Author Julia Cooke on Life in Cuba: "I Miss How Important Every Moment Was"
Much of the American perspective regarding Cuba remains dated, rooted in the same political milestones taught in high school history classes. Words like "restriction," "trade," and "government" often dominate the dialogue despite the changes taking hold of the island. Author Julia Cooke hopes to shift the conversation, from Cuba's politics to its people. Her new book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, chronicles the years she spent living in Havana and the ongoing societal shift she observed.
Courtesy of Julia Cooke
International journalist and Portland-native Cooke first traveled to Cuba as a college student in 2003. During her studies, she fell in love with the people of Havana, whose exuberance for life and diverse stories took her aback.
Cooke details her realization in the book's introduction:
Everyone my age sat under the same light bulbs and had read the same book and I was hooked: Not only was Havana romantic and steeped in drama and history and humor, but it was inexplicable and strange and split from every cliché I'd heard or read about the city. Because the fact was, there was tremendous diversity, rebellion, and sophistication among the young people I met, both while studying at the University of Havana and on visits and reporting trips in the years to come.
"It feels ridiculous to say that I was surprised at how different people's lives in Cuba are from each other's, the multiplicity of perspectives," Cooke told New Times. "It feels in retrospect really foolish that I ever would have thought there wouldn't be that....It was so interesting to dive into people's lives with them."
Everyone Cooke met defied her pre-conceived notions. Her book combines detailed reporting and narration to reflect the variety in today's Cuban youth and culture, with profiles ranging from a group of teenage punk rockers and a rising jazz star, to an academic, a gay 20-something, and a prostitute. Cooke spoke with us in more detail about her time in Havana, her work, and sharing her experiences with the Miami audience.
New Times: Tell us about the characters in your book.
Cooke: There were six or seven people that are very deeply profiled, and a couple of them were given more attention than others. There's a character named Lucia, who appears throughout; a young man named Carlos, who's the son of the family I lived with; Sandra, a young sex worker, was hugely important to me; and Isnael, a young Santeria initiate. Those are the four most profoundly treated people. There's also a young jazz musician, Adrian, and Adela, who's an academic.
Which stories were the most personal to you?
I'm fascinated with women around the world. Sandra pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone, as both a person and a reporter. I'm an upper-middle class white girl from the U.S., so to be spending days on end with a very poor, young Cuban sex worker was really challenging in certain intellectual and emotional ways. It became really difficult at moments to maintain my distance, like when I hung out with her and the man she lost her virginity to at age 11 when he was like 35. That's a taxing situation for a reporter to be in, because obviously you care for people very deeply... Carlos is one of my very best friends in the whole world and I care for him immensely. I think part of what's chronicled is that deepening of relationships over the course of this project. I went there thinking this would be purely journalistic, non-narration, third person; what emerged was a much more nuanced text.