Armando Lucas Correa, the New York-based Cuban writer, is the first to admit that he gets get too emotionally involved in his novels.
"Writing to me is a very personal endeavour," he says.
And emotions certainly flowed when Armando met 80-year-old Judith, one of the survivors of the doomed S.S. St. Louis, which left Hamburg in 1939 filled with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. The story of the ship inspired Correa's first novel, The German Girl, an international bestseller that has since been translated in 14 languages and published in more than 20 countries.
But meeting Judith, who had been on the ship, would form the basis of his new novel, The Daughter's Tale.
"She whispered her story to me, struggling against her failing health," he has said.
"She said she had been relatively happy in the [concentration] camp with her parents and the other children, until one afternoon, just before everyone was thrown into battered wagon bound for Poland, she found herself in the middle of a forest, holding her father's hand.
"Her father came closer and whispered in her ear, 'Look up at the treetops'. For an instant, she felt alone. Suddenly another firm hand, one she didn't know, took hers. When she turned, her father was gone. She never saw him again.
"As I sat there with Judith, transfixed by her words, I felt something blooming inside of me. That afternoon, The Daughter's Tale was born."
As I sat there with Judith, transfixed by her words, I felt something blooming inside of me. That afternoon, The Daughter's Tale was bornArmando Lucas Correa
The novel, which has links to The German Girl narrative, begins in 1939 when Amanda Sternberg, her husband, Julius and their daughters have their lives shattered when the Nazis burn down their Berlin bookshop and send Julius to Auschwitz.
Amanda must make momentous decisions for her daughters as they flee from Nazi imprisonment, sending each of them to a place she believes will offer them safety. Like Irène Némirovsky's Suite Francaise, The Daughter's Tale reveals both the heroism and cowardice of ordinary people experiencing the brutality of war. The Daughter's Tale is an unforgettable family saga of love, survival, guilt and redemption and the lengths a mother will go to protect her children and the impact on generations to come.
Correa's history is a fascinating one. He grew up in Havana, in what he says was a matriarchal family, with his grandmother, mother, and sister in the Vedado neighborhood. He came of age in late 1970s, a particularly dangerous time, he has said, to be gay in Communist Cuba.
He graduated from The University of Arts and then gained a postgraduate journalism degree from the University of Havana. He began his professional career as a theatre and dance critic, before, in 1988, becoming editor of Tablas, an arts magazine. In 1991 he joined the El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister publication, before moving to New York in 1997 as a senior reporter and then Editor-In-Chief of the top-selling Hispanic magazine in the United States, People en Espanol.
Armando met his partner, Gonzalo in Cuba. Today, they have three children, Emma and twins Anna and Lucas, born via IVF with the help of a surrogate mother and an egg donor. This inspired his 2009 book In Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family. Correa says reaction from readers has been extremely positive. "For me, it's important that people see us as a family, which in this case has two dads . . . We have the same conflicts and issues of any other family. The day we all understand we are human beings and we are all very different, and we accept and respect those differences, the world will be a better place".
The German Girl, the first of his Holocaust trilogy, is told from the perspective of two young girls, Hannah and Anna, one in the 1930s and one in the present, each dealing with struggles that reflect the greatest humanitarian and political challenges of their day. The story revolves around the tragic journey of the S.S. St. Louis, which, after leaving Hamburg in 1939, was forced back by the Cuban authorities, who allowed only 28 of the 937 refugees to disembark. The ship was forced to return to now Nazi-dominated Europe, resulting in the deaths of at least a quarter of its passengers.
Most recently, Correa was recognised by AT&T with the Humanity of Connection Award; this humanity is reflected in The German Girl, and now in The Daughter's Tale.
Armando Lucas Correa will be in Canberra for a free ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, on June 12, 6pm, Bookings at anu.edu.au/events.
- Colin Steele is a Canberra reviewer