Cuba Beyond The Beach: Stories of Life In Havana
By Karen Dubinsky
Published 2016 by Between The Lines, $24.95 CAD
A book review
Leaving the cobblestone streets of Old Havana and venturing into the pothole minefields and crumbling facades of other Havana downtown neighbourhoods such as Centro and Vedado can be frightening to some and enlightening to others. Here are where the “real” Habaneros live and where their raw stories of love, hardship and survival are played out day after day after day.
You may not feel quite ready to immerse yourself in those lives nor to expose yourself to this harsh reality but from the comfort and safety of your favourite armchair, you can allow Karen Dubinsky’s new book to, instead, take you into these depths of Cuban humanity.
While aptly titled, “Cuba beyond the beach” Dubinsky’s book is not a travel guide that will bring you to a well-known restaurant or help you locate the hottest night club but it will help you understand the lives that are unwinding as you walk past some ornate carved door behind where a gaggle of kids are playing baseball with a stick and a bundled up rag as a ball.
Described by the author as “one part travel book, one part city memoir, and large part reflection on a changing Havana in a changing Havana” it is also one part history and one part anthropology as Dubinsky also helps educate the reader as to some of the influences and events that brought us to today’s Cuba. Dubinsky’s roots and day job as a history professor at Kingston, Ontario’s Queen’s University are never far behind in this intelligently crafted observation on Cuban life and a Canadian’s deep love for its people.
In some ways Dubinsky could be considered an elder statesman on the topic having begun her explorations of the island and the city as far back as 1978 when she participated in an international youth festival as a bright-eyed twenty-one year old. Immediately she was hooked by the country; she has returned several times per year since then not only as a tourist but as a professor leading student classes from her university as well as a researcher for her previous dissertations on other more targeted subjects on the island such as the music and lyrics of local troubadour Carlos Varela.
Her cumulative years of time spent in Havana has allowed her to develop meaningful relationships with other professors, economists, artists, musicians and simply the people on the street where she lives (on and off) to the extent that she now considers herself an “intimate outsider” complete with those inherent rights of access to dinners and spirited discussions that run deep into the night.
These stories and experiences are documented here in an easy to read collection of “short bursts” and thoughtful prose.
But there is also an education between these pages. Here I learned that the great Canadian, William Van Horne, the former president of Canadian Pacific Railroads also “went on to help finance and run the Cuban Railroad Company, which connected Havana to the eastern provinces and the city of Santiago de Cuba in 1908.”
The stories also reflect the variety of life in Havana. “Pedro Almodóvar has said that if he lived in Havana, he would simply plant a camera on a street corner and make a new film every day. This book is like Almodóvar’s imaginary camera picking up the chaotic everyday texture of life in a confusing and wonderful place.” Well, she’s got that right! Nailed it.
If you are wondering what goes on in the streets behind the Capitolio building or a block north of the Malecon, Dubinsky’s book will take you there. It might not always be pretty but it will be real and soon, perhaps you,too, will be on your way to becoming an “intimate outsider”.
Karen Dubinsky will be speaking about her book on Thursday 17 November, 6:30 pm at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University and Bay Street Film Festival and on Thursday 24 November, 7:30 pm, McNally Robinson Bookstore, Winnipeg.
A portion of the proceeds of this book will go to the Queen’s Overseas Student Travel Fund-The Sonia Enjamio Award, which helps Cuban students study in Canada and Canadian students study in Cuba.
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer who is diligently working towards a degree in understanding Cuba.