Cuba is the great unknown in America’s backyard, embargoed from both trade and direct travel. But during visits between 2008 and 2013, Portland-raised writer Julia Cooke talked to Havana’s prostitutes, party kids, artists and mothers and observed the city’s burgeoning unofficial economy outside the state-run stores. Her new book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba (Seal Press, 248 pages, $17), offers vivid portraits of Cubans in the post-Fidel, post-Soviet age. WW talked to Cooke, who has written for The Atlantic and The New York Times and teaches journalism at the New School, about how the press gets Cuba wrong, and how the face of the country has changed.

WW: Why a book on Cuba?

Julia Cooke: I studied at the University of Havana [in 2003], and came back to the States and felt betrayed by images of Havana in the U.S. press. [The Cuba I had experienced] was not the Cuba I read about. I thought this was because I was young, and the reporters were old. Not a strong thesis. But it was a motivating thesis. 

What was different between the Cuba you knew and the one in the press?

I don't think people were writing about the uncertainty of that time. No one was capturing the sophistication. It was couched in nostalgia to the past. The Havana I participated in had sophistication that was based in contemporary life and culture: the jazz clubs, the gay culture. And so much was a very political reading of Cuba. Politics pervades everything, but not everything that happens in Cuba comes from politics. It felt like Cuba was reduced to clichés.

What did you find most interesting?

It's the thing I miss the most: The sense of community and allegiance is really strong. The sense of interconnectedness, everyone all moving forward together. It's what the [Communist] revolution was trying to generate, but it came out of the ultimate failure of the revolution.

And yet so many are now waiting to leave the country?

In Cuba, paradise is whatever is not today. Either it's the past or the future, and for so many young Cubans, it's anywhere but here. It was amazing how fantastical their perception of the rest of the world was. Young punks who believe that anywhere else, they wouldn't be hassled by the police.

How isolated are Cubans from the rest of the world?

Quite isolated. The default is "not connected." You can choose to make yourself connected if you have the means, but many don't. You go to a hotel, and they say, "The state didn't give us our Wi-Fi password yet."

Are laws more relaxed under Raul Castro than under Fidel? The book talks about relaxed laws against homosexuality.

It's a really vibrant scene in Havana. The gay scene is much more fractured in New York. There are different cliques. In Havana, because it's smaller, and it's faced awful repression, it's much more inclusive and ebullient, you know? It's like these new freedoms are—people are thrilled by them, and it's infectious.

I was struck by a woman in the book who said that Cuba's hardships after the fall of the Soviet Union—the so-called "special period"—had actually woken up Cuba's creativity.

Because of the economic situation [with Soviet aid], there were fewer economic privations. It was easier to cloak that sinister side of the culture. The special period broke that complacency. It's hard to say whether this is positive or negative. It was a terrible time, it was very jarring. Elderly women's eyes would fill with tears when they talked about it. They knew people who had lost children. It was like a war without there being a war. 

How has Cuba changed recently?

Increased privatization, increased stratification along economic lines. The wealthier will get wealthier. A whole lot won't change until professionals are able to charge for their services. The more professional occupations like lawyer, accountant, engineer—those people can't charge. They're considered to be human capital created by the revolution. 

GO: Julia Cooke reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, April 10. Free.