under my skin. I somehow could just feel by instinct what she would do or wouldn’t do in each scene. Then I would go back and think about why. To me the key to understanding Pearl is the concept of freedom.

JB: Yes! In Cuba Martin tells her “In America, you can’t be free. You have to be square all the time.” And then one hundred pages later in New York at a Lesbian party Pearl thinks to herself “You’re a sweet girl. . . . You deserve good things. But not from me. I came to this country to be free, to live out in the open.” Pearl instinctually understands and rejects the constrains inherent to being closeted . . .
AH: Pearl grew up having to hide at home from marauding soldiers, bandits, antisemites eager to inflict violence upon her. And indeed one of them succeeded in doing so. Part of why she comes to America is so she can live in a country without being afraid. For her, living in the underground queer world would mean more hiding, and she doesn’t want that. For me, it was not about pushing the character to do something one way or the other based on my preferences, but about what was realistic for her, what she would have chosen to do as I understood her.

JB: I think that’s done really artfully—how the reader encounters Pearl’s decision in real time, and how her decision-making never deviates from her true character.
AH: Part of what contributes to that, I think, is the use of the present tense. That was a conscious choice, to make the historical setting feel immediate.

JB: You bring up the inflicting of violence Pearl suffered. The rape by a Polish soldier she endured back in Russia obviously traumatized and haunts her throughout the book. . . . I’m going to assume this was not something your grandmother recounted, and I profoundly hope it’s not something she endured.
AH: My aunt told me once that my grandmother recounted hiding in her home in the shtetl and hearing the cries of young women outside who were being raped. I never forgot that detail, and so I wanted to represent that in the book.

JB: It’s so significant that you represent that horrific aspect the way you do. . . . I think it’s very brave the way you portray it. I wonder if you felt readers might conflate Pearl’s trauma with her potential attraction to women. If Pearl is bisexual, certainly the horror of being violently violated by a man might tip the scales in her choices towards women. Is that something you were constructing within her character as well?
AH: One thing I wanted to work against in this book was the notion that the rape had any bearing on Pearl’s sexual orientation. Yes, it affects her relationship to sex itself, but it doesn’t shape whom she’s attracted to. That’s why, for me, the details of her youth, the fact that she was attracted to both men and women’s bodies as a girl, is so important because it shows that the dual attraction was always there.

JB: Do you imagine, if you wrote a sequel to Hotel Cuba describing Pearl’s subsequent married life in Detroit and the family which follows, that Pearl leaves her queerness behind? Do you think Pearl allows her imagination to recall her bisexuality or queerness and integrate it somehow as she forges her hetero normative future?
AH: I am in fact writing a book that’s not exactly a sequel to Hotel Cuba, but more like a follow-up to it that focuses on another queer relation of Pearl’s. Right now I imagine we’ll get to see what happened to Pearl but from an oblique angle, so we won’t have access to her thoughts except by indirection. Who knows, though? Maybe she will have some of these memories—I haven’t gotten there yet!

Picture of cover of Hotel Cuba

Aaron Hamburger
Aaron Hamburger is the author of four books: the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head winner of the Rome Prize in Literature, and the novels Faith for Beginners (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), Nirvana is Here (winner of a Bronze Medal in the 2019 Foreword Indie Awards), and the newly released Hotel Cuba. His writing has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Tin House, Crazyhorse, Boulevard, Poets & Writers, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has also won the Jim Duggins PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize from Lambda Literary as well as fellowships from Yaddo, Djerassi, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Edward F. Albee Foundation. He teaches writing at George Washington University and the Stonecoast MFA Program.

J Brooke
J Brooke (They/e) won Columbia Journal’s 2020 Special Issue Nonfiction Award for their autobiographical essay, “HYBRID”. Their poetry and prose (largely about gender and family) can be found in The Rumpus, Electric Lit, The Normal School, Harvard Review, The Sun Magazine, Beyond Queer Words, The Fiddlehead, and (via the grace of kind editors) elsewhere. Brooke was Nonfiction Editor of the Stonecoast Review while receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. Brooke is 2023 guest faculty at Stonecoast MFA and resides with their spouse Beatrice on land stolen from the Hammonasset People.

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