A.J. Twist chats with Julia Cooke author of The Other Side of Paradise-Life in the New Cuba
Julia Cooke is the author of The Other Side of Paradise (Seal Press, 2014), which is partly an account of her life while living in Cuba, but mostly a study and exploration of the challenges Cubans face on a daily basis and their hopes and aspirations as they look towards the future.
If one visits Cuba on a regular basis, and becomes more familiar with the harsh realities of living there (such as knowing that the average monthly income is about $25, that they have food rationing books, that many scrape by working the black market for goods or worse) one cannot help but to become perplexed about ‘just how do these people live? ’
Ms. Cooke’s insightful study takes the reader into squatted apartments, bars and clandestine nightclubs off the tourist grid, into university classrooms and campuses to simply sitting around gritty kitchen tables, in an effort to answer these nagging questions: What keeps them going? How do they manage to survive? What is their present? What is their future? Her book takes the reader into the minds of her chosen Cuban subjects to tackle these mysteries and the result is a most fascinating and immensely readable journey.
I got an opportunity to speak with Cooke last Friday from her current home in New York
Twist: As an American, what brought you to Cuba in the first place?
Cooke: At the age of 19, a friend of my father’s had a food import license with Cuba. My father knew I was always curious about going to Cuba so he encouraged me to join his friend who was going to Havana for a trade show.
At this point I had already been well traveled since my father was in the airline business and we were constantly in one different place after another. When I finally got to Cuba I found a place that was very hard to decipher. I knew as soon as I got there that I had to come back!
Twist: So what happened next? How did you get back to Cuba? This was not an easy exercise for Americans, right?
Cooke: Right! Fortunately, while I was at Georgetown University, I was able to apply for a study abroad program.
In 2004, I went to University of Havana for one semester where I took sociology, the history of music, and most interestingly, a course on USA-Cuban relations from 1901-1959. When I got back to Georgetown I took a course that covered the same period, but as seen from an American perspective. The two views were markedly different from each other and this intrigued me even more!
Twist: So like many people who love Cuba, once it got under your skin you could not wait to get back. Again you returned and again it could not have been easy?
Cooke: After I graduated with a journalism degree, I moved to Mexico and began that career. But all the time I wanted to get back to Cuba. I had this book in my mind and I knew I had a perspective worth sharing.
In 2008, when there was the power shift from Fidel to his brother Raoul, I knew I had better get there soon as things were changing. In 2009 I arranged for a student visa to learn about popular culture. I had an amazing year! I took a private course with a professor with the objective to connect Cuban history to the present. The arrangement was quite remarkable. I went out to live in Cuba and I had this mentor or guide in my professor to help me interpret what I was experiencing and put it all in perspective. At the same time I was finding my subjects and conducting my interviews for my book. The result is The Other Side of Paradise.
Twist: I guess you have been inundated lately with questions about your views regarding the recent thaw in U.S. –Cuban relations and the current negotiations, so I might as well join the crowd. In your book I found that many, if not all, of your subjects were looking forward to the days when things would change in Cuba. Now that these negotiations are under way, what impact do you think this will have on the Cuban people?
Cooke: I would say that since 2008 when Raoul came into power and introduced measures to encourage more private enterprises, the Cubans have been living as if change was under way. This has had a big impact. In fact, one number that I hear circulating out there is that there are up to 400 new restaurants in Havana! However, I believe the changes that they talk about in relation to these current U.S.-Cuba negotiations will come much slower than many people think.
You have to remember both sides are coming to the table following 50 years of lack of trust between the two nations. It will take time to overcome this.
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer.