Native Detroiter tells his grandmother’s immigration story in new historical novel.
Hotel Cuba, a novel by former Michigan resident Aaron Hamburger, releases in May to tell the basic immigration story experienced by his grandmother, Ethel Lansky Fishman, who was born in what is now Belarus, went to Cuba until she could enter the United States and settled in the Detroit area.
The book, essentially dealing with incidents in the 1920s and hurdles faced by immigrants, deviates from facts as the author sought to enhance the storyline.
“It was such a joy to work on this book,” said Hamburger, a graduate of Hillel Day School, Detroit Country Day School and the University of Michigan. “I think of the various places and time periods that I got to travel back to using my imagination.
“Trying to see the immense culture shock that she must have experienced going from this wintry, starving pogrom to the warmth of Havana with the tropical setting as well as the music, food and language also remained important.
“I just love that sense of contrast.”
Hamburger, 49, knew his grandmother as she was in her 80s and 90s. He felt that writing the novel would give him the chance to know her as a young woman. Although she was able to give the broad outlines of her background in recordings, he had to fill in the details.
The lives of his grandparents as immigrants established the foundation for him to launch work on Hotel Cuba (Harper Perennial) in 2017, with the circulation of earlier books — short stories in The View from Stalin’s Head as well as novels in Faith for Beginners and Nirvana Is Here.
Hamburger said that he feels like the issues of faith, family and identity come through in all of his books.
“I’ve always felt a special affinity for immigrants because I worshipped my grandparents,” the author said. “They were heroes to me, and I was very concerned about immigrants when people were talking about doing terrible things to immigrants.
“I joined a group of writers going to Capitol Hill — I live in Washington now — and we were going to talk to all the senators to advocate for progressive causes. I met with Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and she absolutely agreed with me. She said, ‘You’re a writer; tell your grandmother’s story.’”
As a result of that suggestion, Hamburger wrote a chapter to check how it would feel working on a book on that subject.
“Then I happened to go to a reading of an historical novelist named Dolan Perkins-Valdez, and she said the way she started her historical fiction was writing a draft of the story to figure out what she needed to figure out,” Hamburger said.
“If you do all the research first, you can go forever researching. By writing the story first, it creates the contours of what needs to be figured out, such as how telephones worked at that time and how passports worked in 1922.
“That approach gave me specific avenues to research, and it also gave me a lot of freedom to work. It was a back-and-forth process of writing and researching. The research would suggest plot points for the story, and it was a fun, dynamic process.”
Part of the research drew the author to Cuba, exploring the neighborhood where the Jews were concentrated at the time known by his grandmother.
Hamburger, who lived in Oak Park and West Bloomfield, returns to Michigan at least twice a year. He attends Passover seders and a University of Michigan football game. Mostly, he wants to visit with his mom, Hilda Hamburger, who lives in West Bloomfield.
Besides writing books, Hamburger teaches creative writing at various institutions, in person at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and remotely through Stonecoast MFA sponsored by the University of Southern Maine.
“My grandmother was a woman of few but emphatic words,” Hamburger said. “She left a lot of gaps. I heard different stories from talking to different people, and I was able to come up with what I think really happened.
“My grandmother’s sister came to Detroit to marry her boyfriend from back home. My grandmother came to Detroit for the wedding. While she was at the wedding, she sees that the groom has a brother. They ended up having a romance, got married and were inseparable for 62 years. They belonged to Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
“I hope readers enjoy the book as an exciting and beautiful story. I also hope it makes concrete for people what immigrants went through and continue to go through to come to this country.”
Aaron Hamburger can be heard talking about his book digitally:
May 8: Virtual Panel on What’s New in Historical Fiction with Colin Mustful at 8 p.m. ET.
May 18: Virtual Talk on The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD) at 7 p.m. ET.
May 21: Virtual Talk with Literary Modiin at 1 p.m. ET.
June 6: Virtual Talk with Society of Fellows of the American Academy in Rome at 6 p.m. ET in conversation with Dave King.
Aug. 25: In-person at the Sidetrack Bookshop, 325 S. Washington, Royal Oak, 7 p.m.