Wednesday, May 3, 2023

"Hotel Cuba"

Aaron Hamburger is the author of a story collection titled The View from Stalin’s Head which was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and nominated for a Violet Quill Award. He has also written three novels: Faith for Beginners, nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, Nirvana Is Here, winner of a Bronze Medal from the 2019 Foreword Reviews Indies Book Awards, and Hotel Cuba.

Hamburger applied the Page 69 Test to Hotel Cuba and reported the following:
When I teach fiction, I often say that a novel is like a human body, which is composed of cells, and each cell contains enough DNA to recreate the whole. So this Page 69 Test is right up my alley!

However, page 69 of my novel is the end of a chapter, with more white space than text. To make this work, I’d have to cheat a bit and add a paragraph or two for context.
When Isidro and Pearl turn a corner, she recognizes the street. “Gracias, gracias,” she says, so grateful she’s crying. Isidro waves away her thanks, and she dashes to the workshop, pushing the door open with her shoulder. She’s here, safe.

“Howdy, Pearl,” says Mr. Steinberg, perched on a stool and making a note in the little brown book he carries with him all the time.

Howdy, she repeats to herself. Isn’t that what I said earlier?

He gestures to the gold and black turban she’d been working on. “This is quite exceptional. Such talent. And to think it’s being wasted on me.”

No talent, she thinks. I’m just copying from a model. Even a monkey can do it.

“Thank you, sir.” She steals a glance at the clock. She’s not so very late, and he’s not mad. Don’t they say in English “Time is money”? But maybe that’s only a rule in America, not in hot countries like this one. Maybe here, a little late is okay.

Mr. Steinberg is preparing to leave. He’s got more workshops to visit. “Pearl, you’ve got magic in your hands,” he says.

“Yes, sir,” she says, but it’s a lie. Magic, she thinks. No such thing. It’s just me.
Here’s how this scene fits within the book’s premise, based on my grandmother’s true story.

It’s 1922. Following the chaos of World War I and the terror of the Soviet Revolution, Pearl Kahn and her younger sister Frieda are fleeing their Russian shtetl, trying to get to America. But America is closing its doors to Jewish immigrants like them. Instead they go to of all places the sultry, hedonistic world of Prohibition-era Havana, Cuba.

Pearl, who’s a talented seamstress, has found work for herself and Frieda making hats in one of the many small workshops in Old Havana. Just before page 69, Pearl has gotten lost in Old Havana’s winding streets and fears she won’t make it back to her workshop in time to meet her boss, Mr. Steinberg, who’s waiting. Will he fire her? If so, where will she go? How will she survive?

This scene shows Pearl’s talent, that she’s capable of much more than the rote work she performs to pay her keep. Her boss recognizes her skill, though as a struggling small businessman, he can’t afford to reward her for it. We see Pearl’s cultural confusion, her struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, and her mix of self-doubt and inner steel. Perhaps most vividly, we get Pearl’s intense fear and determination to survive. In her world, there is no magic. All she can depend on is her own will.
Visit Aaron Hamburger's website.

--Marshal Zeringue