As a journalist and the editor in chief of People en Español, Armando Lucas Correa is no stranger to uncovering untold stories.
But in his fiction, he’s able to shine a light on moments often lost to history. With 2016’s The German Girl, he dove into the lives of the passengers of the MS Saint Louis, a ship containing European refugees that landed in Cuba in World War II — only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. The story of many nations’ complicity in turning their backs on the world’s most vulnerable got its claws into Correa and wouldn’t let go.
So much so that his second novel, The Daughter’s Tale, which hits shelves May 7, continues that story, but this time turns to the passengers who ended up back in France. It also tackles another atrocity often omitted from the historical record: the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. In June 1944, 642 of the village inhabitants, including women and children, were killed by a German Waffen-SS company. Many were burned alive inside the local Catholic church.
In The Daughter’s Tale, Correa fictionalizes this event as he weaves a story of memory, survival, and the cost of war. In advance of the book’s release, EW asked Correa to elaborate on why this period of history inspires his writing, his own connections to stories of dislocation and loss, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Both of your novels have ties to Cuba, but in this one it’s more mentioned in passing. What made you want to move the action more predominantly to Europe this time round? Did it perhaps require more research since it wasn’t somewhere you once lived?
ARMANDO LUCAS CORREA: That novel really was about what happened to the 28 passengers of the MS Saint Louis who were allowed to disembark in Havana. But what became of the other 900 Jewish refugees who were forced to return to Europe? In this second novel, I wanted to explore the fate of some of the passengers who ended up in France. Both novels required years of investigation. For the first, I refused to speak to MS Saint Louis survivors until I after I finished writing the book and traveled to Berlin, Auschwitz, and Havana. For The Daughter’s Tale, I did the opposite: First I went to Oradour-sur-Glane, and then I plunged fully into the book. They were two completely different writing processes.
This is, in many ways, a sequel to The German Girl, still dealing with the events surrounding the St. Louis. What made you want to return to that historical moment from a different angle?
The German Girl and The Daughter’s Tale are part of a trilogy that will conclude with The Night Traveler, and with that I will close the Holocaust cycle in my writing. In the three novels, I wanted to tackle historical events that have long been forgotten: the tragedy of the Saint Louis, the slaughter in Oradour-sur-Glane, and in the third book, Nazi Germany’s eugenics. All were stories involving Nazis that implicated countries like Cuba, the U.S., Canada, and France, all which in a way were also responsible for the fate of so many.
What is it about this particular historical moment and the Holocaust that keeps you coming back to it?
I grew up in Cuba, and I remember when I was 10 years old my grandmother would tell us at dinner that Cuba would pay very dearly for what it had done to the Jewish refugees. As I grew up, I understood she was referring to the Saint Louis tragedy, something which is never spoken of in Cuba. My grandmother, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, was pregnant with my mother when the Saint Louis arrived in the port of Havana on May 27, 1939. Seeing how the bulk of the refugees aboard were forced to return to Europe and faced their deaths in Nazi concentration camps impacted her deeply.
When I attended college in Havana and worked on my thesis, I was given access to the National Archives and tried to look up information about the Saint Louis. The librarian whispered to me that there were three boxes dedicated to the Saint Louis, but they had disappeared from the archives in the ’70s.
When I arrived in the U.S. in 1991, I began acquiring books, documents, postcards, and photos related to the Saint Louis. I even purchased the diary of the ship’s captain, autographed by him.
Though you were older than the characters in this book when you left Cuba, you also escaped a tyrannical regime — one that declared your very identity illegal. Do you see parallels between yourself and your heroine? Or do you draw on your own experiences at all when writing even though you’ve lived very different lives?
Living in Cuba under communism is like serving a claustrophobic jail sentence, heightened by the fact that Cuba is an island. As teenagers, we would joke that all Cubans suffered Marco Polo syndrome: We all wanted to leave. In my first novel I draw parallels between what Hannah and her family suffered in Berlin with what Cubans suffered after the triumph of the revolution. In one line, my protagonist, now an elderly woman in post-revolution Havana says, “This time she wasn’t facing racial cleansing that aimed to create physical perfection, size, and color to achieve purity. Now it was a cleansing of ideas. It was people’s minds they were afraid of, not their physical traits.”
Here, the heroine is the same both in the past and present, and she’s holding a big secret. What compelled you to use that for your plot? Something maybe you found in your research?
War unleashes a process of dislocation and loss, and as a survival mechanism, oblivion. We have to forget to survive, at least that’s the case with some. I include myself in that group. You cannot live carrying the past as a burden on your shoulders. On one hand it is healthy to forget, but it can also be dangerous. It’s the dichotomy of the refugee, the exiled, the stateless.
You’ve worked your whole life as a journalist, and both these books draw on actual historical circumstances. Did you ever consider relaying these events in a work of nonfiction? If not, why was fiction always the best way to tell these stories?
With the sheer volume of information I gathered, I thought about writing a news article or a book of essays. I even thought about including the interviews I did with the Saint Louis survivors and historians. But I wanted to stretch outside of my comfort zone. And there are already plenty of great nonfiction books, complete works, about that tragedy. So, I started the creative process and let my imagination run free. I knew that a novel would allow me, in the end, to reach more people, to create a stronger emotional connection.
As a journalist, you have to deal with bad news on a daily basis, but you write about some particularly troubling atrocities here. Does that impact you on a personal level? Do you take your writing home with you, as it were?
I get too emotionally involved in the stories I write. Writing to me is a very personal endeavor. Some meditate, do yoga, go to the gym. I write and forget the world around me exists. Writing is a form of meditation for me. Since my three kids were born, I tend to cry very easily. It could be after reading a book, watching a film, even when I hear a sad story. I must confess, although it may seem cheesy, that I cried when I edited the English version of some of my own chapters.
You write in Spanish and the version I’m working from is translated into English. Can you tell us a bit more about that process and how it might differ from a typical publication/translation process? Would you ever want to write a novel in English first, or does this just feel like a more natural process for you?
I’m a storyteller, and as a writer I like to play with words, sentences; I love the hunt of the perfect paragraph. I can only do this in Spanish. Picking the right translator for my book wasn’t easy. When Nick Caistor sent us his sample translation for The German Girl, I knew he was the only one who could translate it. I’m honored to work with him, someone who translates writers like Isabel Allende and Arturo Pérez Reverte. Having said that, when I’m writing in Spanish, I’m thinking about how something is going to sound like in English. It’s double the work. Sometimes, the translation has been so good that it motivated me to change the original text in Spanish. It’s a very fluid process.
Do the events surrounding the St. Louis still have more stories for you to tell?
This coming May 13 marks the 80th anniversary of the sailing of the Saint Louis from the port of Hamburg to Havana. That means that every year there are fewer survivors of this tragedy. I can assure you that every time you sit down to speak to one of them, you discover new stories. Also, very little is known about the 28 passengers who were allowed to disembark in Havana. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has done an excellent job of tracking down the Saint Louis passengers. But my third book will be the last of this saga.