Elena Schwolsky is the author of the new book Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba. She is a nurse and community health educator.
Q: You note that you worked on this book on and off for 20 years. Why did you initially decide to write the book, and did it change a great deal during the time you worked on it?
A: As Americans we know very little about Cuba, which has been a forbidden island for us because of the almost 60-year U.S. ban on travel. I first traveled to Cuba in 1972. Twenty years later I returned with a public health delegation, and in 1996 I lived in Havana for six months and worked in the AIDS Sanatorium there.
My initial goal in beginning the writing was to shine a light on the lives of the Cubans living with HIV/AIDS I had come to know and love there. I returned with a shoebox full of taped interviews. That’s where I began—sitting at my kitchen table with an old cassette player in front of me and pressing “PLAY.”
What took 20 years was the process of finding my own story and believing that it had value. I inserted the bare bones of my own experience in the early writing: my husband had died of AIDS in 1990, and I worked for a decade as a pediatric AIDS nurse at the height of the epidemic in the ‘80s.
It was backstory and that was all I had to say about it. I just wanted to be a reliable narrator, sharing careful observations of Cuba from my own unique perspective.
But I had started taking writing classes at the Writer’s Voice in NYC and my fellow writers encouraged me to dig deeper, to reveal more. “It’s your story too,” was a refrain I heard over and over again until I began to believe it.
Soon the kids and families I had worked with in the AIDS clinic started to make their way onto the page, along with the wrenching moments when my own husband was diagnosed with AIDS, and our shared journey began ––through stigma, fear and yes, sometimes joy.
There were times during this process when I despaired of ever being able to weave these threads together into one book and Waking in Havana lived in a file drawer for months at a time. But eventually I found a structure that worked, revised and revised some more, and discovered She Writes Press. I’m so glad I persevered!
Q: You write, "Cuba is a place that can seem frozen in time..." How has it changed over the years you've visited the country, and what impact did your work in Cuba have on you?
A: I think these two questions need to be separated.
One of the first impressions that most visitors to Cuba have is that of a place stuck in a different, earlier era: Fords and Chevys from the ‘40s and ‘50s dot the roadways, there are no advertising billboards on streets and highways, no malls, no fast food chains or big box stores.
Some new hotels are being built, while some really old buildings are being destroyed by time and the lack of resources to maintain them. When you step off the plane from visit to visit as I do, it can seem on the surface like nothing has changed.
But actually, things in Cuba have been constantly changing since the revolution in 1959 that threw out a long and bloody dictatorship. During my first trip to Cuba, in the early ‘70s, the revolution was young, and people were very hopeful about the future.
When I returned over two decades later it was to an island in the grip of hardship and a severe shortage of material goods brought about by the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, and the continued U.S. trade embargo of the island.
People were tired from having to struggle so hard to maintain their lives and families, but determined to rise to the challenge. Cubans pride themselves, rightly so, on being able to “inventar” or invent solutions for difficult problems.
Now the island is going through another major transformation after the death of Fidel Castro and with the approval of a new constitution, which opens up avenues for private business and foreign investment and strengthens civic participation.
It is a society that is far from perfect and facing new hardships and shortages of material resources, but no shortage of energy and resilience.
In terms of the impact that my work in Cuba has had on me, it is no exaggeration to say that my first trip there in 1972 transformed my life.
I started out as an idealistic young single mother looking for an adventure, and, after three months of building houses for Cuban workers with the Venceremos Brigade, I returned as an activist, committed to dedicating my life to the fight for social change in this country.
When I went back to Cuba after the death of my husband in 1991, and then returned many times throughout the ‘90s, I connected to the positive energy of that younger Elena and was able to move forward with greater strength and hope.
One lasting symbol of that impact is probably the thing I am most proud of related to my work in Cuba. Proyecto Memorias or Project Memories, the Cuban AIDS Quilt, grew out of a seed that I planted when I shared photos of my husband’s AIDS Quilt panels with the group I taught at the Sanatorium in Havana.
It is now a key part of Cuba’s AIDS prevention program and a shining example of how shared experience can transcend socio-political and cultural barriers.
Q: What do you see looking ahead for Cuba, and for relations between it and the United States?
A: That’s a tough question. Cubans ask me all the time––why does your government hate us, what have we done to them? And now they ask––does Trump want our children to become sick because we can’t get medicine for them?
How do I answer these questions? Why is our government so threatened by one small island with a different social and political system? I am ashamed, in those moments, to be from the United States.
At the end of Obama’s presidency, those of us who care about Cuba and had been working to change U.S. policy felt optimistic that relations between our two countries could be normalized for the first time in 50 years–– that the U.S. trade embargo and ban on travel by U.S. citizens, could finally be lifted.
The trade embargo, which Cubans call the “bloqueo” or blockade, affects even medications and humanitarian aid, and also imposes restrictions and fines on countries from Europe or Latin America that trade with Cuba. It is really inhumane and, in my opinion, totally unjustified.
As for the travel ban, it prohibits U.S. citizens from traveling and spending money in Cuba except under certain very narrow categories.
No U.S. citizen can just book a flight without fitting into one of these categories (though there are now commercial flights to Cuba) and no American can legally join the Canadian and Italian tourists to spend a week at a beach resort (though thousands do). The only other country to which travel is restricted in this way is North Korea.
Obama began the process, through executive order, of changing that and also allowing Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives as often as they want and to send as much money as they want home to help their families.
Trump is reversing all of this and imposing even tighter restrictions on this small island, 90 miles from our shores, that poses no threat to our country.
Now it’s up to Congress to act. Bills with bipartisan support have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would permanently restore normal relations between our two countries.
I am getting ready to travel to Cuba in January of 2020 to celebrate the publication of my book with friends and family and, as always, I am glued to the news, doing what I can to support an end to the blockade and travel ban, and filled with uncertainty and hope about what the future holds.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: First of all, I hope readers approach Waking in Havana with curiosity and an open mind.
For those who don’t know much about Cuba other than what they see on U.S. television. I hope they will travel with me through the bumpy streets of Havana on my red Flying Pigeon bicycle and get a glimpse of daily life on this island so full of contradictions and promise.
I hope they will walk through the gates of the AIDS Sanatorium with me and understand the struggles of the people I worked with there––their dedication to preventing a widespread epidemic in this resource-challenged country, their hopes and dreams.
And I hope they will laugh occasionally at my widely celebrated faux pas in Spanish and find some inspiration in my own healing journey.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am actually working on a novel and no one could be more surprised than I am. The idea for the novel came from a question that kept coming up for me as I wrote my memoir.
I had left my two-year-old son with his father, my ex, to travel to Cuba for three months in 1972. I was young and had very little understanding of the possible impact of my absence on a child so young. My son was bitten by a dog while I was away, which required emergency surgery, and he still has a visible scar bisecting his eyebrow.
What if? I kept pondering. What was I thinking? What if something worse had happened?
In the novel, something worse does happen. I won’t provide any spoilers, but just say that the book is an exploration of the ripples of unintended consequences caused by a mother’s choice when she leaves her child.
It’s the first time I have ever written fiction and it’s exciting and fun to see where my characters will lead me. Of course, the novel is in the file drawer right now as I gear up for the launch of Waking in Havana in November, but it’s constantly percolating in my mind.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The incomparable Toni Morrison said: “Make up a story…For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.”
In these dark times, we need stories more than ever. I think of that every time I sit down at my computer or open a notebook. I am so grateful to have the time and the inspiration to keep on telling what the world has been to me and to the characters I discover and give voice to in my writing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb