Although the recent U.S. Publishing Mission to Cuba—held February 10 to February 15 in conjunction with the Havana Book Fair—drew high praise from both its Cuban and American participants, the event was marred by a case of literary censorship that illustrated the reality of political and cultural life in Cuba.
On the eve of a February 13 conference on U.S. and Cuban publishing, the Book Institute of Cuba, the government agency that oversees the Cuban publishing industry, confiscated copies of The German Girl, a recent novel by Armando Correa, a Cuban-born exile and novelist as well as editor in chief of People En Espanol, the Spanish-language version of People magazine.
Copies of the book were seized and the Book Institute of Cuba delegation threatened to walk out of the conference if Correa’s name or the book were mentioned. “I was in the middle of a nightmare,” Correa said in an interview with PW after his return to New York City.
Correa, who left Cuba in 1991 and went on to become an award-winning Spanish-language journalist in the U.S., returned to Cuba for the first time in 2016 as part of the first U.S. Publishing Mission to Cuba. During that visit he promoted his forthcoming debut novel, The German Girl, with no problems. The book was published in October 2016 by the Atria Publishing Group.
Although a request to sign copies of The German Girl in the USA Pavillion at the Havana Book Fair was rejected ahead of the visit, Correa believed that the book would go on display and that it could be given away. About 100 copies of The German Girl were shipped along with nearly 400 copies of a variety of American titles that were to go on display at the Havana Book Fair. Although the shipment of American titles were delayed at Cuban customs, the books were eventually released, and put on display in the USA Pavillion. Only copies of The German Girl were confiscated.
Asked why the signing and giveaway were not allowed, Juan Rodriquez Cabrera, president of the Book Institute of Cuba, replied by email that "the fair, organized by the Cuban state and its institutions, reserves the right to set forth a program which it considers to meet the objectives the country has proposed."
The German Girl is based on the experience of the passenger ship The St. Louis, which set sail from Germany in 1939 for Cuba with 937 passengers—most of whom were Jewish—fleeing the Nazis. However, the Cuban government of the time only allowed 28 passengers to disembark, refusing entry to the rest. Eventually the ship was forced to return to Germany. Many of the passengers subsequently perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
Despite the conflict over his novel, Correa was able to appear at the Sephardic Hebrew Center in Havana the next day. In a ceremony at the center, he donated research materials collected while writing, The German Girl to the center’s Holocaust collection. He was introduced by his publisher Judith Curr in a private ceremony attended by the ambassadors from Poland and Norway and media outlets.
“I donated some of the materials [photographs and documents] I have collected on the St. Louis. Cuba is part of the story of the Holocaust and of the St. Louis. I want to donate everything I have to the Cuba Hebrew Center,” Correa said.
Speculating on the reasons his book was suppressed—he said he was never told explicitly why the book was banned—he said, “I’m a Cuban exile and my book is about fear of the other—be it the fear of a different politics or fear of a different god. That’s the problem with the Cuban government. I’m not an initiator of protest, I’m not a political person, but I am independent, and they’re scared of me.”
Over the last two years the U.S. Publishing Mission to Cuba, organized by Publishers Weekly and the Combined Book Exhibit, has brought nearly 1,000 books to the Havana Book Fair without incident. American publishers have praised their Cuban counterparts and used these visits to exchange professional information and lay the groundwork for business relations, once the economic embargo between the countries is lifted.
But there is another side to Cuban cultural life, Curr said. “The trip was of course amazing. It is easy to forget that, on such a beautiful island full of gracious and kind people, the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted here are not an option for Cubans. Nowhere was this more in evidence than at the Havana Book Fair,” she said
“The accessibility and affordability Americans have to a wide range of books and the free flow of information is not an everyday occurrence in Cuba,” Curr continued. “The confiscation of Cuban-born Armando Correa’s debut novel, The German Girl, was a stark reminder that there are indeed major differences in readers’ freedom of expression and access to literature. A good reminder for us never to take this enormous privilege for granted.”