In these best and/or worst of COVID times, online shopping is having a heyday. Jeff Bozos’s wealth is estimated to have increased by $24bn from December 2019 to April 2020 thanks to all the people shopping on Amazon. If you have a few spare quid and feel like doing something great, why not buy a recently released book, and if you can, try and pick one from a new or up and coming author and or support one of the indy presses.
I so feel for these authors. Months, if not, years of work going into writing a book, never mind the immense effort to get a publisher interested, and then the seemingly endless rounds of editing. While not life-threatening, it must be heartbreaking when all this work, which should have culminated in a triumphant book launch and author talks, ends in a fizzle of cancellations and at best an online launch.
This is what happened to Author, Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow and friend, Helen Yaffe and her book, We Are Cuba.
I bought it last week. And no, I didn’t buy it on Amazon, though you can. (Amazon isn’t ALL bad, as many small online retailers sell through the platform, but the Amazon worker conditions and general tax evasion fuckery mean I try and avoid it where I can.)
Blackwells are great – they hosted a talk about my book during Mental Health Awareness Week, and one of the staff said they are a good employer and use their chain of shops as warehouses but ones that you can also browse in. The shop is Oxford is tardis-like with floor after floor extending back and down behind the ordinary-looking shop front.
I know Helen through her sister Susie. I met Susie while still reeling from the shock of my sister’s illness and trying to survive the awfulness of ‘A’ levels. She helped me enormously during this time, and then more so as my roommate for two years at University when a delightful combination of aching sadness, intense shyness and ‘don’tcomethefucknearme’ vibe meant I found it hard to make friends. Another best friend from my uni days says she was scared of me when we first met, and we only got to know each other because our lab benches were next to each other. I only found out about this ‘vibe’ years later on my travels in Australia, but that is another story for another day.
I stayed with Suzie and Helen in Cuba for three whirlwind weeks the December of my third year at University. They were there living in Cuba for a year, in the early days of opening up for tourists in the ‘90s.
From my perspective, it was partly to party in Havana with them for a week, and partly to take part in a cultural exchange as part of a socialist brigade that Susie had introduced me too. We stayed on a farm and helped in the fields with machetes, attended lectures and stayed a few nights with a Cuban family. This was all a bit beyond me when I was 20. I wasn’t ready to hear some of the messages that the people I met gave me, direct and indirect. It would be fair to say, the part of me that was up for partying was more pronounced than the part interested in learning about a different way of being in the world.
But as the years have gone by, my views have changed, especially given the price gauging and other horrors that have happened as an inevitable part of a global pandemic times rampant capitalism. I’m more than ready to read about the people of this intriguing nation who are doing things so differently and leading the way around fairness, health and sustainability.
The family I stayed with told me how each small area (like a little neighbourhood) had a group which would all look after everyone in that neighbourhood. She told me that for example when one family’s house had burnt down, and they were left with nothing, the neighbourhood group came together, and each household helped with an item or two to get that family back on their feet; cooking pot, clothes, soap, food. You know, the basics. Many of these neighbours didn’t have much in the way of material goods, thanks to the blockade of Cuba by the USA, but they still helped out, when help was needed.
Back then I remember thinking it sounded creepy and ‘big brother-like,’ but now I’ve seen similar COVID AID groups spring up around me with people aiming to support the more vulnerable around us and I don’t know why I thought that way. It has made my heart glad to see these groups set up, and vulnerable people having the option to reach out if they are struggling.
Cuba’s critics like to point out human rights issues which aren’t to be ignored, but as Helen says:
‘The issue of human rights in Cuba is highly politicised; the most vociferous critics of the Cuban state are silent on how US sanctions, which include food and medicine, cause the entire population to suffer. Inevitably, in the context of $20 million invested annually by the US Congress in regime change programmes on the island, the Cuban state is quick to restrict activities that it links to external pressures. Beyond that, however, addressing the issue of human rights involves philosophical questions about the nature of freedom: from what, to do what, for whom?
The United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights recognises two distinct sets of rights: ‘economic, social and cultural rights’ and ‘civil rights and political liberties’, without prioritising either set morally or legally. Liberal capitalist countries, most vociferously the United States, highlight civil rights and political liberties, while socialist Cuba prioritises economic, social and cultural rights. The choice is determined by which rights are compatible with the economic system.’
I can’t tell you if I like We Are Cuba or not yet as I’m not ready to read it right now. I’ve had another mental health ‘blip’ as I was getting very stressed in the run-up to the lockdown and sleeping only a few hours a night which led to getting ill – namely a psychotic break. (This phrase makes me laugh BTW as it makes it sound like a holiday. ‘My husband’s taking me on a mini-break to the Cotswolds this weekend.’ ‘Oh how lovely, yes I’ve just had a psychotic break myself.’)
Similarly to the other two times I’ve been ill my concentration is affected, so reading is not on the cards for me at the mo. Though interestingly, I am still able to write and enjoy it, which is why I’ve started my blog up again.
I’m so pleased We are Cuba exists and urge you to get a copy as critics as saying good things, and I’m looking forward to reading it when I’ve fully recovered.
PS You could hunt down another new release that takes your fancy if Cuba isn’t your bag. I like the look of What Have I Done An Honest Memoir About Surviving Post-Natal Mental Illness by Laura Dockrill, and Sway Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal.