UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES: BRIN-JONATHAN BUTLER’S
ADVENTURES AND TRAVAILS IN DISCOVERING THE REAL CUBA
By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 22, 2015) — Before celebrating his 36th birthday on June 3, Brin-Jonathan Butler has already lived an action-packed life as a young adult. He’d dated Fidel Castro’s granddaughter, produced a documentary “Split Decision” about Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux and U.S.-Cuba relations, interviewed Mike Tyson at his Las Vegas mansion, and established himself as a writer to keep an eye on with compelling articles for Salon, Deadspin, Vice, SB Nation Longform, The New York Times, among others.
An adventurous traveler, a boxer, keen observer and accomplished interviewer (he’s also found time to interview Errol Morris and Tyson, again, for the Amazon.com’s Kindle Singles Interview series), Butler is making a name for himself as a prolific journalist these days.
His new memoir, “The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,” is scheduled to be released on June 9. Indeed, a life packed with unforgettable tales and delivered with the determination and confidence of a prize fighter.
Charles Bock, who penned the New York Times bestselling book “Beautiful Children,” gave “The Domino Diaries” a glowing review. He wrote: “In The Domino Diaries, Brin-Jonathan Butler writes like a heavyweight champion: Tyson’s power, Ali’s elegance, and Joe Louis’s humanity, all of them are on display here. Writing, like boxing, is a solitary endeavor, one that gets displayed nakedly, for better or worse, to the world. This engrossing work not only looks at the sweeping world, it delves into the darkness of being alone with your aloneness. A total knockout.”
One of Butler’s mentors, Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price (detailed below), who has written “Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports,” wrote this hard-hitting review of the book: “There’s nothing in the world like America’s grasping, oversexed, blunedering, blustery and oft-deadly relationship with Cuba. Charting this fever dream, this illness of love and fear, requires a poet’s ear, an outsider’s eye, a boxer’s clinical cruelty, and an unhealthy attraction to breakage. I give you Brin-Jonathan Butler. Anyone can — and especially now — will tell you what to think about Cuba. But no one can show you better how the places makes you feel.”
I caught up with Butler, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, for this interview a few days before his memoir’s release.
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As a basic inquiry, about how many trips did you take to and from Havana from 2000-05? And was there a typical length of stay per time?
Four trips during that period, all for several months. More visits and for longer durations for the next 6 years until 2011, especially while filming and researching my film “Split Decision” where major interviews were involved.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books interview, you’re quoted as saying, “I think interviews are a bit like photography: what’s left out of the frame is often as important or even more so than what resides in the frame. All photographs are ‘staged’ in that sense. As a rule, I think you learn far more about people from what they conceal than what they reveal.” And then you continued by saying, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mike Tyson is one of the most exposed personalities in the history of the world.”
Do you believe your ability to make profound statements is one of your top skills as a writer? Is that an aspect of your writing you try to make stick like Don King’s wild hair became his visual trademark?
I think going back to caveman times, if you’re joining the campfire
after the hunting has been done and the food has been prepared, you’d better have a pretty good story and know how to tell it if you’re expecting to be invited back. Most people read anything to find out what’s next. So I try to tell a story where something interesting is promised and in the first read through I can deliver on that promise. In a way you try to find stories that are like difficult rivers for people to cross and find the necessary stepping stones for the reader. Once you’ve done that, you can go back and look after other angles to the story that provide further richness if anyone should wish to return to the story the next day or the next year or 10 years from now. I find the most interesting elements of a story offer the reader an opportunity to look but you don’t force anyone, you just tap their shoulder and they can turn their head as far as they wish to and see what you’ve laid out. It’s the chemistry with a reader that, in my experience, offers the most profound things in a story. But chase stories that are the ones I find the most compelling and rich, so I always hope the reader shares my enthusiasm along the way.
Shifting focus to “The Domino Diaries,” can you share info on a few experiences that were most unique and surprising to you that you describe in the book?
In the first week after arriving in Havana I was sitting with The Old Man and the Sea and training with a two-time Olympic champion in the oldest gym in Cuba. It was completely surreal from the start. In a way wandering around Cuba you feel a bit like the Zapruder film––you just look at what’s in front of you and you have something so remarkable since everywhere you look are people and a culture that defies explanation in so many ways and is just so vibrant and singularly breathtaking. Havana is the biggest small town on earth. So by the end of my travels I’d sat down with many of the sporting heroes of the revolution and had a short-lived fling with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter. I don’t feel anything close to the access I had to prominent people would have been possible anywhere else on earth. Granted, it required taking some ridiculously dangerous chances. But once you crossed that line…
What is the overarching message you aimed to deliver in writing this book?
I wanted to offer a glimpse into what it was like to trespass into the last days of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and offer readers the most profound access I was granted into what it meant, which was through the people I encountered who shared their stories. I’d never been so inspired by the courage and humanity of a people as what I saw in Havana struggling against such difficult and painful circumstances. At the same time, there was such joy and humor and color. A lot of places require talent to capture their essence or meaning… in Cuba it takes genius to take bad photographs. And if you get out of the way of Cubans, they’re the greatest storytellers in the world because their lives exist at the extremes. Nothing I’d read or seen prepared me for what I saw. But they knew where I was coming from from a mile off. That was enormously confusing to encounter and was my first inclining I’d learn as much about America spending time in Cuba as I was about the culture in Havana.
How, or in what way, do you think this book can shed some light, some clarity, on the realities of life, and changes, in Cuba under the Castro regime?
I think “Domino Diaries” allows Cubans and their stories to live their contradictions and paradoxes without resorting to artificial means of reconciling them. Lawrence of Arabia famously replied to why he chose the desert: “Because it’s clean.” Cuba is dirty and complicated and almost unbearably poetic. None of it fits neatly into a box. And for over 50 years America was waiting for Cuba’s economic system to collapse and then, in 2009, Wall Street did such a number on the global economy that taxpayers had to clean up the mess and socialize their losses. Cuba on the other hand had to open up and soften policies to allow for more economic opportunity. Their black market economy was larger than the official economy. Irony after irony on both sides. The moment you’d romanticize Cuba seeing things you’d never seen back home, you’d hear them romanticize American life in a way that was just as selectively cherry-picked. I also think having 11 years there offered enough time to show, contrary to the endless proclamations of international media, Cuba has been changing dramatically. One example of this is that the Cuba inventoried in my book is already long gone. In many ways that’s a good thing, but tourism and an influx of tourist dollars offers a very mixed blessing for many.
If you were granted a one-on-one interview with Fidel Castro, what would be the first question you’d want to ask him?
Perhaps whether, in his heart, he still believes “history will absolve” him. I say in the book, my first impression arriving in Cuba was wondering what Shakespeare would have done with Castro and very quickly the more important question was what Fidel Castro would have done with Shakespeare.
Above all, which journalists and writers have influenced you the most as either mentors or individuals who’ve piqued your interest or inspired you to do this work?
Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” and George Orwell’s work inspired me the most as a journalist. S.L. Price wrote a book that offered me a roadmap when I first arrived in Havana called “Pitching Around Fidel.” His was the first book about Cuba that allowed all the radical ambiguity of the island to flower. I was very moved and fascinated by the portrait he offered and I arrived shortly after he was blacklisted and ended up, in a fashion, picking up his baton to follow up with the same Olympic champion characters from his story in my own book. Price has been a very generous mentor with me and my work and when my book is published, we’re reading together in Washington D.C. and also here in New York. He’s joked our books are, in many ways, companion pieces. I’m very honored he’d make that appraisal since his book meant an immense amount to me and informed a lot of my travels in Havana.
Describe a “typical” work week for you while writing your books. Did you have a number of people critique them along the way?
I signed a two-book deal with Picador USA and worked like a maniac over the next year to deliver about 150,000 words in total to my editor without anyone having seen it prior. It was a pretty furious pace as I was also churning out a lot of journalism on the side to help cover the rent and basic needs for life in New York. I usually get up at three or four in the morning and work until around one in the afternoon. Then a jog through Central Park usually ended up providing the best solutions to all the insurmountable problems and I’d chart out a plan of attack when I got home in my notebook. I had about 20 books all over my desk to help with research and endless notes strewn around or hung up on a clipboard. I’d conducted hundreds of interviews and had the transcripts typed up. It was pretty much total chaos and I was petrified handing in both books to my editor that he’d respond with, “What in the world have you given me?”
Do you see the timing of this memoir as being enhanced by shifting U.S. government policies toward Cuba, and as a result/assumption, more interest in Cuba-related culture and literature?
Obama’s put Cuba on the front page of many papers around the world. Fidel Castro is approaching his 89th birthday. Raul is pushing through massive reforms. A lot of the strife remains for ordinary Cubans. But the Havana depicted in the pages of “Domino Diaries” has already drastically changed and irrevocably so. So it’s a lot more of time capsule to a time and feeling than I envisioned it in the composition. I hope that adds some value to the story.
Are you a voracious reader? What are the last five books you’ve read? Do you have an all-time favorite? If yes, what puts it at the top of your list?
The last five books would be research for a longform piece of journalism I did in Las Vegas: “Bad Bet” by Timothy O’Brien, “The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson,” Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Jonathan Rendall.
I do read as much as I can. I’m probably more of a compulsive re-reader than anything. My all-time favorite books that I return to almost every year include “Invisible Cities” by Calvino, “Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Kundera, Orwell’s essays, Nabokov’s “Lectures On Literature” (Russian, European, and Don Quixote), Borges. Steinbeck. Salinger.
While writing “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: “Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion,” did you pepper Rigo with questions about his jaw-dropping number of fights? As you wrote, he had 475 fights as an amateur with just 12 defeats. How frequently was he fighting as an amateur? What kind of condition was he in to withstand the physical demands of 475 bouts?
Every strength and conditioning coach who dealt with Rigondeaux told me he was, far and away, the most impressive physical specimen they’d ever encountered. He fought himself into the ground in terms of how active he was, however his style was such he was hardly ever hit. Watching Rigondeaux at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, there are performances there that almost defy explanation how magical his precision got to with the craft of boxing. The footwork and balance are so flawless and majestic the accuracy and blurring speed of the punches––he was a once in a lifetime talent. It’s a shame he never got to have his prime on public display in the professional ranks. Yet, as incredible as he was in the ring, I was far more compelled by his impossibly dramatic story outside the ring. The failed defection where Castro personally branded him a traitor. The successful defection by smuggler’s boat to Mexico and finding a way into the U.S. to land in Miami. Chasing the American Dream via a smuggler’s boat is just so eerie and tragic in its dimensions.
In other countries, which sporting figures would you compare Teofilo Stevenson to in terms of public admiration he received in Cuba?
Muhammad Ali is the obvious choice. They look like almost twin brothers only Teofilo was considerably bigger at 6’5 and more muscular. Stevenson was the second-most famous face on the island after you know who. On top of that kind of recognition, he was a highly intelligent, articulate man who offered a great deal of eloquence and compassion behind his reasons for turning down vast fortunes to leave. His legacy was such that even Ali never boasted of what he might have done to Stevenson in the ring. Ali tore down every other claim to his throne, but never Stevenson. On the contrary, Ali brought almost two million dollars worth of money to Cuba to support humanitarian aid in opposition to the embargo. They were inseparable on the island and when I asked Stevenson, shortly before his death, whether he regretted not having the chance to fight Ali to prove who was better he laughed, “How could I fight my brother?” It was very moving to be in the presence of such a spirit.
During your interview with Stevenson — his final interview before he passed away in June 2012 at age 60 — for an agreed upon price of $150 and a bottle of vodka, what was the first thing you asked him? What was your final questions? What was the physical and emotional atmosphere of that interview? Were you surrounded by a lot of people? How long did it last?
I interviewed Teofilo Stevenson in May of 2011. I had one translator with me who was a personal friend of Stevenson. My first question, given how reluctant Stevenson was to be on camera, was whether or not he’d live up to his word to sit with me for an interview that I could film. He’d backed out of countless interviews with myself and many others and he was very sneaky if you got there about delay tactics where you’d end up spending a lot of money on dinner and drinks and end up with nothing to show for it. I didn’t have the money to fall prey to any of that and my circumstances of being chased around Havana by state security made my one opportunity do-or-die. So my first questions were making damn clear our deal was honored. He poured a viciously huge glass of vodka before me after we agreed to the price and had me agree we’d start after I’d down the drink. I don’t drink and I come from a family that has battled a fair share of alcoholism. So I gulped the whole drink and turned the camera on and off we went while he screamed in protest because he’d assumed I’d sip the thing down over the next 30 minutes which he’d count against the time we’d agreed. Stevenson was pretty far gone with alcoholism at that point but he could certainly hold his liquor and he was still immensely imposing both as a figure and physical specimen. And even liquored up, he was very bright with a playful intellect and real moral conviction when he explained his reasons for turning down all the offers to leave. “There are decisions in your heart and soul that can never be betrayed,” he told me at one point, while discussing the defection of Rigondeaux. We talked for a little over an hour. Most Cubans knew of his battles with drink and that his circumstances after his career wound down were better than most Cubans, but still difficult. But I knew after filming him in his condition and hearing the pain in his voice it was likely the end of ever coming back to the island. America had always denied Cuban champions their reasons for leaving beyond them being brainwashed, but Cuba had denied these champions any cost for turning down such vast sums of money. Both stances did damage to these very brave, courageous men. My aim was to allow them to talk for themselves.
What was the general public reaction, especially in Cuba, Florida and New York, to your Victory Journal article (http://victoryjournal.com/stories/el-duque-la-gran-fuga) on Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez? And how does his story compare and contrast to the narratives of Stevenson and Rigondeaux in the way they were/are treated and perceived by Cubans and the Cuban exile community in South Florida?
Orlando Hernandez’s story is just so impossibly dramatic with endless turns and freakish stakes. Then the character of the man himself, so bright and articulate and contemplative at every step. El Duque was very up front even after he left that had he not been forced to leave, he never intended to defect. There are parallels to his journey with Rigondeaux and Stevenson playing opposite sides of the coin of whether to stay or leave. With all three we have very different times when they were presented with their choice. Stevenson fought when Cuba was still heavily subsidized by the Russians. Duque pitched during the Special Period when times were horribly difficult for the country. Rigondeaux entered his teenage years just as the Special Period was declared but was given a small house and a reasonably nice car for his Olympic gold medals. Rigondeaux differs from Duque and Stevenson in that, largely, he wished to be apolitical. Duque was a strong advocate for the advances of the revolution as was Stevenson. Rigondeaux did what was necessary to follow in step with what was expected of him, but primarily Rigondeaux always contextualized his life as an individual and what he deserved on the basis of his talent. I think that speaks to his time in Cuba as more and more people had abandoned the ideal of a common sense of purpose after so much hardship and instead looked at more ways to advance their own lives by any means necessary. Rigondeaux’s defection split his parents in terms of his father disowning him and his mother strongly supporting his dreams on American soil. One of Castro’s most corrosive legacies is the split of nearly every Cuban family in Cuba and those who left. Very few were left untouched.
From conception to conclusion, how exhausting and exhilarating, challenging and difficult was piecing together your recent SB Nation Longform article (http://www.sbnation.com/a/pacquiao-mayweather-fight)?
How many people did you interview for the piece? And in your words, what is the article’s basic message about Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao and the sweet science in general?
A typical longform article is around 6,000 words with no deadline. My illustrator was contractually obligated to hand in 10 illustrations and I was shooting for 8,000 words on deadline a couple days after the fight. I ended up handing in nearly 25,000 words and my illustrator completed 40 illustrations 48 hours after the conclusion of the fight. But this fight that ended up grossing half-a-billion dollars, both fighters making nine-figure paydays, we knew at the outset was prepackaged as the biggest sports spectacle ever put on. It was once in a lifetime and everyone at SBNation agreed to throw everything we had at it. It was the most daunting assignment I’ve done I was out in Vegas and Los Angeles for two weeks reporting after having spent a month interviewing maybe 20 people. I didn’t know what kind of access I’d get. I ended up trying quite desperate things. I snuck into Pacquiao’s inner circle to run with him up Griffith’s Park toward the Hollywood sign. I staked out Mayweather’s gym after being forbidden access. The thrill and the terror of the piece was trying to shape what it would look like having no idea what the fight would actually be and then having no time to reshape and rework your guesses after it went down to make the deadline.
My agenda with the article was just that we had “the fight of the century” we deserved, a complete one-percent spectacle with $350,000 ringside seats, nearly half-a-billion in pay-per-view sales, bigger live gate than the Super Bowl or all the games of the previous World Series, and, in the end, everyone felt swindled. Well what else is new in Las Vegas? It was farcical and quite frightening in many respects in terms of what it reflected about the values of our society. A society where no child will ever walk into a museum to look at a masterpiece without asking first, “How much was that?” If the fight taught us anything, how much people are willing to pay for something hardly reflects it’s true value.
Like Mike Tyson in his younger days, have you watched countless hour of old fight films? Or read about them in dozens of books? And which fighters from Ali’s heyday and earlier impressed you the most by what you saw and read?
I love boxing’s history and how it always walks in lockstep with American history. Always the perfect champion for his time with so much rich complexity. Spending time with the old fighters does remove a lot of the mystique from more recent champions. Ali owes a tremendous amount to those great champions who came before him: Jack Johnson and Ray Robinson for example. Ali was enormously influenced by both to an almost embarrassing degree. The elegance of Joe Louis. The subdued menace of Rocky Marciano. Joe Frazier’s incredible journey lifted wholesale in Rocky. Just such impossibly compelling characters. And certainly reading the likes of Jimmy Cannon or Mark Kram describing these people and their time has been an invaluable tool to my own efforts covering fighters today.
In conjunction with your upcoming travels to Spain for an in-depth report on bullfighting, tell me this: What similarities are there in writing about boxing and bullfighting? And how does bullfighting prose totally take on a life of its own?
Boxers are one punch away from death or serious, crippling injury. A bullfighter courts death with each pass of the bull’s horn. Where both intersect, I feel, is how willingness to risk everything existentially creates some of the most intense feelings in an audience of anything human beings are capable of. In both bullfighting and boxing individuals are elevated, with tremendous performances, into staining the collective memory of their time. I’m a huge animal lover and from the outset understood there is no defense for bullfighting or even an argument to present on its behalf for anyone opposed to it. I eat meat but I am not willing to kill it. Some say, compared to a slaughter house after a life in a cage where you can’t move, given the choice between that and five years living out in the open on a ranch and then death in a bullring, is bullfighting really less moral? Boxing’s history dovetails with slavery and the symbolism of fighters weighed on the scale before entering the ring to batter one another for the entertainment of an increasingly elite audience does give me pause (barely any seats were sold to the public for Mayweather-Pacquiao and even those were obscenely expensive to procure). With bullfighting and how I want to approach it in an article, mostly I’m curious about where Spain is today from when I last saw it, in 2004, and how the cultural attachment to bullfighting exists mainly for tourist dollars to provide a transfusion to an ailing economy.
Revisiting one of your surreal experiences in Cuba … how old were you when you met Gregorio Fuentes in Cuba? Now did that meeting come about? Was it a being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time type of interview? What was it like? And knowing that he represented a timeless character, the model for the old man in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” what kind of impression did that make on you as far as being able to speak to anybody at anytime and anyplace?
I was 20 when I first met Gregorio Fuentes. The meeting was something I dreamed about on the plane over and as I mentioned earlier, Havana is the biggest small town on earth. A friend of a friend of a friend had the number, lined up the meeting, and within a few days of arrival I was knocking on his door in Cojimar, the same small fishing village from the story. Meeting Gregorio, and he was 103 years old when I met him, is one of my most treasured memories. He was humble and warm and very charming, still smoking a cigar, and we just had a cozy conversation for half an hour about his life and friendship with Hemingway. You have dreams of such things taking place and if you’re fortunate enough to meet the people who are still living in the world they rarely live up to it. Gregorio surpassed my expectations (which were impossibly high after the book), but then so did his island for me.
Follow Brin-Jonathan Butler on Twitter: @brinicio
Recommended reading: (on Mike Tyson) http://www.sbnation.com/longform/2015/2/11/7957523/mike-tyson-interview-history-background