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Julia Cooke interview: ‘I’ll never stop wanting to go to Cuba’

The author and travel journalist shares her story about life in Cuba today, from the trade embargo to the espresso

Visiting Cuba, that forbidden land, has long held fascination for many Americans. With the recent news about normalizing U.S. relations with the country, a jaunt to the island is on our minds now more than ever—especially given that enviable 80-degrees-in-winter climate (which NYC will never have, no matter how many awesome things to do this winter). But what does visiting this mysterious slice of the Caribbean mean? What is Cuba really like, beyond the stereotypes? Writer Julia Cooke, who lived in Havana on and off for five years, paints an incomparable portrait of the country and the lives of Cuba’s vibrant youth in her thought-provoking new nonfiction book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.

Can you tell me a bit about your relationship to Cuba, both personally and professionally?
I went to Cuba for the first time when I was around 20 and had the oddest feeling that I’d be back, even that Cuba would somehow be important for me. Which sounds really hokey. But Havana in particular was place that so engaged my senses, my intellect, and my ability to understand history and the present. I spent a college semester at the University of Havana, which was stimulating and challenging and fun, and I kept going back as I began to work as a journalist in Mexico City. Professionally, it’s such fruitful, engaging ground: A writer I know says that if you can’t write well about Cuba, you have no business writing at all, which I think is a good frame for the country’s general atmosphere, its richness. Writing a book was sort of an exorcism for me—I wanted to understand why it was that I loved Havana so much, and also to get it out of my system. I thought that if I lived there for a year, that’d be it, I’d be done with it. Which is, on some level, true—I don’t live there anymore and I certainly have great admiration for the people who live there day in, day out. It’s incredible, but it can be really tough, and also totally false. But I’ll never stop wanting to go to Cuba.

What’s so striking about your book is that it’s a portrait of the country today; though politics is a part of that, it’s not a political book or a history book, which is how most books about Cuba lean. Were you conscious of trying to fill a gap in the written narrative about Cuba?
Very much so. When I came back from that semester abroad, I really wanted to read something that wouldn’t tell me about the politics, but about the people who dealt with its consequences and what their lives were like. I wanted intimate detail of people. There are a ton of amazing books about so many aspects of Cuba, but there didn’t seem to be one like that.

Are you still in touch with many of the people whose stories you tell in the book?
I’ve been down to Miami to visit Carlos, Elaine and their family a handful of times since they got there, and am in intermittent touch with mostly everyone else. Carlos and his boyfriend may come up to NYC to get married this spring!

Do you think Americans romanticize Cuba too much because so few of us have been able to visit? There’s, especially, this attitude that we have to visit “before things change,” which is perhaps a bit blind to how things are.
Totally. The travel ban has meant that the Cuba that people read about or see in a movie, or the information students in Cuban studies courses read, etc., isn’t often fact-checked against personal experience. Far more Americans visit Cuba than one would think, but still, the numbers aren’t so high. Sometimes talking about Cuba while sitting in the U.S. feels like a big echo chamber.

And of course, the elephant in the room, what do you think about the latest news in U.S.–Cuba relations? Have you spoken to anyone in Cuba about this?
I’m cautiously thrilled about it. The Castro regime has been using the embargo as an excuse for so many of its people's shortcomings for so long. You don’t have food? It’s the embargo. That medical innovation that could cure your uncle’s sickness? The embargo. No clothes, no car, no job—the embargo. And there’s a little bit of truth in that, I’m sure, but not much. What’s most scary to me is how U.S. involvement in Cuban policy—because U.S. taxes wind up funding some dissidents on the ground in Cuba—winds up discrediting the Cubans who bravely push for change on the island. To drop the embargo would define the edges of what Cubans themselves want for their country and what the Castros are accountable for as far as their own citizens’ quality of life. President Obama’s announcement was the first step toward that end. The Cubans I’ve spoken to are cautiously optimistic, not so much because it means that their lives will improve immediately, but because it symbolizes the end of an era and how the dialogue will shift.

Do you think the exodus of youth you describe in the book will subside with the next generation? What do you think needs to happen so Cuba’s young people stay and raise families and settle there?
I certainly hope it subsides, but there needs to be more opportunity and freedom, both financially and intellectually. Vast chunks of the professional class leave because it’s illegal for, say, an accountant, lawyer or doctor to charge for services outside of working for the government for pretty measly salaries. The one-party system doesn’t allow for much upward mobility. A lot of the nonprofessional class just leaves seeking more opportunity and economic stability.

There are a lot of preconceived ideas of what Cuba is, and, as you write in the book, “I never read anything that matched my experience of the place.” What were some of the most surprising discoveries you made in living there?
Havana was much more sophisticated, exuberant and contemporary than I think it’s portrayed as being. One of the things that surprised me was the logistical complexity and richness of daily life in Cuba. Things as simple as going to the grocery store are complicated in Havana, but within that logistical difficulty, there’s serendipity and interconnectedness. You may meet someone really interesting in the collective cab from one store that was out of whatever you need to another that you hear has it, or you may get the number of the black-market dude who can find it for you. I was also really surprised by Cuba’s privileged classes. People talk about Cuba feeling like a time capsule, or a time warp, which is mostly an aesthetic impression created by infrastructure and cars that haven’t changed much since 1959. But to me, the true time warp of Cuba is seen among its privileged classes, their old-school manners, their parties and their discretion.

Once and for all: Cuban espresso, is it the best in the world?
Yep. Though I halve—quarter, even—the normal amount of sugar.

Do you have any plans to return to Cuba in the near future?
No firm plans, but many hopes.

Any recommendations for other recent travel writing that you admire?
It’s not travel writing, but I’m currently reading Americanahby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I so admire her skill for characterization and how she frames both foreignness and Americanness. Certain passages on leaving a much-loved homeland for more choice and opportunity elsewhere resonate with what I hear from Cubans. I’ve also been reading some Rebecca West travel writing, which is hardly recent, but is so fantastic. She writes about historical figures like she had lunch with them the day before. It’s amazing.

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