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.

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.

Several characters are from poor backgrounds. Is anyone from the other side of the spectrum?

Adrian, the jazz musician, was definitely on the wealthier side of the spectrum. He was coming to make a lot of money. In Cuba, artists and musicians occupy a very privileged part of society; they're very much allowed to do, more or less, what they want to do...They're also given tremendous resources for their schooling and studying and housing. It makes sense that an artist or musician would not necessarily want to leave Cuba...Artists and musicians are a very sophisticated group and, for the most part, much better off than most Cubans, which I found really interesting as someone who used to write more exclusively about art; I found that to be such an interesting conundrum.

What do you think are the biggest differences between Cuban youth culture and American youth culture?

I think that both young Cubans and young Americans are regular kids trying to do regular kid things. So whatever status quo you grew up with, on the one hand you may want to rebel against that or work within that. I think there's a lot more similarity than there is difference. All of youth and growing up is about coming to learn how to make the life you imagined for yourself more similar to the life you are coming to lead. To me, that's the process of growing up.

... I went there with this thesis and goal of writing about young Cubans...that was very much shaped by being a young American studying there and having this nugget of uncertainty and excitement to try and find an answer. Why was this place so different than what I thought it would be, and what I was told it would be? It wasn't just me thinking things, it's the dominant American viewpoint, I believe...I do think there's been a profound generational shift in Cuba and yet I don't think youth culture is the only explanation as to why or how.

What do you miss most about Cuba?

I miss it so much all the time. I miss how important each moment was. I miss being fully in the moment. I feel like here in the States, we're all, or I am, at least, quite distracted by all the other things I should be doing or by my smartphone or my computer. There's a cacophony here, and as a consequence of the dominant isolation in Cuba - which is not a good thing - from my very privileged vantage point, I found [it] tremendously rich.

I miss the people and the family I lived with; I'm very excited to see them when I'm in Miami. I miss just sitting around talking for a whole day; talking about an issue or question one of us had...We would enjoy each other's company for a fair amount of time that didn't feel limited. I miss that sense of sharing and community. I miss that.

You've been making promotional appearances for the book. Are you excited to read for Miami's Cuban and Cuban-American audience?

I'm absolutely excited; I'm daunted. It's a public that is so knowledgeable and also so emotionally invested in the topic that I'm writing about. For the most part I've been talking to Americans whose questions have been much more basic - and I wrote this book primarily for that public because I want [them] to know something that I feel should be known.

A lot of it is incredibly exciting. I want to frame the narrative around this book so that it's not just this political narrative. I can't compete with the scholars in Miami who study the political movements in such nuance and detail, and do an incredible job; I'll never know more than them...That's the challenge of trying to write about a place. On the one hand, I want people who spend a lot of time there to feel like I've done it justice, and at the same time, I want people who don't know about it to feel like I'm illuminating something for them. It's a challenge but it's fun.

Julia Cooke will present The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave.), Wednesday, May 14 at 6:30 p.m.

Follow Shelly Davidov on Twitter @ShellyDavidov.

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