Cuban-American writer Armando Lucas Correa begins his debut novel with a single, stunning sentence — “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents” — and then proceeds to detail a chilling, heartbreaking story about one of modern history’s most shameful moments.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about for years and years, since I was a child and my grandmother told me about it,” Correa said from New York, where he is editor in chief for People en Español. “She said Cuba was going to pay dearly, to pay for 100 years for what we did.”
“The German Girl” (Atria, $26.99) paints a personal story of the SS St. Louis, the luxury cruise ship that was scheduled to bring more than 900 Jews to Cuba in 1939. Though the passengers, fleeing Nazi Germany, had legal visas, most were turned away and the ship was forced to return to Europe.
His grandmother’s words echoed in Correa’s head for decades, following him across the Florida Straits when he emigrated from his native island. In fact, he wrote the ending of the novel years ago and began penning extensive character sketches and plot outlines long before he signed his book contract. In many ways, the writing of the book is a sort of expiation, a Cuban’s attempt at making sense of a tragic affair that turned out to be disastrous for innocent families.
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“We talk about the Holocaust and the Nazis,” adds Correa, who will appear at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Tuesday and at the Miami Book Fair on Nov. 19. “But we don’t talk about the St. Louis and the responsibility we should bear for what happened to these people.”
He believes that it’s no coincidence that documents about the negotiations with the St. Louis were “lost” in the Cuban National Archives and that it has taken years for other countries to own up to their roles in the tragedy. In 2012, the U.S. State Department apologized publicly for its actions in turning away the St. Louis. A year earlier in Halifax, the Canadian government unveiled a monument, The Wheel of Conscience, acknowledging its refusal to take in the St. Louis refugees.
In the book, Hannah Rosenthal, 11, and Leo Martin, are two German-Jewish children whose families manage to secure precious legal visas to Cuba. They clearly notice how their hometown of Berlin has become increasingly dangerous for the “impures.” The hate, the misguided nationalistic passion, the ubiquitous red, white and black flags are a sharp contrast to their previous lives, especially for Hannah whose mother is a wealthy heiress. The narrative follows them on the two-week transatlantic crossing, a seemingly happy time for games and parties that comes to an abrupt end when the passengers aren’t allowed to disembark in Havana. (Only 28 passengers were allowed in Cuba. Others were farmed out to a handful of European countries, but 254 were eventually killed as the Nazis invaded parts of Western Europe.)
The novel also features Anna, a girl in 2014 New York, who meets her great-aunt Hannah Rosenthal on the island that has been her home since 1939. Their encounter allows the young girl and the old woman a measure of forgiveness and peace.
Correa, a former El Nuevo Herald reporter who wrote the book in Spanish, said he sees parallels between the story of the St. Louis and the repeated rejection of Syrian refugees as they flee their war-torn country.
“Part of the human DNA I think is not to accept the other — the other because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or the religion they practice or whatever,” he says. “It’s more than not being tolerant. It’s a deep fear of something that is different and makes us turn away.”
Researching and writing the novel were “deeply personal” actions, he adds. As a refugee who left Cuba in 1991, he knows well the devastating and strangely exhilarating experience of fleeing a known world to make a new life in a strange country. Earlier this year Correa returned to Cuba for the first time since he left. He was there in a professional capacity, to make a presentation at the International Book Fair. He wrote an essay, published in both People editions and in Time magazine, about his Havana homecoming.
The book fair was held in La Cabaña, a colonial-era fort later used as a prison. “There,” wrote Correa in the essay, “Ernesto Che Guevara personally oversaw the execution of hundreds of people who were against the new government.” He doesn’t fail to note the irony in the young people lining up to buy books in the same prison that witnessed such gruesome executions.
The final scene in “The German Girl” is set in Cuba, and his trip with other U.S. editors and publishers gave him the luxury of “contemplating Havana as a distant and unreachable city, not unlike the characters in my novel.”
Correa’s first book, “In Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family” (En Busca de Emma: Dos Padres, Una Hija y el Sueño de una Familia), published in 2009, related his journey to be a father. Emma, now 11, is his oldest daughter with partner Gonzalo Hernandez. The couple also has 6-year-old twins.
Writing fiction was a departure for the longtime journalist, and he jokes that he was “totally obsessive” about his research, so much so that he now owns St. Louis memorabilia. He has two more novels in the works, both inspired by that fateful 1939 voyage.
“Fiction is like therapy,” he says. “You have a certain freedom you don’t have with nonfiction. You can make so many things up.”